EYEWITNESS - A New Zealander in Gezi Park

Stephen Woodward is an Auckland based sculptor who in June found himself on the front line of the rebellion in Gezi Park, Istanbul. This is Stephen's report alongside his photography.

Montreal, where mass protests against a rise in tuition fees, government corruption and skewed mining deals made world news last year, is now calm, or, maybe only just simmering. I was in Montreal for family matters when yet another government’s violent response to a just and peaceful protest hit the news. This time it was in Istanbul, Turkey.

The socialist municipality of Cankaya (Ankara) had invited six artists, including myself, to take part in a sculpture symposium for two weeks in the second half of June 2013. Weeks earlier my plan had been to arrive in Istanbul a few days ahead of the symposium in Ankara to visit buildings I had studied decades ago at art school; Hajia Sophia, Suleymaniye Mosque and the Blue Mosque. Once in Istanbul I saw only the exteriors of these masterpieces of Byzantine, sultanate and Ottoman architecture as the historic events two kilometres away at Gezi Park in Taksim Square proved much too attractive.

I had the privilege to witness part of a great people’s ‘push back’, a spontaneous rising and rebuttal of a corrupt government which had for too long destroyed working-class and popular neighbourhoods replacing them with innumerable hideous towers in the name of state sponsored real estate speculation. This ‘modernising development’ of Istanbul has swallowed nearly all of the few green spaces available to the public. Ekumenopolis is a telling documentary film you can find on youtube. It gives a very telling background to the events in Taksim Square.

The last straw was the unannounced demolition and redevelopment of Gezi Park in the centre of European Istanbul. This park, a bit smaller than Albert Park in Auckland, has always been a much loved and very popular meeting place for the people of the densely populated surrounding Beyoglu neighbourhood. The re-construction of an Ottoman era military barracks, this time housing a shopping mall, was to replace it. One of the reasons Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development party) gave for the replacement of Gezi Park was the anti-social alcohol fuelled behaviour of the young people who gathered there on weekends; it was a ‘dirty and immoral place’.

You see Tayyip and his crew have two agendas; firstly an unconditional commitment to the neo-liberal ethos of privatisation and speculation via Toki, the now totally capitalistic Housing Board of Istanbul. The strategy is to demolish unfashionable/poor neighbourhoods and push the people to distant new tower block suburbs hours away, then build luxurious housing on the cleared land close to central Istanbul (sound familiar?). Secondly the prime minister aims to gradually transform the secular state into a conservative state with fundamentalist Islamic law at its core. To enforce these agendas and to crush any resistance he zealously uses the full range of security tools at his disposal as well as panoply of illegal, dirty methods.

On May 26th in the early morning, city contractors arrived to Gezi park and started cutting down the trees. Environmental groups hurried to the park and began an occupation forcing a halt to the destruction. Riot police arrived soon after and the first skirmishes ensued. On the 28th an extremely brutal attack was made on the few hundred environmentalists occupying the park injuring more than half of them, dozens seriously. This was the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back; tens of thousands of people arrived from all corners of Istanbul in a spontaneous show of rage and disgust. They retook the park as well as large parts of surrounding Taksim Square and three weeks of rioting began which quickly spread to nearly eighty cities throughout Turkey. Two and a half million people took to the streets to express their rejection of Erdogan’s authoritarian methods.

Arriving in Taksim
I arrived in Istanbul early on the tenth of June and set up in a cheap hotel in Sultanahmet, a (long) stone’s throw from my beloved Hajia Sophia. There I met Julie, an American human rights lawyer who had just arrived to witness the events in Taksim and do research on the revolutionary happenings in Turkey. She had arrived from Egypt where she had spent the previous three months researching for a book on revolution, its methods of organization and communication in our technological world. At least this is what I understood. Immediately previous to Egypt she had also witnessed, for three months in each case, the struggles in South Sudan as well the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Mali. So chatting away about this and that we made our way out to Taksim.

Once in Taksim we tended to wander off in different directions or were separated by a rushing crowd or just the general confusion that was often the case especially in the vast open spaces of Taksim Square outside of Gezi Park. We both had Turkcell sim cards and so checked up on each other when shit happened. Sometimes we would walk out or be chased out of the Square into the surrounding narrow street where there were plenty of bars, cafes and shops of all description. When the riot squads pushed down these narrow streets it was often difficult to get much fleeing speed going so occasionally you had to ‘duck under a door’, meaning some of the shopkeepers would roll down their steel doors leaving just enough of a gap for the straggling protesters to dive under before the riot squad, gendarmes (paramilitary nuts) and AKP zealots got you. After about twenty minutes a brave individual amongst us would poke his or her head out at ground level to check where the inevitable posted cops would be and we would exit, scattering, zig-zagging in all directions so as to reduce the chances of being hit by rubber bullets, plastic bullets, tear gas canisters, live ammunition. Or worse still party thugs.

This type of skirmishing was always going on. The cops would retreat, the people re-group…followed by another brutal onslaught. The truth is the protests were peaceful to a very large extent. In my four and a half days in Taksim I only witnessed confrontations initiated by the security forces or by police plants amongst the protesters and there were many of these fellows.

Night times were full of tension and joy. A strange mix for sure. For example somehow the Taksim Solidarity Platform had managed to sneak in a grand piano and set it up on the main steps leading into Gezi Park. Musicians of all genres classical, pop, political as well as anyone wanting to have a go, would play to the hundreds of occupiers in their hard hats wearing gas-masks, goggles and waving banners and flags. This was truly beautiful. At the same time a hundred metres away stood hundreds upon hundreds of totally geared up police with the Toma trucks (water canons); Scorpions (little armed personnel vehicles with their gun mounted turrets) as well as the ubiquitous bunch of AKP thugs. Julie would appear and disappear as the days and nights went but we would always keep in phone contact.

Repression and resistance
On the 11th of June another extremely violent onslaught was launched on the barricades pushing the crowds into the park and the surrounding streets. The police forces managed to clear Taksim Square but were unsuccessful in dislodging the thousands of protesters camped in Gezi Park. Amongst the hundreds of wounded that day was a fourteen year old boy buying bread who was hit in the head by a gas canister aimed, as usual, horizontally. He was in a coma for nearly seven weeks before dying. His parents, family and neighbours protested demanding the policeman who shot him be brought to trial. This little protest was immediately met with tear-gas and baton charges.

On the afternoon of June 14th it was time for me to move on to Ankara for the sculpture symposium. The night of the 15th June we heard the police had finally launched their dreaded full attack on Gezi Park. I called Julie at about midnight. With a sound-scape background of bangs, screams, crashes and pops she screamed “I gotta bad feeling about this, fuck, I’ll try duck under a door and ring you from there” then hung up. Normally when either of us ducked under a door we’d make contact within an hour. She never did ring back. This was a worry in part because the government propaganda through the manipulated main press had been saying that all this turmoil was brought here, orchestrated and directed by foreign interests and their planted agents. We’d kind of stick out like dog’s balls.

I rang Julie an hour later leaving a message. Then again at about 3 am. This time it only rang. The next morning my phone had been cut. I asked a friend activist from the Ankara if I could use her phone to try again only to find Julie’s phone had been cut as well. So, being in the national capital of Turkey I rang the American Embassy to enquire if she had been arrested. The dweeb I spoke with was truly unhelpful and, by all audible indicators, unintelligent. He said the person to speak to about these matters would only be available at two and to ring back then. I rang back then. This new guy would only answer in the vaguest of fashions, always after a 5 second delay. Frustrated, I told him to fuck off and hung up. My friend, the local activist, suggested she ring the Ankara Human Rights Association as they had contacts that might be useful. They said they would ring back in half an hour with what they could find out. When they rang back they said two Americans had been arrested in all of Turkey, they were both men, and that one French woman with the surname Julie had been deported that morning. We then asked if they could make enquiries in the hospitals and clinics. They soon rang back saying that I should not make any more enquiries, that I had been ‘flagged’. So, in the end I don’t know what happened to Julie. Maybe, I hope, she just lost her phone in the tumult. I never knew her surname.

Protests continue
In Ankara the other artists and I went to have a gander at the modern art museum. To get there we had to walk through the Kizikay sector of downtown Ankara. The last skirmishes from day were still going on. Earlier there had been a sizable confrontation and the ground was still littered (like shattered glass) with spent gas canisters and empty cartridges. Broken glass, rocks and smouldering fires were everywhere. We picked up canisters and all of them came from Korea or Brazil with, in every case, a 2008 use by date. Mates rates would mean the cops had an endless supply of highly toxic gas. We walked through the now relatively safe area and made our way to the museum. After a mildly interesting time we returned to the downtown district. A few hundred metres from there we were accosted by an officer of the gendarmes who had overheard some of us speaking English. He started yelling that we were foreign infiltrators and barked that we were under arrest and that a van was coming. The two Turkish sculptors knew this had the potential to become shit on wheels so while one argued with the officer waving his arms and pleading the the other bundled the Mexican, Italian and the New Zealander into a passing taxi and we squealed off. Lucky.

The protests continued at varying degrees of intensity during my stay and continue to this day. The Taksim Solidarity Platform, umbrella group representing 118 organisations, is still together and active although continuously persecuted and attacked. The resistance continues still, in a more localised fashion and with ever changing tactics. In Istanbul the streets around Taksim Square are the new confrontation grounds. Meanwhile in twenty or so parks around this huge city nightly public forums are held. This is the case in most cities around the nation.

Hundreds are still imprisoned. Hundreds are still in hospital. Fifteen to twenty protesters are still missing. The press is still controlled by the AKP through corporate ties and laws are passed to legalise government access to social media.

One of the strange statements Prime Minister Erdogan made was that opponents both within Turkey and abroad had orchestrated the demonstrations, saying an "interest rate lobby" of speculators in financial markets had benefited from the unrest. He said this even though all involved knew that he represented the speculators and this rebellion was totally home grown and spontaneous. The prime minister, amongst many strange statements, said the Israeli financiers, the CIA, Wall street, Anarchists, infidels, dog walkers and many more foreign interests were behind the unrest. Well maybe not the dog walkers.

Notwithstanding the depressing level of control and brutality the AKP government possesses and uses to break this truly inspiring spontaneous popular rising there is still, and will be, a spirit, a will and a courage that Turkey has not seen for decades. The apathy we so often bemoan and which is common to so many countries may be coming to an end. We, from all over the world can hope again and learn from the actions of the people who finally stand and resist.

This is hope. This is also what is witnessed in Brazil, Spain, Chile, Greece, Iran, and Quebec. Maybe, just maybe, if the neo-liberal jockeys get a little more cocky it could be here too one day soon.

Turkey; some examples of humanity in chaos -

  • In the middle of the fog of tear gas mayhem volunteers equipped with lemons, milk solution atomisers and first aid kits were always there in the most dangerous situations to administer relief and evacuate the hurt and wounded. Selfless and courageous.
  • Anyone out on the periphery of an attack would immediately and gladly throw their own cartridge mask to a stranger in need.
  • Citizens from the surrounding neighbourhood would prepare food and deliver sustenance to occupiers of Gezi Park. Other citizens would buy and bring supplies of water.
  • Doctors and nurse volunteers set up emergency clinics close to resistance areas and provided top rate first aid around the clock.
  • Shop keepers on Istiklal (Istanbul) and other surrounding streets as well as in all cities in Turkey would keep their steel security roller doors open just enough for the straggling protesters to find safety as the security forces rushed forward.
  • Lawyers who represented, at great personal risk, arrested protesters would be arrested themselves, beaten but still return again and again to help as they could.

This is the spirit of community.


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