Blood, Tear Gas, and Twitter: On the Front Lines With Turkey’s ‘Occupy’ Kids

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Photo: Lam Yik Fei/2013 Getty Images

When all hell finally breaks loose in Gezi Park in the early hours of Tuesday morning, after days living in a dreamlike tranquility in their Zuccotti-style camp, the young, hip protestors spilling out of their tents into the darkness are still half-asleep. Clouds of tear gas billow all around. A line of riot police waits in Taksim Square, just outside the park’s walls.

The young people mill around, increasingly roused by adrenaline, and try to organize themselves. A girl hands out lemons — apparently they help with the effects of the gas. At first it’s just the kids who have been camping in the park, but as word spreads, crowds of supporters materialize out of the night. Soon there are tens of thousands of people in a tense standoff with with the cops. Some people are throwing rocks and Molotovs at the police, and volleys of tear gas come back in response while the water cannons fire away.

Soon the protesters decide to form a human chain around the park. A girl named Duicu stands, arms linked on both sides, and raises her voice above the clamor.

“I’m not scared. I’m just proud,” she says. “The people throwing stones and Molotovs are provocateurs, or maybe police. We decided in the park not to do that. We’re on the pavement. We haven’t prevented access of vehicles or people.”

Alam, a boy with long red hair and a rainbow flag with the word peace in Turkish, sits cross-legged in front of a tank.

“This is not about being gay,” he says fiercely. “It’s about being a real society again and winning our hope back. It’s not about a specific identity. If I lose my hope, I don’t want to live. I was born again here. If I don’t have that anymore, I think I’ll die.”

More than 5,000 miles from New York, Alam and Duicu and their thousands of peers see New York’s 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, started in Zuccotti Park by activists protesting the inequality of wealth in the U.S., as both their spiritual inspiration and a practical model. The hashtag #occupygezi rapidly began trending on Twitter in recent days. While there has been a fair amount of violence already, the campers in Gezi are still hoping to avoid the fate that met Zuccotti's Occupiers — namely, a rough eviction from the park by cops.

On this night, the punctuated standoff between the campers and the police holds for about an hour. Then things take a dramatic turn for the worse. Maybe orders were given; maybe someone threw one Molotov too many. But the cops decide to move in.

For the next fifteen hours, waves of tear gas wash the square. Protesters rush to the front of the barricades to clash with police. Sometimes they’re pushed back; sometimes they make gains. By 3 a.m., everyone’s exhausted. But still the kids chant, and still they try to march toward the cops. They relieve each other when someone on the front lines can’t take any more. Ambulances rush back and forth, carrying the injured and those overwhelmed by the toxic air.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 11: Protestor throws back the tear gas canister after riot police fire tear gas to disperse the crowd during a demonstration near Taksim Square, on June 11, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul has seen protests rage on for days, with two protesters and one police officer killed. What began as a protest over the fate of Taksim Gezi Park, has turned, with the view of a heavy-handed response by police, into a protest over what is being seen as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan increasingly authoritarian agenda. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images) Photo: Lam Yik Fei/2013 Lam Yik Fei

In a hotel near Taksim, Kartal Uksel, a protest leader, splashes water on his face as he talks breathlessly.

“I’ve never been in a police station once,” he says, laughing bitterly. “I’m a computer engineer. I’m a white-collar guy who carries a briefcase and goes to work every day. Everyone there — these are Facebook and Twitter kids. Most of them have never been in a fight before. You can see it in their faces. What makes them move to Taksim Square and resist the police? They’re getting bored with this government dictating their way of life.”

Asked how long he thinks they can hold out, he shrugs bitterly. 

“I know that our prime minister won’t concede defeat. He always prefers to have a hostile attitude, so sooner or later,” he says. “I know we’ll drift from Gezi Park. I don’t know if it’ll be tomorrow or after tomorrow.”

He looks pained for a moment.

“I don’t think the kids in the park will ever be the same again,” he says quietly. “They are our symbol, but when the resistance returns to their homes, they’ll be left alone. We’ll try to make this last as long as we can. But those kids are living in a fantasy. Even now, in the middle of all this, in Gezi Park, it’s still almost like a festival … They’re not aware of what’s going on around them. They just hear explosions — that’s all. I saw them, and I thought, I hope none of you get hurt when this ends.

But they do get hurt. By the end of the day, the Turkish Human Rights Foundation reported four deaths (including one policeman) and about 5,000 injuries.

Protesters face police at Istanbul's Taksim square, the epicentre of nearly two weeks of anti-government demos, on June 11, 2013. Riot police stormed Istanbul's protest square today firing tear gas and rubber bullets at firework-hurling demonstrators in a fresh escalation of unrest after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would meet with protest leaders. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: AFP/2013 AFP

And by Wednesday morning, the police seemed to have won. Taksim Square, and Gezi Park within it, was cleared of protestors. The teeming, idealistic camps they built there over the previous week and a half were swept away — for the time being, anyway. But Wednesday night sees crowds gather in larger numbers even than the previous night, and the battle for the park looks like it will be a long and protracted one. Still, the bright, ragtag world that existed there for a few days — all those idealistic and angry kids camped out in the middle of the city — is likely lost forever.

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It’s Friday, June 7, and Istanbul’s Gezi Park looks like a postapocalyptic hipster wonderland.  The surrounding area, known as Taksim Square, is littered with debris: broken glass, half-destroyed concrete trucks, bizarre man-made trees with paper leaves, and graffiti scrawled on practically every available surface. The park itself is a sea of color in the center of this weirdness, packed with tents, banners, and totally illogical furniture. Some patterns emerge from the chaos — there seem to be an inordinate amount of anarchist As, and the grinning mask made famous by the hacker collective Anonymous is everywhere.

But it’s the people in Gezi who are the most colorful. It’s as if every artist/musician/writer in Williamsburg cloned him- or herself and decided to camp out in a Turkish park. Some are laced with tattoos, strumming guitars; others lie on their backs reading books on philosophy. The whole place has a vaguely music-festival feel to it — perhaps some sort of three-day affair where cool young folk lie around and listen to esoteric music. But a sense of threat is never far away. Maybe it’s the guy handing out free gas masks right outside the park; maybe it’s the giant poster of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Adolf Hitler. And if you’ve turned on the news at any point in the last week and a half, you’ll know that these kids are doing a lot more than partying.

A young protester passes a burning vehicle at Taksim square in Istanbul on June 11, 2013. Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to clear protesters from an Istanbul square on June 11 as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned he would show "no more tolerance" for the unrelenting mass demonstrations against his Islamic-rooted government. Hundreds of police stormed the city's Taksim Square, the epicenter of nearly two weeks of unrest, in the early morning and brought bulldozers to clear the makeshift barriers erected by demonstrators after police pulled out of the area on June 1. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/2013 AFP

On May 28, a small group of environmental activists staged a sit-in to protest the Turkish government’s plans to raze Gezi Park in order to build a shopping mall. Police reaction to the peaceful and relatively small demonstration was swift and brutal. Barely any international news outlets covered the original event, but photos and videos spread through social media, sparking public outrage and prompting more and more people to join the protests. By May 31, continued violence on the part of the Turkish police began to attract international media attention, though Turkish news organizations studiously ignored what was fast becoming a national crisis.

But as images of long-haired college students getting gassed and slammed by water cannons surged across social media, OWS-affiliated groups in New York began a campaign to draw attention to what was happening in Gezi Park. There were a number of well-attended solidarity demonstrations in Zuccotti and even Union Square. Day by day, the mob in Taksim grew until the police eventually retreated, ceding the park to the hordes of protesters who now camp out in Gezi, occupying their very own, larger-scale version of Zuccotti Park.

OWS leaders were offering advice and support from the start, says an academic and activist who helped facilitate some of the coordination, but who wishes to remain anonymous.

“One of the Occupy Wall Street guys is a friend of mine, and I immediately put him in touch with the Gezi Park protesters on the first day this was going on,” he says. “They’ve been incredibly helpful in terms of spreading the word, media presence, things like that.”

Unlike OSW’s ambitious aim of taking down the capitalist system, the whole thing in Turkey started with some trees, but according to the kids camped out in Gezi, this stopped being about the park a long time ago. One protester, an animated girl named Meli wearing a red bandanna, says she originally came to the park when she heard about the construction plans.

“They’ve been doing things like this for a while,” she says. “Erdogan tore down a 100-year-old building to build a cinema … we’ve been hearing about all of this stuff, and it was making us angry. But they’re also stopping us from drinking alcohol after 10 p.m., kissing in public, things like that. Day by day, this stuff has been building up, and we just exploded. They are so selfish, and they’re harming all the trees and the creatures who live here. They’re limiting our freedom. So this park is a symbol of the last ten years we’ve dealt with.” 

In fact, what many see as Erdogan’s increasingly Islamist government has instituted a number of “reforms” in recent months that have helped galvanize public support for the Occupy Gezi movement. According to Akkoyunlu, these policies make young people across Turkey worried that their secular way of life is being threatened.

“Erdogan said he wanted to create a religious youth,” he says. “That’s actually a quote from him … right after that came education reform that made religion classes more pervasive and strengthened the institutions of religious schools. Then the laws regarding alcohol and the public morality announcements in the subways, then the policies encouraging women to bear at least three children.”

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 11: A protester throws a rock during a demonstration near Taksim Square on June 11, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul has seen protests rage on for days, with two protesters and one police officer killed. What began as a protest over the fate of Taksim Gezi Park, has turned, with the heavy-handed response by police, into a protest over what is being seen as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian agenda. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images) Photo: Lam Yik Fei/2013 Getty Images

But most of the mob that packs Taksim at night chanting for Erdogan’s resignation isn’t made up of the chilled-out kids camped out in the park. Lots of them are young, to be sure, but there are also grandparents, children, and everything in between. The beauty of this movement is that it’s galvanized people who never cared about this kind of thing before, says Engin Ayaz, who recently returned home to Turkey after attending grad school at NYU. He’s got big blue eyes and a soft-spoken way about him, and though he bristles at being labeled a hipster, he does seem like he’d be right at home in a Brooklyn coffeehouse.

“I arrived in Turkey on Thursday night, and I immediately started seeing photos and videos of my friends in the park, just as the crackdown started to get more violent,” he says. “You know how when you just get to a new place, you have a lot to do and nothing to do? I met a friend of mine around 5:30 on Friday, and we were going to go to the park and see what was happening. All of a sudden, we saw 500, maybe a thousand people running toward us from Taksim. I had never seen something like that before in my life, people running for their lives … three gas bombs landed right in front of us, and we didn’t have any sort of masks … we ran into a side street, and this water cannon rolled up on us. If it had sprayed us, we would have been seriously injured … and just a few feet away, people were casually eating dinner, with no clue about what was going on.”

He pauses and runs his hand through his hair.

“I had never been political, but after that, I became politicized for the rest of my life.”

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 11: A protester wears a gas mask during a demonstration near Taksim Square on June 11, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul has seen protests rage on for days, with two protesters and one police officer killed. What began as a protest over the fate of Taksim Gezi Park, has turned, with the heavy-handed response by police, into a protest over what is being seen as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian agenda. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images) Photo: Lam Yik Fei/2013 Getty Images

By Saturday afternoon, the park has changed — it’s a mob scene. Literally tens of thousands of people mill around Taksim and Gezi, preparing for the big rally scheduled for that evening. The Occupy kids huddle together on their blankets and tarps, looking dazed at the crowds of people peering at them as though they were some type of exotic zoo creature. A group of Japanese tourists even snap photos as they pass.

On a tiny patch of land behind a tent facing the back of the square, Denis and her friend Hazal smoke cigarettes and smile dreamily at the sky. Part of the core group of tree-huggers who sparked the whole thing, they both wore braided hair and woven clothes. Asked if they were hating the invasion of random strangers into their safe little world, Denis shakes her head slowly.

“The sun is shining; I’m with my friends,” she says, laughing. “Why wouldn’t I be happy? If you focus on the shitty things, you get depressed and see only the negative. If you go to the garden, decorate your tent, make your own space, and try to do something good, your focus changes. People change, too, when they see you smiling.”

Despite the violence that’s taken place since the original sit-in, they both say they’re glad they decided to stage it.

“It’s not that I’m proud of what we’ve done, but I’m happy we did it,” says Denis. “I mean, this process is nice. I hope it will continue and create something. This is the first time in our lives that we really struggle to create something, and I hope we get it.”

Demonstrators try to escape from riot police on June 11, 2013 on Taksim square in Istanbul. Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to clear protesters from an Istanbul square on June 11 as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned he would show "no more tolerance" for the unrelenting mass demonstrations against his Islamic-rooted government. Hundreds of police stormed the city's Taksim Square, the epicenter of nearly two weeks of unrest, in the early morning and brought bulldozers to clear the makeshift barriers erected by demonstrators after police pulled out of the area on June 1. AFP Photo / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS (Photo credit should read ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/2013 AFP

“Last year, people were at home, and no one thought we had the power to change anything,” Hazal chimes in. “Now we found a way to come together and say something. In Turkey, the government has become so centralized. We pass by this park every day, and we didn’t have the right to say anything about it. But we’re not scared anymore.”

Sunday and Monday pass with relatively little change. In the park, kids play their instruments and worry about missing class, while in other parts of the country and even areas of Istanbul, violence continues to flare. In Ankara, Turkey’s capital, protesters clash with police daily. The prime minister makes a series of inflammatory speeches, calling the Occupy demonstrators “vandals” and “looters” and warning them that his patience is running out. But in Gezi Park, all seems calm, and for a moment, it seemed possible that the worst was over.