The Occupy Idea took off in Istanbul like wildfire, albeit with its own trajectory and historical roots. I have been here five days since June 14 and every day, or rather night, something new happens. I cannot pretend to give a synthetic overview, of which I am sure there are many on the internet, but bearing in mind our little book on Occupy being launched tonight in Chicago, I will try to make a rough sketch of what I have been part of and has been told me by Turkish friends, emphasizing what could be learnt by people in the USA.
It may seem strange to begin by saying that Istanbul hands down is the most beautiful city I have ever visited and I mention this not only because Istanbul deserves this accolade but because of the threat posed to this historical crossroads by the voracious capitalist development now tearing at its heart.
The plan to radically alter the main square—Taksim Square—and demolish adjoining Gezi Park with its lofty trees so as to build a shopping mall in an area saturated with malls and no green space, gives you an idea of what I am talking about.
You also have to understand that Taksim Square is like the nerve center of the nation, symbolically, with its monument to the founders of modern Turkey and the scene of bloody battles on May Day over the decades. You might also note that Gezi Park was built over a military establishment, itself built over an Armenian cemetery, destroyed many decades back as part of erasure of memory of genocide on which modern Turkey was built. The symbolic weight of the site is crushing and awe inspiring.
The festive and pacifist air of the sit-in to protect the trees starting May 27 took a radically different tone when the police raided the protesters and forced them out a few days later using a hurricane of tear gas and water cannons. But as people poured into the area, the protesters regained the park and held it in a most extraordinarily carnivalesque way for some ten days during which it became like Occupy in Zuccotti Park, except that Gezi Park is ever so much larger and there were ever so many more people.
There was no mic check—the crowd is huge—hand made signs were everywhere, an organic garden and flower garden was made in one corner with IV drips for the plants, innumerable tents were pitched, there was a free book exchange, and many posters of political parties. Turkey is alive with political tensions as the Islamist party in power is challenged by the old secular nationalists of the founding of modern Turkey thirsting for revenge, with the Kurdish party in the wings, all taken by surprise by this new uprising.
Throughout my time here I hear of protesters wishing to form a new party, but the overwhelming sense I get is that that is considered a joke for, like Zuccotti, the movement is largely outside that idea and practice of politics. It is, rather, a deeply rooted, cultural movement that no one could have predicted. Like Marx’s Old Mole of Revolution, Occupy type movements surface in unexpected places throughout the world.
The size of the crowds pouring into Gezi Park in the ten days, especially after work hours, was overwhelming. I cannot possibly do justice to this. It was like the sea had broke loose. Watching TV it seemed like most of Istanbul was pouring into the park walking in on freeways and across the bridges over the Bosphorous.
The park was filled with free water bottles and food and on the steps many street street vendors set up stalls selling swimming goggles for protection against tear gas and water cannon spray (said to contain pepper spray as well), and hard hats. I saw one display of hard hats for sale in a wide arc on the ground, white hat, blue hat, white hat and so forth.
Outside the park felt like May 68 in Paris to me. Reality had cracked. There was the ordinary everyday sitting in the cafes drinking a beer, listening to stories about the past few days, and yet there was also this air of unreality seeping through one’s body. A beauty parlor had a sign in the window: “Pepper Spray is Good For Your Skin.” You always feel on edge, that everything could change in an instant. This is not just war, I think, but the whole so-called system is ready to explode and a new way of life. The imagination has been unleashed. At the same time the government is rounding up radical leftists from their homes and disappearing them.
People walk past in the brilliant sunshine with hard hats on, side by side with the occasional tourist and curious citizen. Shopkeepers stand in their doorways. The large luxury hotels around the park allowed protesters to use their bathrooms and in some infirmary’s were installed—later attacked by the police using tear gas. Starbucks was smashed for not providing refuge
Strange things happen. Many signs in the park declared the president to be the “son of a whore.” Next day a number of prostitutes turned up saying “we would never give birth to such a monster.” It became un-cool to use sexist language in the park and at the barricades when the fighting started again. For the first time (I believe) the LGBT presence was made manifest, as well. There were as many women as men in the park and fighting on the streets after the park was attacked the second time.
A striking feature was the role of football club fans with their chants and maneuvers rooted not only in team support but in the neighborhoods from which the clubs sprang, something we never saw in Zuccotti. At one point a mobile crane was stolen by the Bashiktash fans and used to attack a police water cannon truck, rocking it from side to side until the police fled. Next day the truck was for sale on ebay.
Then there was the pianist in the park. A friend writes me: On Wednesday night, a day after the big police attack of Tuesday and the night when we thought they may empty the park because there had been a lot of police presence, there was a piano concert. The pianist was Davide Martello who left from Sicily with his piano in his truck, travelled through various countries in Europe. His concert started in front of the statue in Taksim but then the piano was carried to the barricade at the Gezi Park entrance and became part of the barricade. He played songs from “Imagine” to “Ciao Bella” and the group of football fans around him cheered him on. He was wearing a helmet against tear gas canisters like the rest of us and right behind this in the tent of the Kurdish party, there was halay (Kurdish folk dance, which is part of every demonstration and is thus extremely politicized). Later when the police kicked us out of Gezi on Saturday the piano, along with the pianist, was “arrested” too.
The street fighting was intense, as you must have seen. There were direct confrontations all night long for many nights with police using tear gas, and the demonstrators building barricades and hurling stones. Protesters were very afraid because arrest could mean disappearing forever. The battles would rage down side streets with people drawing the police into a cat-and-mouse game. The Governor of Istanbul—made famous for ordering massacres in Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey—said on TV that police would be using live ammunition.
Then last Monday things seemed to change. A General Strike was called by many unions (with limited success) and people walked around Taksim square and adjoining streets in small groups but not fighting. Bear in mind that just like in guerrilla warfare in which the state can never tell who is a peasant and who is a rebel, so here they could not tell who is “just a pedestrian” and who is a street fighter.
Then a 34 years old performance artist and dancer, Erdem Gündüz, stood sock still and expressionless for many hours at the square. Others joined. The streets filled with these (barely) living statues. Talk about uncanny! And what were the police going to do. Arrest stiller than still people. Well, that’s what they did but still more people joined in this death-in-life tableau. It was amazing to walk past row after row of deathly still, erect, unmoving people, and this happened, I believe, in many other parts of this city of 14 million people.
Then the forums started at 9 at night in different neighborhoods, rich and poor, throughout the city. They had begun, tentatively in Gezi Park before the final attack. Then the brilliant move was to fan out in the neighborhoods, First there were three and last night twelve. The crush of the one I attended in a park with a deep amphitheater was intense. The moon was getting full, the night balmy, and people enjoying each other’s closeness. They used the hand signals of Zuccotti park—but far more enthusiastically and on a grand piano a Kurdish song was played and also a piece written especially for the struggle. It was wonderful to hear that music, so precise, so other-worldly, floating through us into the dark sky. The national anthem was sung which angered my friends greatly. (Note that there is an intense libidinal attachment to the current prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan. TV caught a 70 years old woman supporter of the prime minister saying “We are the hairs around Tayyip’s arsehole.”) Using a battery powered megaphone people debated whether to figure out the next move or whether to engage in a more philosophical discussion. The night before, so I was told, gay issues, previously taboo, had been aired. At another moment a young man with long hair said he felt uncomfortable about standing under the national flag for which he was expected to die (remember military service is obligatory for men, and conscientious objectors, I am told, are likely to be tortured and raped in prison).
Then a group of people dressed as penguins made a brief appearance before marching away in Chaplinesque fashion, the penguins having become a proliferating, albeit comical, symbol of the mighty power of this proto-fascist government, every day more sinister, because CNN-Turkey had days earlier refrained from showing the intense police violence by showing The March of the Penguins.
Don’t forget the penguins as the ice floes melt.