Monday, June 3, 2013

Istanbul uprising: The shifting moods of Taksim Square

Taksim Square was eerily quiet at around 3 p.m. on Saturday. I had just walked up through Cihangir with a large, loud group of protesters and seen the wall of tear gas that awaited them on Siraselviler Caddesi, and heard reports of packed crowds (and more tear gas) in nearby Harbiye. But Istanbul's central transit hub was nearly empty. A lone taxi or two drove past the Garanti Bank, where policemen sat on the curb with their helmets off and riot shields stacked up, elbow-to-elbow with people with makeshift gas masks hung around their necks. Both sides looked weary. Everyone seemed to be waiting to see what would happen next.

Half an hour or so later, police buses and armored vehicles began to roll up, filling the street. The resting police slowly picked up their shields and headed across the square, where a phalanx of officers had formed in front of Gezi Park, the initial flashpoint of the protests. The growing crowd got to their feet and began to chant again: "Faşizme karşı omuz omuza!" (Shoulder to shoulder against fascism!) More people continued to stream into the square. Suddenly, the sky was full of white trails shooting into the sky and then falling toward the earth again, exploding in clouds of smoke. Tear gas.

The crowd around me surged through the doorway of a hotel, whose lobby quickly filled with gas and people suffering its effects -- crying, coughing, in some cases vomiting. Through the window, I could see the protesters who had just been gassed moving en masse back toward the square. Undeterred, unafraid.

An hour or so later, the police were gone. As word of their apparent retreat spread on social media, Taksim began to fill with people milling about, aimlessly compared to their previous purposefulness. Had they won? Or were the police off somewhere, regrouping? Turkish parties and unions with their banners held aloft joined what had until this point seemed -- for once -- like an uprising of individuals rather than interest groups. Something seemed to have disappeared from the air along with the tear gas.

Much later, reports began to circulate that the battle had moved down the hill to Beşiktaş. Past midnight, as I walked from Osmanbey back to Taksim, the air was again hazy with tear gas billowing up from those clashes. With the streetlights out, people passed each other in the dark, mouths covered by surgical-style masks, dabbing at their eyes. Around Taksim, the detritus of the uprising -- police barriers, ripped-up pavement, even burned-out vehicles -- had been commandeered by protesters into crude but effective blockades. Broken glass crunched under our feet and rowdy shouts rang out through the night. The square itself was a surreal landscape of overturned cars, smoldering fires, graffiti, garbage, and clusters of people drinking beer. I went to bed disheartened. Had getting back into Taksim Square had become the sole endgame, as if it was May Day all over again? And did the protests, which had started so peacefully and with such great community spirit, have to devolve into something that would make it easier for the prime minister to continue to paint his critics as "marginal" elements within society?

Sunday morning restored my faith. Protesters had gone to Taksim Square and Gezi Park early to clean up, even replanting trees that had been uprooted in the park during the unrest. Donated garbage bags, wet wipes, cleaning gloves, packages of food, and bottles of water had been arrayed neatly along a wall for anyone to take and use. Police barriers had been re-re-purposed into booths where volunteers dished out food, supplies, even fresh clothes. People wandered through the jubilant crowd passing out snacks and rain ponchos in case the sky clouded over again. Pulled-up paving stones were arranged to spell out "Taksim halkındır" (Taksim belongs to the people) as bystanders cheered. The spirit of community was back in spades, but still I wondered, was this end? Would everyone go back to work Monday, with only the vaguest of aims accomplished? Or was it the beginning of something real?

1 comment:

Senior Dogs Abroad said...

Jen, We were sooo glad to see your post this morning. We were thinking about you last night and were going to call you this morning. While right now the outcome seems unclear, when we saw the PM on TV yesterday, he was less confident than we've ever seen him even though he says that the AVM project will go forward. This can't help but be a setback for their usual way of urban 'planning' behind a veil of secrecy and then spring some new monstrosity on us before we have time to protest it.