ISTANBUL, Turkey – At this moment, in cities across Turkey, a revolution is taking place. Unfortunately, mainstream Turkish media is forbidden from covering the events and news of what’s happening is only slowly seeping into the world media conscious.
To some extent, the world media can be forgiven, but Turkish media silence is inexcusable. On June 1, 2013, CNN Turk, for example, aired a documentary on penguins instead of covering the riots which resulted from the Gezi Park protest. It isn’t that reporters don’t want to cover the story, they are simply being prohibited from doing so. It’s either follow the party line or lose your job.
Websites such as Twitter, Facebook and halkhaber.tv (an independent station which has covered the protests somewhat), are suddenly inaccessible in certain areas of Istanbul. Internet and mobile connections have been blocked or slowed to a painful degree.
A front-row seat to the tragedy
It started as an environmental protest. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, planned to build a mall on the last remaining green space in Taksim Square, Gezi Park.
On Monday, May 27, bulldozers began uprooting trees, and in response a group of people held a sit-in to stop it. These protestors were met with tear gas. On Tuesday night, my partner Jay and I spent the night in the park. There was food, music, dancing, singing, talks and discussions. It was a mini-festival. Baby trees were planted. Signs asking for the trees’ protection were made. It was a peaceful and cooperative vibe. Around midnight, an announcement was made asking people to tone down the noise as some wanted to sleep. People willingly complied.
Everyone was aware that we would most likely be confronted by the police, but people were committed to the cause. There was one major problem: We were sitting ducks out in the open, in tents, and under trees and with no real shelter or protection. Around 4:30, Jay and a few guys began devising a plan as to what we should do when the police arrived. Defensive measures needed to be taken. We needed barricades and an escape route.
Before the plan could be finalized, the riot police arrived. I’ve seen riot police before, but had never been one of their intended targets. I didn’t know what to do. Jay kept whispering, Stay next to me, stay next to me. I grabbed his arm and did just that.
Within minutes and without a word, the police began throwing tear gas. Jay told me to run and that he’d be right behind me.
Normally, I’m a why person. If you tell me to do something, I need a reason before I act. This was no such case. He said run. I obeyed.
I ducked and ran down an embankment. When I got to the bottom, I looked for him, but he wasn’t there. I became anxious. For a second I thought about going back up to look for him, but I stayed and soon saw him coming down carrying musical equipment. He was helping some musicians who had played earlier in the park.
As we and others were walking (some running) away from the park, the police followed and began shooting tear gas after us. We eventually made our way to a taxi parked on a side street and went home.
Each day, as news got out about the unnecessary and brutal acts of the police resulting in the hospitalization, as well as the arrests of protestors, more people joined. While it started as a small environmental protest, it became an anti-government one. People had been upset with the prime minister and his increasing dictatorial/fascist governing. His reaction to the peaceful park protest was the final straw. People revolted.
While the initial battleground of the riots was the Taksim Square area, protests and riots quickly spread to nearby Besiktas and to other cities throughout Turkey including the capital Ankara. Saturday night, Jay joined the protests. I wanted to accompany him, but he said it was too dangerous. The police were out of control. I watched halkhaber.tv to stay up-to-date about what was happening and saw that the police were withdrawing from Taksim Square. Wonderful news, I thought. Unfortunately, it wasn’t over. Although they had left Taksim Square, the police had relocated to Besiktas and were targeting protestors there.
Despite the continued police brutality in Besiktas, on Sunday, June 2, people gathered in Gezi Park and Taksim Square to celebrate the police’s withdrawal. Since this was the place where it all began, people felt victorious because the police were no longer there. They simply couldn’t disperse the thousands upon thousands of protestors who were present. On Sunday, people were able to enjoy Gezi Park. Some read books and others played instruments. Some had picnics while still others slept. I was truly amazed by the sheer number of people. I’ve been to Taksim Square and Gezi Park countless times but had never seen such a crowd. In addition, to the numbers, the feeling of liberation in the air was inspiring. It was almost palpable.
During the merriment, an announcement was made that all those who had been arrested were released. This was probably due to the pro bono work of lawyers who volunteered their services to assist detained citizens. The crowd applauded and boisterously cheered. The other announcement, however, received a vastly different response: 1,500 wounded, three permanently blinded, two missing and five critically injured (two in Istanbul, two in Ankara and one in Izmir). It must be said that these figures are constantly changing, with some sources claiming that some have died and greater numbers have been blinded. In addition to lawyers, medical students and doctors have also volunteered their services, setting up a makeshift clinic in Gezi Park for injured protesters.
Right now, the police are still committing human rights violations throughout Turkey. They are gassing, beating, spraying water cannons and shooting unarmed protesters. They have thrown gas into people’s homes, into hotels which sheltered protestors and into a hospital where wounded protesters had made their way with much difficulty. They accidently gassed the German Consulate because of their maniacal behavior. The brutal assaults have not stopped people from assisting protesters. Countless people have opened their doors all the while knowing that they too could be targeted for offering aid.
There’s also a serious concern about the most recent gas the police are using and the age of said gas (approximately two- or three-years-old, as noted on one of the empty canisters). This particular gas makes people vomit and reacts with water. After being gassed, when one drinks water or washes with water, a chemical reaction occurs resulting in extreme and long-lasting burning.
I moved to Istanbul nearly two years ago after having lived in Gyeongju, South Korea where I worked as an English instructor. Teaching enables me to live in various places. If you live in a place, I’m of the opinion that you have a duty to act, and react when necessary, to relevant social issues. I have no idea what will happen, but for the first time since I moved here, I’m proud to be here.
The diversity of the protestors is astounding. The young and the elderly. Muslims and non-Muslims. Covered women and uncovered women. Ethnic Kurds, ethnic Armenians, ethnic Greeks and ethnic Turks. Turkish nationals and expats. LGBT and straight. Various political parties. All sections of society have come together to express their disapproval. The silenced have found their voice and they are literally shouting for a change.
Every night at 9:00, those who are at home take up pots and spoons, hang out their windows and bang. Those driving toot their horns and those walking the streets sing. In a word: Solidarity.
Donna M.E. Banks is an American now living in Istanbul, Turkey. She co-founded DreamTree Productions, a community theatre-troupe, which donates proceeds to charity.