As I write this, Istanbul is under siege. The might of Istanbul’s entire police force—the largest city police force in Europe—is violently cracking down on peaceful occupiers in Gezi Park.
The protest, which began on 27 May, is ostensibly over a planned shopping center to be built over a park in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. Nevertheless, massive popular movements like this do not emerge out of nowhere. Typically, they are the result of the tireless groundwork of activists over the course of an extended period. And then, something happens: a spark sets off the lighter fluid accumulating unnoticed at everyone’s feet.
The protests began with approximately seventy Right to the City protesters in Gezi Park on 27 May when demolition of the park was set to begin. These activists successfully stopped demolition and a little more than a dozen activists spent that night in the park. They erected two large tents, brought guitars, and made their opinions known to passersby. These activists were comprised of members of Taksim Solidarity and the Taksim Gezi Park Protection and Beautification Association as well as some unaffiliated but concerned individuals.
On 28 May, a coalition of Right to the City associations presented a petition to Istanbul’s Council to Protect Culture Heritage calling on it protect the park. At 1:30 in the afternoon on 28 May, bulldozers returned a second time. The protesters resisted and police used tear gas to clear the park. One activist climbed a tree and was unable to be dislodged, further stalling demolition. Demolition resumed and continued until pro-Kurdish rights Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and secularist opposition Republican People’s Party Members of Parliament Sırrı Süreyya Önder and Gülseren Onanç blockaded bulldozers. This yet again stopped demolition and a protest was called for 7pm that night. Protesters slept in the park again.
The day of 29 May was more low-key as a few hundred people came out for protests in the park and created a festival-like atmosphere with films and concerts. Throughout the day, activists planted seedlings in the park as a token of resistance. Numbers swelled and 150 people slept in the park that night as the state regrouped.
On 30 May Turkish police, unwilling to allow a major tourist hub to be blighted in this fashion, gave the occupiers a five in the morning wake-up call in the form of tear gas. In case the message was not clear enough, they also set fire to occupiers’ tents. With the park cleared and the state clear that it meant business, demolition resumed until at 7:50 in the morning, Önder yet again blockaded the bulldozers with his own body. After news broke on social media of the early-morning raid and concomitant police violence, people accumulated throughout the day and slept over in the park en masse.
The police tried the same tactics on the morning of 31 May, this time with several hundred people sleeping over in the park. The raid was more vicious than the day before and media was banned from the park. After this, Taksim Square officially became contested territory as police violence escalated and protesters clashed with police throughout the day.
In the ensuing mayhem, famed freelance Turkish journalist, Ahmet Şık was hospitalized after being struck in the head by a teargas canister. Onlookers claimed that Şık, who in 2011 penned a book about police corruption in Turkey that was banned from publication, was fired on intentionally from a distance of about ten yards. Önder himself was hospitalized after also being hit by a tear gas canister.
What likely would have blown over with no lasting impact suddenly ignited into one of the biggest mobilizations in recent Turkish history. Estimates during the day of 31 May put the number of protesters between five thousand and ten thousand, and police have attempted mass arrests of anyone occupying the park. Police forces have been making liberal use of teargas, resulting in a flood of instantly iconic images that capture the spirit of dissent. There are in fact reports that the police have used so much tear gas that Istanbul’s police force has had to ship in more from the nearby city of Bursa. On Friday, #DirenGeziParki [Resist Gezi Park] was, for most of the day, the number one worldwide trending hashtag on Twitter.
Late in the night on 31 May, the police barricaded the park and closed all of the roads and public transportation leading to Taksim Square. This completed the square’s transformation into a battleground as protesters attempted—and in some instance succeeded—to break the barricades. With news spreading that Taksim was barricaded, and growing outrage at the media blackout, residents of Istanbul began organizing in their own neighborhoods and marching together to Taksim. Unverified reports on Twitter estimated 40,000 people were on foot heading to Taksim, including thousands crossing the Bosphorus Bridge that connects the European and Asian sides of the city, which is normally closed to pedestrians.
Solidarity protests have spread organically to other cities, mostly as an expression of anger at police brutality. Protesters have taken to the streets in the cities of Ankara, Izmir, Izmit, Eskişehir, Kayseri, Antalya, Kutahya, and no doubt others. Radikal reports that protesters were tear gassed in Izmit and Eskişehir and dozens were detained in other cities. At the time of writing, it appears that numbers are only going to continue to grow and demonstrations will continue to escalate.
The police violence has been nothing short of excessive. According to the Turkish alternative news site Bianet, at least one hundred protesters have been injured. But this was reported during the day on 31 May and so seems like a conservative estimate at this point, especially given the level of violence and the use of tear gas, which is widely considered a chemical weapon. The Turkish Radikal daily has a series of videos available putting police violence on display. According to a live blog on the leftist website Sendika [Turkish-only], police have in multiple instances blocked ambulances from accessing the injured.
The reaction of the police prompted Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, to declare Friday that “the display of extreme police violence yet again against peaceful demonstrators in the Taksim Park spells the government and local authorities’ deep intolerance of the right to assembly and non-violent protest in Turkey today.”