Occupy Istanbul? Inside the Growing Mini-City at Gezi Park
Over the past week, Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square – where police violence against peaceful demonstrators first provided a spark for what have become nationwide anti-government protests – has transformed into the calm, if crowded, eye of the storm.
Since police pulled out of the square last Saturday afternoon, the people have taken over, setting up tents, workshop and teach-in areas, community libraries, and booths offering free food, medicine, and other supplies. Musicians put on free concerts and yoga instructors – including some well-known international teachers in town for a now-postponed MindBody Festival – give free daily classes. Turkish political groups typically (and sometimes violently) at odds sit next to each other distributing leaflets about their respective causes. While clashes between police and protesters continue nightly in the capital city of Ankara and other parts of the country, the tens of thousands camped out in the Taksim area are celebrating into the wee hours.
The growing revelry is almost willfully oblivious to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip’s Erdoğan's repeated statements that the protests will have no impact on his government's decisions. But during the day, when the crowds are smaller, local activists are trying to look to the future, to envision and articulate what they stand for, rather than just against.
"We shouldn’t be saying 'Tayyip istifa,'" one environmental activist said during such a discussion, referring to the common chant calling for the prime minister’s resignation. "After Tayyip, the same system will continue." That system, of growth at all costs, connects the struggle in Taksim to fights against mining in the Kaz Mountains near the Aegean Sea and the building of dams in the Black Sea and Southeast regions of the country, another added.
Despite the positive vibes in Gezi Park, a cloud hangs over the crowd following Erdoğan’s return to Istanbul early Friday after a trip to the Middle East. Speaking to supporters who met him at the airport, the prime minister said the protests must end immediately. So while efforts continue to meet the needs of the Gezi Park protesters – with everything from free sandwiches to "free hugs," as one sign read – organizers also have to prepare for the worst. A sign-up sheet asking for help in different areas such as cleaning up and distributing food also includes a category for volunteer security personnel to keep an eye out for police and remove provocateurs from the park.
What happens over the next few days could determine whether these pictures of the mini-city growing in Gezi Park are a requiem for a short-lived burst of opposition or documentation of the beginning of a real movement for change in Turkey.
Less than 24 hours after police pulled out of the Taksim Square area last Saturday, demonstrators had converted their barricades into booths for distributing donated food, water, and other supplies. (Jennifer Hattam)
Protesters take a break by a sign pointing the way to the “health team” area. (Jennifer Hattam)
Street-food vendors have been part of the scene at Gezi Park since the beginning. Now they’ve started adding taunting messages directed at Prime Minister Erdoğan to their wares. (Jennifer Hattam)
Eggs at a food table are decorated with the names of Turkish cities where protests have broken out, as well as other messages. The writing on the gas canister used for cooking says “Our eggs are cooked with pepper gas,” referring to the pepper spray and tear gas fired by police. (Jennifer Hattam)
A free charging station offers a place to power up phones and laptops, a crucial service given the large role social media has played in spreading news about the protests. (Jennifer Hattam)
Public libraries are scarce to nonexistent in Turkey, but a free “Gezi Library” has been built out of torn-up paving stones for people to donate and take books. Volunteers stamp each volume with the words “Gezi Parkı - Parayla Satılamaz,” indicating they cannot be sold for money, so no one tries to capitalize on the community spirit. (Jennifer Hattam)
More informal “Gezi Parkı Açık Hava Kütüphanesi” (open-air libraries) are also being set up throughout the park. (Jennifer Hattam)
A "people’s information table" offers free food to park protesters. (Jennifer Hattam)
Tents have been pitched all throughout the park and even on the lawn of an adjacent hotel. (Jennifer Hattam)
A free 24-hour veterinary clinic was initially set up to help street dogs and cats affected by the tear gas throughout the neighborhood. There are also numerous first-aid stations for people but signs posted on them asked that photos not be taken. (Jennifer Hattam)
Volunteers plant tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs in a "Gezi vegetable garden." (Jennifer Hattam)
A photo gallery hung on clotheslines strung between trees documents the events of the protests thus far. (Jennifer Hattam)
This paving-stone wall was one of the first spots where people left donated goods for the protesters, including bottles of vinegar, lemon juice, and other home remedies against tear gas. (Jennifer Hattam)
Volunteers at a "children’s workshop" tent help kids paint trees and other images on butcher paper. (Jennifer Hattam)
Construction materials from the adjacent Taksim Square road project have been turned into a tree adorned with wishes for the future and other messages written on post-it notes and attached with wire or string. (Jennifer Hattam)
Signs on a food- and medicine-distribution area set up outside the Starbucks in Taksim Square provide a list of needed supplies (right) and let passers-by know that everything is free for the taking. The designation of the supplies as "çapul gida" – looting nourishment – refers to Prime Minister Erdoğan’s calling the protesters "çapulcu" (looters) earlier this week. Demonstrators ironically adopted the designation in droves, sparking endless riffs on the theme on social media. (Jennifer Hattam)