Notes from My Summer of Uprising

By  Uğur Güney

Last May when the protests began, the planned gentrification process called “Taksim Pedestrianization Project” was just another familiar act of corruption in Turkey’s rapidly changing political landscape. Gezi Park—the main site of the action and about the size of New York’s Bryant Park—was defended by hundreds of encamped people who came out to save trees that were scheduled to be torn down. Their tactic was playing the children’s game kitty-in-the-corner with construction vehicles.

Police attacked the protesters’ camp on May 30 at 5:00am and burned down their tents. The excessive force was not designed to evacuate the park. It was meant to hurt, punish, and teach the protesters a lesson. I still remember watching video of my friends climbing up one of the park’s walls (because all entrances were being gassed) to escape, and seeing the wall collapsing on them. I was pissed off and selfishly scared for the safety of my friends.

The following day, more people gathered.

If the country’s Prime Minister had intervened at this point with soothing words for the angry crowds, there likely would not have been any uprising. But the government refused to admit even the smallest defeat. The PM continued publicly disdaining any dissent, after which the point of no return was quickly passed. The government managed to turn a protest to save a public space into a full-fledged uprising to protect elementary rights and dignity.

May 31 and June 1 were wonderful days that I regret having missed. Demonstrations spread throughout the country. According to my friends’ stories, the whole neighborhood around Taksim Square, an area as big as Central Park, was packed with demonstrators.

In response, police did not hesitate to use violence.  Security forces liberally used tear gas and rubber-bullet riot guns, which they aimed directly at people’s faces. Unlike previous generations who saw the ugliest face of the state, we younger Turks had not yet received our own educations in state violence. But we learned. Together we passed through a threshold of fear, and tear gas, batons, water cannons, plastic bullets were suddenly not intimidating. Waves of humor and solidarity blossomed on all fronts. Some shouted “Stop it! I’m Going to Call the Police” while being assaulted by rubber bullets, laughing in the face of danger because they knew that if they were wounded, another protester would carry them to receive medical support. Thankfully, the number of people who lost their lives was not higher than five six, though the police did what they could to hurt us.

My other Turkish friends in United States and I were fixed to our computers, reading and watching everything and re-tweeting relevant updates from and about the protests. With disrupted sleep cycles and sagging productivity, we scoured Twitter timelines all day long.

The flow of information quickly intensified. Visual evidence of police violence, locations of medics, information about businesses who supported the protesters and those who supported the government, blood type announcements, infograms on what to do against tear gas and water cannons, what to do when arrested, where the riot vehicles were spotted, wifi passwords of nearby cafes. . . it was incredible.

But witnessing thousands crossing between continents by foot on the Bosphorus Bridge at dawn (because public transport had been halted due to linger tear gas) was the moment I first shed tears and realized I had to go, that I had to be there. If my friends were getting beaten and gassed, I, too, had to go and receive my share. But there was one problem: my expired passport.

While I waited for my new passport to be processed, the protests gained momentum, and after two weeks the so-called “Gezi Commune” began demonstrators regained the Park and the  so-called “Gezi Commune” that was going to last for two weeks started.

Here in New York City, as well, people took to the streets and returned to Zuccoti Park (thanks to support from Occupy Wall Street), protested at the Turkish Consulate, and rallied in Union Square. In those demonstrations, similarly-minded Turkish people, who otherwise normally wouldn’t have met, connected.

Until I finally made it to Turkey on June 10, I served as a social media hub and anxiously participated in demonstrations. I was also envious of those in Turkey—a natural reaction, I think, when a resistance is forming in your home country and you are stuck abroad. Nevertheless, there was work to do.  My girlfriend and I wrote a letter to be sent to student organizations and school officials at different universities across the United States to ask their help in increasing public awareness. Here at the Graduate Center, the DSC was incredibly supportive.

Meanwhile in Turkey, the protests became embedded in the everyday routine. People went to the protests after work or school, clashed until morning, and then went back to work or took their exams covered in bruises.

There was virtually no media coverage in Turkey. We watched the events from CNN International (seeing CNN on your side is kind of awkward, I should say), the Russian station RT, and a Norwegian TV channel. A small group of fed-up media outlets began airing penguin documentaries to stoke the public’s anger at such a critical moment. It worked well: thousands were suddenly gathering around media centers demanding an end to the censorship.

The day I finally left for İstanbul, a friend I recently met at a NYC protest asked me if I had enough space in my luggage to carry cameras to Gezi Park. Then, several hours before my flight a Global Revolution member gave me four smartphones to bring to Revolt İstanbul. It was hard not to cry when having a total stranger call you their brother, while helping your cause.

After deplaning in Istanbul, I immediately went to Taksim. It was dream-like. Taksim Square, with the huge black smoke rising from a burning vehicle, pits and mounds everywhere due to construction, looked post-apocalyptic. A destroyed van that belonged to a TV channel was still smoldering. The facade of the cultural center was covered with hanging flags of various political groups. It was a temporary autonomous zone. No police, no violence, no money, no looting, no harassment. It was the most secure place in İstanbul. All the services in the park, including shelter, food, and health care were free.

I gave the phones to an international activist who helps local counterparts build wifi networks and broadcast live stream systems. For the first time, I began to understand that the resistance, while perhaps not as strong as the methods of international oppression, has gone global as well.

The number and scale of the barricades in the Taksim area indicated the intensity of the first days’ clashes. The captured police bus that turned into a “museum of resistance” at the park was my favorite item. Just imagine that all the streets leading to Times Square are closed with barricades and NYPD is nowhere in sight.

When I posted a photo of myself on a captured construction vehicle as my Facebook profile picture, my family worried that this would later be used as evidence against me.  But soon, my mother mothers whose initial reactions were protective began preparing anti-tear gas solutions at home and would deliver them to the park.

Soon, our public forums began to address the first public forums were initiated to answer the question what to do next. Everyone was speculating on how things would converge and play out. We felt the revolution in the unpredictability of the future and in the diversity of the groups that came together.  Before Gezi, many assumed that fans of rival soccer teams, anti-capitalist Muslims, LGBT groups, feminists, Kurds, minorities, secularists, Kemalists, unions, Turkish nationalists, anarchists, and socialists would be unlikely to partner in anything, much less form a social movement.  But there we were, all of us singing together to Klavierkunst’s piano concert in the middle of Taksim Square.

I didn’t buy a real gas mask with a filter because I was not going to stay for a long time. And besides, those masks are expensive. One piece of graffiti I saw summed things up: “Rich protesters have better masks. We envy them.” Having just a dust mask and goggles didn’t help much when the police initiated a simultaneous tear gas attack all over the Taksim Square to disburse a peaceful crowd (which included babies and people in wheelchairs). Their excuse to gas and disperse us was that we were blocking traffic. But they didn’t stop there; they gassed bars and restaurants far away from the square. The effect was to kill neighborhood nightlife.

Being gassed is simply awful. For half a minute after being exposed to the chemicals you feel paralyzed with fear of death.  In Taksim, though, there was help. Fear gave way as the voices of experienced activists rang out with directions. Suddenly, your senses return. Despite these hideous attacks, the crowds of protesters remained peaceful under such provocation.

The night Gezi Park was evacuated, I was at a friend’s wedding. Everyone was checking their cellphones for Twitter updates instead of dancing.  The next morning, I went straight to Taksim Square to meet friends. I had some experience with participating in demonstrations from my days as a college anarchist. But when I reached the park, I realized that my friends, who previously had no political affiliation or experience, had far surpassed what I thought I knew about organizing.

The protesters mostly organized in cells of close friends. My cell comprised my high school friends—including a pilot from Turkish Airlines, a theoretical physicist, an industrial designer, a painter, a printing press manager, and myself. It wasn’t long before the police began generously sharing their tear gas with us. As a white cloud enveloped the group, an army of photographers with long telescopic lenses took our photos as veteran activists shouted “calm down” to their brothers and sisters in the park in to prevent panic.

Police were everywhere as lines of ordinary citizens walked shoulder-to-shoulder with pavement stones in their hands, marching to reinforce the barricades. After we had collected enough stones to build a small castle, my cell left the scene as police began tearing the barricades down and arresting hundreds of protesters who weren’t able to flee and find shelter.

Getting home was scary. I had been warned about the vigilantes in the neighborhoods, roving bands of angry young men with sticks and machetes conscripted by police to intimidate and control protesters and their supporters. My friends and I encountered one such group who were singing Ottoman Empire army anthems and shouting “We are the PM’s soldiers!” as they made their way through the streets. In total panic, we got the hell out of there and made our way home through a maze of side streets and alleyways.  Police behavior is generally predictable. However, you never know what an independent band of fascists will do. Fortunately, it began to rain, and many people on the streets, including these thugs, went home.

The scale of the events became so big that it was rendered almost incomprehensible. Socialists were suddenly saying they were unprepared for this kind of revolt. Leftist parties didn’t play their usual pioneering role, and their attempts at distributing their magazines as well as their calls for everyone to chant under a single flag quickly proved incompatible with the majority of protesters.

And yet there were truly positive features of the chaos. The country experienced the largest LGBT Pride walk in its history during this period. And when the army killed a Kurdish citizen protesting the construction of an outpost in an eastern town, it was the first time that western crowds of citizens publicly declared their support for the Kurdish people. As one person in Taksim put it, “For this time we heard the news about the civil war from the same media that didn’t show anything about our resistance.”

When I returned to New York City, I experienced a paralysis that sometimes lasted for days.  I was angry at the bad news that continued to be reported from Taksim. I was angry at the peacefulness of my neighborhood in Astoria in comparison to the tumult characterizing life back home. And I continued to wonder how so many in Turkey could welcome what was clearly blatant, disproportionate, state-sponsored violence against the people.

The meaning of the Turkish word for “coup,” which traditionally was solely used for military coups d’etat, was changed in Turkish dictionaries a few years ago to include democratic protests against the government. This redefinition of the word could be seen in the intimidation tactics the government used to scare ordinary citizens. Conservative and religious populations, for example, were terrorized with the threat that the protesters were looking to overthrow the government and that without its protection, citizens would lose their rights. So, perhaps it’s fear that allows complacency in the face of state-sponsored abuses. Since coming back to New York, I have been continually looking for new ways to remain active in the struggle, and have begun participating in the Gezi Platform NYC weekly meetings at New School, where different initiatives propose projects and volunteers work on them together. This is the spirit of Gezi, even in New York.

Shortly after I returned to New York, I told my advisor that my time in Istanbul this summer was a “once in a lifetime experience.”  His response was inspirational: “Who knows?”

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