Carole Woodall’s Dispatch from Istanbul

Our History Department colleague Carole Woodall, a scholar of Middle Eastern history, has been spending the year doing research in Istanbul, living very near the site of recent conflicts in the city. She wrote this piece for a Turkish journal, which she gave permission to be reprinted here. 

Click here for the original piece, which includes some videos that can’t be embedded here. 

The View from Istiklal

Jun 08 2013by Carole Woodall

[Atatürk Cultural Center, as seen from Gezi Park, 3 June. All images by Carole Woodall.][Atatürk Cultural Center, as seen from Gezi Park, 3 June. All images by Carole Woodall.]

More than a week has passed since activity began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park at Taksim Square. İstiklal Avenue, where I live, has been full of protestors waving or draped in the Turkish flag, carrying political banners, and shouting slogans: “Government Resign” (Hükümet İstifa), “Tayyip Resign” (Tayyip İstifa), “Shoulder to Shoulder We Stand Against Fascism” (Faşizme Karşı Omuz Omuza), and “This is only the beginning, the resistance continues” (Bu daha başlangıç, mücadeleye devam). These cries have filled the square and the one and a half kilometer walk down İstiklal, as the police have been absent from the area beginning late Saturday afternoon.

Although there is a sense of euphoria at present, for days the police have continued to be ensconced in the neighborhood of Beşiktaş, primarily along a strip of row houses referred to as Akaretler, which descends down to Dolmabahçe Palace, where PM Erdoğan has an office. Facebook and Twitter have been full of updates regarding the use of gas in Beşiktaş and neighboring Maçka Park. The frenzy on social media just reiterates the level of people’s alertness to developing events.

[Scenes from Gezi Park, 3 June.]

On Monday, 27 May, the city began removing decades old trees in the northeast corner of Gezi Park, called Kepçe Park, as part of a larger traffic redevelopment project that has been underway since the fall of 2012. In June 2011, PM Erdoğan had announced the proposed “Taksim Project.” In response, the ad-hoc groupTaksim Platform and Taksim Solidarity Group, composed of local neighborhood collectives, unified around the idea of “Taksim Bizim” (Taksim is Ours). The group started holding meetings and gathering signatures to inform the public at large about the project’s impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, including the compromising of the civic space of the park.

The proposed project includes the construction of a former Ottoman military barrack outfitted to be a shopping mall, amidst growing sentiment that such projects are compromising Beyoğlu’s history. The removal of the trees galvanized a small group to start a steadfast watch. According to Mete Tapan, the head of the Council of Historical Monuments, approval has been granted for the reconstruction of the Ottoman barracks and other miscellaneous buildings that are no longer in existence. However, no actual plan has been produced for approval by the Council of Historical Monuments to date. Therefore, any action on the proposed site is technically illegal, as no approved plan exists.

[Left: masks in Gezi Park, 3 June; right: street vendor and destroyed public bus on Mete Avenue, 2 June.]

Intensity gathered over the course of three days, with parliamentarians joining activists of all ages. A monumental moment was on 28 Maywhen Sırrı Süreyya Önder, an MP from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), stepped out in front of the bulldozers, declaring that he was not just a parliamentarian for the people but for the trees as well and would make a report to the birds in the morning. As the evening approached, more parliamentarians joined the crowd.

By Wednesday the 29th, the northern part of the park was filled with tents. Vendors selling grilled meatballs and peppers, slices of watermelon, and bottles of water kept the protestors fueled throughout the night. At five am on the morning of Thursday, 30 May, the police raided the park, where a few hundred people were sleeping, without warning, spraying tear gas. Using a Mass Incident Intervention Vehicle (TOMA), police dispersed the activists before seizing and burning tents; a young female activist was hospitalized.

[Left: Police on İstiklal Avenue, 1 June; right: barricade on Sıraserviler Street leading to Taksim, 2 June.]

In response, emboldened student protestors, young professionals, artists, politicians, and people of all ages flooded to the park over the course of the next day. Parliamentarian Önder made another afternoon stand in front of the bulldozers. Media celebrity Okan Bayülgen offered a symbolic midnight reading to the crowd, joining the slew of young protestors who had earlier sat in front of police shields with books in hand. The police responded with water canons and panzers. Late Thursday afternoon, the subway was filled with tear gas in an effort to disperse the crowd.

Twitter erupted, gathering and conveying information under the hashtags #occupygezi and #direngeziparki. Facebook became a mad frenzy of activity, as individual and community pages such as Ötekilerin Postası andTaksim Gezi Parkı Derneği dispersed information and images on the recent developments. Hayvan Severler, a community page dedicated to the well-being of street dogs and cats in Istanbul and throughout the country, started sending out information on how to treat affected animals, including birds. Handouts with instructions on how to combat pepper spray were posted to help both humans and animals.

At five am on Friday, 31 May, the police launched another attack in the park, where nearly one thousand people were sleeping, dispersing the protestors and setting up police barricades that forced the protests into the surrounding streets and neighborhoods. During the day, Önder was hospitalized after having been hit by a tear gas capsule while sitting with other activists. Police continued to use tear gas in the Taksim metro.

On Friday evening, the energy on İstiklal Caddesi was electric and tense all at the same time. Galatasaray High School was a gathering point for various political groups and private individuals that marched towards the police barricades set up by the French Consulate near the square. The sight of people of all ages with gaunt faces and white-strewn eyes (from an antiacid solution used for pepper spray exposure) did not deter a constant stream of people heading towards the barricades. Helicopters flew over İstiklal Avenue, seemingly headed toward Gezi Park, releasing red flares that lit up the sky. Friends in other neighborhoods north and east of the park had difficulties making it to the square. All of the shops were closed from Galatasaray High School to Taksim Square, except for a couple of food vendors, and would remain so until Sunday.

[Left to right: “I’m Free”; “Government Resign, Tayyip Out (Pepper Gas Olé!)”; “Taksim Is Ours, Istanbul Is Ours.”]

By eleven pm, the air was splintered with the sounds of pepper spray guns, as police chased protestors down towards Şişhane. The historical Narmanlı Han across from the Swedish Consulate, where numerous cats live in an open courtyard and are taken care of by the han’s caretaker, was filled with gas. By 1:30 am, sounds of pots and pans and chanting voices erupted in the gentrified neighborhood of Cihangir. Reports came in through Facebook that people had filed into the streets in the neighborhoods on the Asian side, honking horns, shouting, and clanking pans in solidarity. Tweets and messages went out with the link to watch a live feed, as there was a media blackout on the events unfolding in the square and police cameras were not in use. But Miss Turkey of 2013 was named that night.

In the early morning of Saturday, 1 June, there were reports that other cities in Turkey had also ignited. People of all ages and backgrounds started marching towards Taksim. Starting in Kadıköy and heading toward the first Bosphorus Bridge, a group of approximately ten thousand marchers were stopped by police barricades at the entrance to the European side. Around nine am, making my way back up to Taksim Square, the street had turned into a gigantic canvas, with political slogans and graffiti painted on century-old stone buildings of the avenue and up and down the side streets and back allies of the district. Damage to store fronts mixed with the political graffiti. I purchased goggles and a face mask on Asmalı Mescit at one of the only stores selling gear, and a woman gave me antiacid solution. Near the square, the police shot blasts from water canons and pepper gas canisters in response to the protestors, who were throwing empty bottles and rocks.

The police started to move down İstiklal Caddesi, sending the protestors into the side streets and back parallel streets, where the confrontations continued. Hurrying away from a pepper spray assault, a group of us were lodged in a second floor café on Mis Sokak. Civilian-clothed police joined uniformed ones volleying pepper spray canisters every fifteen or twenty minutes, which filtered through the windows. We were watching Halk Haber TV, the only Turkish station providing live coverage. After two hours, the police marched toward the makeshift barricade on Mis Sokak, dispersing the protestors. Finally, we emerged and headed down İstiklal away from the square, passing stationed police at every corner. Police barricades at Galatasaray High School and at the entrance to Meşrutiyet Avenue near the British Consulate were closed, as a confrontation ensued between police and protestors. Without warning, a pepper spray capsule was set off approximately thirty feet behind the barricade, sending some of us clamoring into a partially opened döner stand.

By three pm, people were being allowed back into the square and the police withdrew around four pm. Walking up Sıraselviler Street, another major junction of activity, people were elated, displaying flags while wearing protective gear into the square just in case. There was still a lot of police activity being reported in the neighborhood of Beşiktaş and in the cities of Izmir and Ankara. By Sunday morning, we were getting confirmations that there had been a social media blackout from two am until eight am, and that phone service had been disrupted in certain areas around Taksim.

[Left: First aid and donation center, Gezi Park, 3 June; right: “çapulcu” housing, Gezi Park, 3 June.]

On Sunday, 2 June, the cleanup began, with young protesters picking up the most miniscule items from the park and along İstiklal. Graffiti was painted over on the sides of some official buildings, while workers set about scrubbing the stone. Taksim Square was transformed into a display of civil society, with various political and cultural associations displaying banners and members holding up signs. Once in a while, an organization would march into the square chanting the slogans that have became part of the auditory experience of İstiklal and Gezi Park over the past few days.

Just one month before, on May Day, the police had barricaded all of the surrounding streets leading to Taksim Square and blocked all of the side streets merging into İstiklal. The display of civil society that was prevented on May Day has been active in Gezi Park, Taksim Square, and along İstiklal since 2 June. First aid stations that had been located on the periphery of the park are now on park grounds and are receiving donations of necessary medical supplies. Every inch of green space is occupied with people conversing, reading books, or just reclining. Political speeches mix with chants. A few street dogs mill about the park, and receive direct attention from passersby. Gezi Park has become the people’s park, where individuals proudly parade their facemasks and goggles.

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