The protests. What an adventure. How surreal. How lucky am I to experience such a thing during my short-LIVED Erasmus period. I, deciding to live my life slightly on the edge, wanted to experience what I was seeing splattered all over Facebook first-hand. I called my Turkish friend Serdan and since he was heading to Taksim Square, I jumped on my first opportunity to join in.
On the previous day, Friday, May 31st, my 13 flatmates and I watched our Facebook's and other forms of social media to see what was happening in Taksim Square. We didn't know too much about the protests as international students but we heard about tear gas and fire and there was absolutely nothing in the media/news about it. I couldn't believe such a thing was happening in Istanbul and it wasn't even in the news. I heard people were marching across the inter-continental bridge because the buses were shut down and it wasn't in the media whatsoever. Not BBC, Not CNN. So Facebook and the Gezi Park tumblr were my temporary news sources. This was completely intriguing for me and I had to get in on the action. As for educating myself on the subject by asking some Turkish friends, I learned that Gezi Park is a small green area next to Taksim Square - literally the main center of the European side of the city. This is one of the few green areas of the city left. A bunch of activists decided to pitch tents in Gezi Park to prevent the construction equipment from making their way into the park. It was a peaceful protest and around 5 in the morning on May 31st, the police came in with water cannons and tear gas to evict the people from the park. Turkey is supposed to be a democracy and this is what the Turkish people had to deal with.
Now, why wasn't this in the news you wonder? Because the government put a block on all news channels. People were being tear gassed and injured and there was nothing being reported on anywhere in the country and at this point, even in the world unless you had a Facebook/Twitter connection. So, the protests began originally to support the protests in the park and ultimately turned into an anti-AKP (the government party of Istanbul) gathering. The protesting crowd mostly consisted of 20-30 somethings mostly of the working class or a university.
On the 31st, I was out on the Asian side of the city at a karaoke bar. Around midnight, hundreds of people stormed with pots and pans and made their way to the central part of Kadikoy (my district) and yelled anti-Tayyip Erdogen chants. My roommates were terrified and made me rush home. I was really into seeing the whole shindig. The video below is the only thing I managed to get before I was rushed home.
June 1st, 2013, Serdan invited me to go to Taksim where all the action was going on. We took a ferry from Kadikoy which was so weighed down and slow because of how many protesters were on the boat. A person on the loudspeaker at the ferry dock said that all protesters get to ride the ferry for free, huzzah! We take the ferry over to Besiktas and plan to walk up to Taksim because the buses aren't running anyways.
(By the way, my super smart self decided to wear a dress and flip flops to this. If you ever go to a protest, don't wear flip-flops. )
As we inched towards Taksim, there was a huge influx of people. People, everywhere. I felt like I entered a surreal Istanbul where laws were put on hold as I entered Istikal Caddesi. (the main street off the square). I looked around at this grand street filled with chain clothing stores like Levis, Adidas, and Mango or at the locals banks and cafes. It was completely surreal to see what the previous days' protests had done to this grand street. The ATMs were smashed in, the glass windows were smashed, there was trash everywhere you looked. As we walked on side streets we saw gatherings of different organizations, rainbow flags at one corner and football flags at another. In fact, the two main rival football (Soccer) teams of the city marched hand in hand (Galatasaray, Fenerbahce). (As seen to the left). The passion was beautiful - that is the only way I can describe it. I've never been so impressed by people. People from all classes and walks of Earth came into the streets to tell the world and the Turkish government that they wanted change. The color red, the color of the Turkish flag, was present in every corner of the area. I was in awe.
Now, not only was the news blocked from reporting this, the government actually killed the cell phone towers that went to this area and blocked cellular service. People were using Twitter and Facebook to create meeting points and there was no 3G! Ut oh! Well, the protesters were smarter than that and actually made a huge spreadsheet with all the wifi passwords to the shops/restaurants/cafes on Istikal Caddesi.
In Taksim, we stood for a good hour hanging out. Most people were drinking some beers, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, and hanging out. The call to prayer went off in the late afternoon and the Imaam sounded terrified and ended it quite abruptly, lol. There were anti-government banners hung from buildings in the square as well as broken glass everywhere. After spending hours in the center, we decided to head down towards the ferry dock.
As we're exiting the square, we go towards an area where most of the top hotels are located. There was a huge construction site next to it where protesters are tearing it apart and creating road barricades to prevent the police from coming up the street and throwing tear gas canisters at the crowd. I also saw multiple city buses being torn apart - people trying to rip the seats out, smashing the windshield, and even standing on top of it screaming. There were also a few police cars that had been heavily damaged and graffiti'ed. It was so surreal at the time - I'd never been in such a situation before. However, I didn't feel in danger at all.
Walking down another street, we saw a bunch of Turkish men tearing a billboard off the wall and creating another barricade with it. They already had a fire going in the middle of street and were adding to it. (As pictured to the right).
At the end of the street we see a massive bonfire in the middle of the road. Our eyes started tingling, and before you knew it, we were running and our eyes were tearing up. One of the people I was with had a solution of lemon juice and milk that helped calm down our eyes but holy shit did that hurt! Snot was pouring out uncontrollably. Luckily, I brought swimming goggles which turned out to be very helpful. Except for the part where they fogged up and I was running blindly. The whole street leading out towards the other ferries (Kabatas/Karakoy/Emininou) was reeking with tear gas, barricades, and protesters. We eventually made our way back home and finished out adventure.
Now, the days following the first protest were exciting. There were musical performances, silent protests, people walking across the continents to get to the European side. (The government shut off public transport eventually to prevent the protests from getting to Taksim). Every night for the month of June, people hit their pots and pans at 9 PM sharp regardless of where you were - at home with your windows open, at a restaurant, etc, to show support. I even remember going into a kebab shop and listening to the two older men talk about politics/protests. I could never imagine in a million years, two people working at a fast food place in America, discussing important topics like this.
For pretty much two weeks straight, I saw constant protests on both sides of the city. The picture to the right was taken at Hayderpasa Train station on the Asian half of the city where people sang songs and chants for hours one evening in June.
Below are some of the pictures that I captured during the month of protests.