#OccupyGezi: Resistance Goes Mainstream in Istanbul

June 4, 2013 | Justin Wedes

Justin Wedes of Occupy Wall Street is reporting from the front lines of the protests in Turkey for ANIMAL all week. He’s also tweeting from the field continuously. 

It’s been eight days since the sit-in against a shopping mall development in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and something magical is happening. After extensive police skirmishes in the streets around Gezi, the heart of the growing social movement is beginning to build a heartbeat.

Over the weekend, police retreated from the park in hopes of smothering the rising backlash caused by their fierce response to the peaceful sit-ins, but their plan backfired. As police receded, regular Turks of all ages and political stripes filled the expansive public squares on both ends of Gezi Park to the brim with chants that quickly transcended the environmentalist and anti-gentrification gripes of the original protesters. Now, people were talking about over-reaching social policies, over-Islamification of secular culture, LGBT rights, and a plethora of critiques of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitious economic growth plan. (Erdogen recently spoke of mandating a 3 children per family minimum to keep up economic growth and guard against national ageing.)

The protest organizers, a diffuse network of independent but closely-coordinating groups, speak of a phase change in the protests. They’re exhausted and traumatized from the 24-7, adrenaline-driven clashes with police. They worry about the long-term effects of that trauma on the younger occupiers, and about the constant threat of the police violence returning to Gezi.

Last night, as tens of thousands again packed Gezi in festive celebration, street fights broke out in neighboring Besiktas and 20-something young men rallied youth to don gas masks and deploy out to the streets surrounding Gezi to fend off the police. They reinforced makeshift barricades at all entrances to the park, even as a single police helicopter dropped tear gas from above in a loose cloud that hung above and in the park. Each time the helicopter circled overhead, spotlight shining across the roofs of luxory hotels surrounding the park, thousands of youth hissed at it in disgust with a high-pitched shriek that resounded throughout the square.

This morning, high school classes again walked out of their nearby schools to march into the park. Clowns painted make-up onto each other and a famous Turkish orchestra, Borusan Flarmoni, played an unannounced show for the park-goers, who were elated that they could hear the performance without the normally-high ticket price. Hundreds of banners of all sizes draped between the trees, and makeshift med stations and kitchens peacefully competed with local street vendors to meet the needs and whims of visitors — the best-selling items: dust masks and Turkish flags. A family from Savannah, Georgia walked the park and talked of arriving before the protests and being enthralled by it to the point of coming out in support with kids in tow. After being tear-gassed as a family, they even returned the next day with no regrets.

In parallel to the street protests comes talk of a general strike and rising calls for divestment from institutions that support either the Prime Minister or the media agencies closely-tied to him that continue to skew or ignore the protests now in dozens of cities across Turkey: Garanti Bank, accused on social media of funding the media blackout, quickly took an economic hit and had to release its own carefully-worded statement about its claimed political neutrality. At least one union has endorsed the protests, and numerous political parties spend their days rallying at the park or tabling nearby to interested young people.

Even the Prime Minister has had to take a more conciliatory tone of late. After claims of cowardice when he left yesterday for a 4-day diplomatic trip to Morocco and Algeria. His deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc publicly apologized to the initial Gezi protesters, calling their cause just and offering to meet with them. He seemed to side-step the growing political nature of protests, which has broadened in scope and grown increasingly critical of the current government in the last few days. Still, his remarks might indicate that police will not attempt to break up the Gezi protests again in the coming days.

As for the organizers, several of them are discussing how to build an inclusive political coalition to enunciate a list of demands of the government. Tolga Baysal, involved since Day 1 in the protests, discussed the idea of connecting disparate groups through an assessment of their individual demands that would then be filtered into a list of collective demands. Still, he notes this would be an incredibly intensive and difficult process that could take days.

While street clashes rage on and solidarity protests emerge in many countries, here around Gezi city residents seem to be settling in to the reality that the protests aren’t subsiding soon. In a nearby hookah cafe, a man drops his gas mask to take a puff of smoke. Party-goers in high heels pass anarchists singing Bella Ciao below windows where mothers clang pots in support. And in the distance the bang of another tear gas bomb ricochets across Istanbul.

(Photos: Justin Wedes)