I am currently living on the top floor of an old building on a heavily trafficked side road by the famed Istiklal Caddesi pedestrian-only street, a stone’s throw from Taksim Square. Last Saturday evening my housemates and I sat on our balcony, listening to the joyful chants and watching the celebratory lanterns which floated up from the Square. I wrote all about the fantastic atmosphere emanating from that place here.
This week on Saturday evening we sat inside, on the sofa, with all the windows closed to keep out the painful fumes of tear gas, but we jumped up to peer down to the street every time we heard a bang or a surge in the shouting. Which was often.
And now, on Sunday morning, the streets are quiet. It’s actually almost 1 p.m. as I write this, but the movement on the streets is more like what you’d expect under the rays of the newborn sun. The odd car, a pedestrian or two, only a handful of shops open. I think we are all waiting, wondering what will happen next.
Yesterday evening, I walked up to Taksim Square to meet some friends for dinner. I passed families with children, tourists speaking half a dozen different language, Istanbulis enjoying their weekend… the usual bustle of a popular destination. The area was busy and crowded and, even though I was only a hundred metres or so from Gezi Park which is where it all began, I couldn’t see the park. My friends and I decided to go eat and then check out the park after that.
See, we really wanted to visit the park because on Friday night and Thursday night a German-Italian piano player had rolled his grand piano into the square by the park and started playing. Literally, he drove a car with a tractor trailer right up to the park, unloaded a piano, and played – for twelve hours straight each time. Several thousand demonstrators and passers-by had joined in singing songs about hope and joy. He was planning on coming back and we hoped to see him.
As we left the restaurant, though, some kind ladies on the street warned us that there was trouble ahead. We started walking toward Taksim to see just what kind of trouble she meant, and before we saw the trouble, we saw the look on people’s faces. They were not happy. Many were walking away from the Square, getting as far from the action as possible. Others were walking toward the Square with determination on their faces. We started passing boys with big boxes of surgical masks and ski goggles. Apparently they were for sale at first, but once things intensified they would start handing them out for free. The crowds grew tighter, young men started banging on metal gratings to express their sense of urgency. A girl’s face was smeared with some salve to alleviate the tear gas she’d just ingested. A young man lifted his shirt to bandage a cut on his back. We felt it in the air: this was not a happy night.
Finally, we decided we had gone too far and cut down a side street. On the side streets you could scarce imagine anything was going on at all: the bars and cafés were all still open and full of customers. My friends graciously walked me home and I told them to come back and stay with me if they had trouble getting back to their place. Fortunately, they had no trouble, but I imagine that if they’d waited half an hour more they would have.
By the time I got upstairs and planted myself in front of a television, I watched live as Istiklal Caddesi where I’d been 15 minutes earlier was occupied by the police. The crowds were now running, the street was soaked in water from the water cannons the police were using to push people back, and fumes of tear gas created an ethereal cloud over the street.
Fifteen minutes more and the shouting on our street began. We jumped up and saw youth gathering on our street. A few minutes more and we saw a throng of people running down from Istiklal, fleeing the gas. A few minutes more and we heard what sounded like a gunshot. It wasn’t a gun, just the shot of a gas pellet. More bangs meant more clashes, but fortunately none of them used any lethal weapons at all. Later on Twitter I learned that some of the bangs were nothing but sound bangs intended to scare protestors. (By the way, Davide Martello’s piano was confiscated as he made his way to the Park last night.)
I have a great deal of sympathy for the protestors because they did such an amazing job of organising themselves, because they are so committed and, indeed, because they are incredibly polite. These pictures give a sense of what there is to love about them.
And because it’s so hard for me to fathom the response. Once I was back home and able to surf social media, I put the pieces together. When I’d been in Taksim earlier in the evening, at 8pm, police had already been gathering. At 9pm, or right about sundown, they entered the park. The police had been clashing with protestors in Taksim all week, but were leaving the park, where the hard-core protestors had set up a miniature tent city, alone. The government wanted them out by Sunday but they said they weren’t going anywhere. So at 9pm on Saturday (yes, a day before the ultimatum), police in full riot gear, gas masks and helmets barged into the park. The protestors in the park, most of whom are die-hard environmentalists, did not have gas masks to protect themselves with. As the park filled with the unbearable gas, the protestors fled. They left their tents, their library, their health clinic behind. The police then gave the go-ahead to a team of bulldozers and cleaners who spent the next twelve hours getting rid of tents and graffiti and making the park look like nothing had ever happened. I’ve seen pictures of the park this morning – onlookers are barred from entering the Square – and it looks lovely.
Meanwhile, though, the Gezi Park protestors did not go home. They gathered on side roads and were soon joined by thousands of others in solidarity. This is when the real clashes began, what I saw reach my street. And one of the most extraordinary moments was when thousands of supporters started walking from the Asia side to the Europe side, where the park/square is located. The police blocked them from crossing the bridge, so they all just lay down peacefully, but determinedly.
But, to finish, the most horrifying bit of this story for me is the recollection that at 8 p.m. the Square was full of families, parents with strollers, little kids running around. Sure enough, when the police action began, many families were separated. Dozens of children were lost or had trouble finding their parents.
So, in a beautiful act of solidarity, a hotel just down the street became the “lost and found” for children, as well as opening its door to people wounded in the clashes.
Well, here is what happened to its reception:
This is one of the more benign of the pictures I’ve seen of this hotel’s lobby. Police tried to enter and protestors formed a human chain and sang the Turkish national anthem to keep them from entering but they eventually broke through and, yes, they gassed the lobby. More than once. The lobby of the hotel that provided safe refuge for separated children and the wounded.
I’m a big believer in any issue having two sides, but I’m really having trouble seeing the perspective of the other side right now.