It all started about two weeks ago. The Turkish government was about to destroy Gezi Park, a beautiful public park in the heart of Istanbul, to build a commercial building in the shape of an Ottoman monument. Many students and young adults gathered in Gezi Park to peacefully protest its destruction. However, the police responded to this peaceful protest with pepper spray, tear gas, and water cannons.
They set the protestors’ tents on fire, causing many injuries. There were even fatalities that the government chose not to declare. Following this initial police intervention, many civilians joined the peaceful protestors and stood up against the police’s brutality. Others showed solidarity from their houses by creating a symphony of metallic noises with pots and pans through their windows. The protests also spread to other parts of Istanbul, as well as other major cities in Turkey, but the police replicated the violence they had inflicted in Gezi Park.
While Prime Minister Erdogan left Turkey for a trip to North Africa, the brutal police action continued to escalate in many cities and continued to cause many injuries and fatalities. Meanwhile, police intervention in Gezi Park toned down. During a short but meaningful week, the protests in Gezi Park became a joyful festival. Gezi Park transformed into a concert platform, a movie theatre, a dance floor, a library and a place for students to study for finals. Many protesters met casually to pick up trash, sweep the ground and keep Gezi Park and Taksim Square clean. I had never seen Taksim Square this lively and peaceful. As a woman who gets harassed visually, verbally, or sometimes even physically whenever I walk in Taksim Square, for once in my life I felt completely safe. When our hopes in humanity were about to fade in the face of the police brutality, these couple of days showed us that there is still some hope. Even the Mayor of Istanbul, who was very aggressive in the first couple of days of protests, tweeted that he wished he were in Gezi Park with the youth to hear the singing of birds and to smell the linden trees. However, these tweets severely contrasted against the measures taken by the municipality in the next couple of days.
June 11th was a very peculiar day. The morning began with the police and bulldozers entering Taksim Square. Turkish mainstream media broadcasted this event on television. The Mayor explained that they were only cleaning the area, and that no intervention would occur that day. During this cleaning, many of the protestors’ signs were removed and political graffiti were covered over with grey paint. The barricades that blocked traffic into Taksim Square were cleared away by the bulldozers. The unexpected cleaning process occurred over a dreadful, tense atmosphere.
Later in the morning, a couple of unidentified individuals, fully protected with professional helmets and masks, started attacking the police with Molotov cocktails. The police retaliated with high-pressure water cannons. The mainstream media, so far absent from the protests, were suddenly present and actively broadcasting this conflict. Besides being equipped professionally against the police’s attacks, these violent “protestors” were also suspiciously carrying wireless transmitters. Later, pictures started circulating in the social media clearly showed these “protestors” were amongst the civil police present in earlier interventions. These pictures suggested that the police and the entire mainstream media clearly created a false picture of the nature of protests in Taksim Square. It allowed the AKP government to claim, falsely, that protests were violent.
However, the people were not deterred from organizing a meeting that night to continue peaceful protests. Announcement of a new protest at 7pm started circulating through social media, some online newspapers, and pamphlets distributed in the streets. That evening, as I was waking home to get ready for the protests, I saw large trucks with the municipality’s sign and labels that said “non-potable water” leaving Taksim Square. Although I was unnerved by the sight of those trucks, it did not deter me from attending the protests with my mother, brother, and two family friends. We packed our simple gas masks, scarves, swimming goggles, as well as various medicines and headed to Taksim Square. By then, the police had surrounded the square, but they let people move into the middle of the square. We believed that we would be safe, and that it would be a peaceful night. We started waving our signs, and shouting slogans, including “The government should resign”, “Tayyip should resign”, or “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism”.
More and more people arrived in the square. Suddenly, just before 8.00pm, the shouts of slogans turned into screams. People no longer looked happy, they looked panicked. People started running, and we too ran away from the center of the square, holding hands. We were afraid of getting crushed because people were running like mad. I saw gas capsules right fall right next to us, and was extremely thankful they did not fall on our heads. We ran towards a restaurant. The restaurant had closed for the evening, but luckily some people opened the door, and we managed to get in. People were screaming in pain, and crying from the tear gas. Later, as Taksim Square became a battlefield, more and more people rushed inside the restaurant. Even though we were packed and terrified inside the restaurant, people were still helping each other. They were handing out water bottles, lemon slices, and medicine to help with the burning caused by tear gas. We waited inside the restaurant for a long time. We sat down and turned off the lights so that the police would not pay attention to us and would not throw tear gas inside. Through the windows, we could see that a car was on fire, and we also heard shooting. One of the people inside the restaurant stepped up to go outside and talk to the police. He told us that the police threatened to throw gas inside if someone left the restaurant. We had no choice but to try to stay calm and wait. The police were lined up in front of the restaurant. We heard civilians talking with them. Then suddenly, the same person told us that we could leave now and that the police would not stop us. We seized the chance and ran away as fast as we could. While we managed to escape, the police stopped some people and did not let them go.
The media later claimed that protestors threw stones at the police to provoke them and that was why they retaliated. I was right there in the midst of the protests, and I did not see protestors provoking the police. Even if some people did throw stones, I would still question whether those were actual civilians, and if the violence that followed was justified. Worse, the police did not announce they would throw gas. We felt betrayed. We felt trapped. Our own government and our own countrymen attacked us without a second thought. They attacked us as if we were enemies. We feared for our lives. Now we are praying for this violence to stop, and for our protests to be heard and changes to be made. We are praying for a better, a democratic Turkey.