By İnci Stan, reporting from Istanbul
Things started to change in Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey a year ago May 27 2013. This time the demonstrations were not about Kurdish people’s rights, education fees or a specific person. The initial protest in Istanbul was about saving a park and its trees. An affluent man wanted to build a new shopping center to earn more profits, and to do so he would have to pave over the expansive Gezi Park.
The less nature there is, the more important it is. In Turkey, especially in Istanbul, a busy city of 16 million people, you can see lots of people hanging out on grassy knolls near freeways trying to find something besides pavement. Smelling and breathing the fumes of thousands of cars a few feet away shouldn’t be the only access to nature. Of course people don’t prefer to hang out there, but finding a green area is not easy in this city. That is why we and Istanbul cannot allow or afford to lose any more trees and nature as Istanbul is not in need more shopping centers, parking lots, and apartments.
Protests are a part of regular life in Istanbul. If you are a tourist, you might see more than 5 protests in the same day. Everyone thought that the police would come and the demonstrations would be over as usual. The police came and harassed the demonstrators but this time they didn’t leave. Despite the Turkish police using gas and water hoses, the park was still full of people. Not just the stereotypical Turkish protester but every kind of person was there: high school students, elderly people, taxi drivers, prostitutes, artists, homosexuals, children, elites, Kurds, tourists, Muslims, intellectuals, etc. All sorts of different people were uniting behind a common goal. The goal was not just about saving a park anymore — the goal was to change the government, the power structure, and the system.
Nobody could have foreseen this reaction. Turks as a people are afraid of protesting because of our bad collective memory of demonstrations in the 70s when many people were killed for speaking out. While younger people might not remember, our parents certainly do because they lived through those horrible days. What made people of all generations dare to protest while disregarding their fear of being killed for standing up? Perhaps because this time it was about the environment and excess development which is impossible to ignore. People demanded a humane life free from domination by a government that many Turkish people consider a dictatorship. Every hour the protest became more and more powerful.
Together we built a free zone in the center of the city in which there were no police. People were sharing. We built a library, held concerts, practiced yoga, offered workshops, handed out free food, made art, and welcomed varied political ideas, sexual identities and religions. All of this wasn’t easy. Dedicated anarchists constructed barricades around the park and fought against the police day and night. They were not violent to anyone directly, but they were willing to defend themselves. During the fighting, 6 young protesters were killed by the police. More than 8000 people were injured because of gas, water, and rubber bullets. The government pushed and attacked the protesters for hours. The stress of being abhorred by the populace caused at least 5 police officers to commit suicide.
Mainstream media didn’t show any of the demonstrations, from walls on the street full of political mottoes and unique art, to hospitals full of injured protesters. When an entire country was standing up, CNN preferred to air a documentary about the lives of penguins. We had to create our own media with tablets, smart phones, social media and the Internet with the slogan ‘’WE are media!’’.
Everyone agreed to protest in a peaceful way from the first day. The protesters tried to give out flowers, read passages from powerful books loudly, share food and water, and give hugs. They wanted to avoid violence but it was impossible. One guy stuck his hands deep in his pockets and stood silently for hours in the square. Even though he was just standing the police pushed him over. They couldn’t tolerate seeing a man who was simply standing.
After months the government gave up building the shopping center, but this didn’t resolve the main issues. It was a big disappointment for many people because the powers structure stayed the same and the media was still biased while business as usual continued. Nonetheless, the people of Turkey had stopped ignoring the fascism of the government and changed their minds. Defraudation, discrimination for marginalized people, putting Alevis, atheists and students on the spot had become part of the culture. Berkin Elvan, a fourteen year old boy who was going to buy bread for his family found himself on the wrong side of the protest and was gunned down.
His name has became another name on a wall in memory of all the injustice occurring. The problems haven’t stopped. Secret tapes of president Erdogan have been released. When Turkey prepared for the election, the revolution in Ukraine inspired the youth of the country. I think that revolution is not impossible but will not be easy either! This is more than a personal hope. This is all in hopes of waking a generation to say “Stop” to all old fashioned mindsets, rules, laws, and political techniques. This incites the question, “If I am smarter, more open minded, more well-educated, more intelligent than the politicians, then how can they manage my rights?” This practically screams out, “We don’t need borders, visas, stupid papers, ugly buildings, dirty air, artificial food, liar media, sexist beliefs, secret plans, war for more money, education for brain washing, taxes for the powerful, low living standards, gray cities, awful public transportation and health systems! We need trees, music, good books, sharing, love and understanding!” We understand that there is no problem with sexual, ethnic or religious differences — the problem is where the power is placed.
What about the art covered walls in the streets? They painted them over in gray — the government’s favorite color. They are not fond of the idea of seeing art covered walls again, but we must still show our colorful life-styles, otherwise they will think we have turned gray, too.
After almost one year, Erdogan who had a Twitter account with 4.17 million followers, became outraged and called all social media, “the worst menace to society,” and banned Twitter just before the election. Within hours, hashtags including #TwitterisblockedinTurkey and #DictatorErdogan were trending worldwide. Erdogan’s Development Party (AKP), received 43 per cent of the overall vote from the last election. Many people reported that votes were stolen on social media. This scandal reminded us of Emma Goldman’s quote; “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” So if we can’t change anything by voting, we should realize that now is the time to stand up and make change happen!