Metro exclusive: Report from Taksim Square, Istanbul

Protesters stand in front of a barricade at Gezi park in central Istanbul. Credit: Reuters
Protesters stand in front of a barricade at Gezi park in central Istanbul.
Credit: Reuters

Around Taksim Square and Gezi Park, police officers are hanging out. One young cop in riot gear is taking a nap. Others are reading the sports news. Are they chilling out? Waiting for the next clash? Probably both. The tension over the twin square-and-park is on the verge of turning into a full-blown political revolt.

“This place belongs to the people now”, explains Ozlem Dalkiran, one of the protest organizers, as she takes me around the camp. Dalkiran, a veteran human rights activist here, is in her 40s, but virtually everyone else is in their 20s or even younger. The protesters here in Gezi range from Kurdish nationalists to anti-capitalist Muslims to football fans. In an unprecedented development in this fractious country, they’ve spent over two weeks occupying the famous park to prevent it being bulldozed and replaced by military barracks, as planned by the government. Result to date: three protesters and one police officer dead.

This week Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met with protest leaders and offered a referendum over the park. “But we’re almost being killed here; how can they negotiate?” exclaims Dalkiran. “We have no idea how he chose the protest leaders he met with. They don’t represent us. The referendum is a big backoff for Erdogan, but for us it’s unacceptable. It’s like asking people if they want to live or die.”

In fact, the protesters have settled into a routine here in Gezi Park and have no intention of moving. They’re surrounding themselves with barricades (including one burnt-out police car), named after various heroes and staffed by volunteers. They have food stations, volunteer janitors, field hospitals, even a station in charge of gas masks for the frequent clashes with the police on Taksim Square.

And, sensing their strength, the protesters are now demanding not just the survival of the trees, but also more democracy. Erdogan’s rule is too heavy-handed, they declare; some fear he’s even trying to introduce sharia law. “People are fed up with the government interfering with their lifestyles”, says Dalkiran. “Erdogan has become like a dictator. Just yesterday he said, ‘Tayyip Erdogan won’t change.’ You can’t say that!” But on Thursday, Erdogan issued a “final warning” to the protesters, demanding that they vacate the park.

“The protest won’t end here”, predicts Sanar Yurdatapan, a famous singer-songwriter and veteran human rights activist, as we meet at a nearby café. “This is the first time people have realized that if we come together we’re stronger.” But will this be a Turkish Spring? Erdogan made a disastrous miscalculation when he allowed police to attack the protesters, and the four deaths will continue to haunt him. But not even the protesters believe that he’ll step down: they know that there’s no opposition leader who could replace him.

Football fans united

Istanbul has three top teams in football, and their fans don’t like each other. In fact, they hate each other. But here in Gezi Park, they behave like the best of friends. The fans unite at one of the camp’s many stands, helping other residents with daily chores. In fact, they serve as the camps attack dogs when the police approach. At the last clash, one protester tells me, the football fans got hold of a fork lift and used it to chase a police water cannon truck away.

Jamming and hacking

Like any 21st century protester, the Gezi Park residents are equipped with mobile phones. Members with engineering skills have tapped into the park’s street lights, thereby providing the residents with power to charge their phones and kitchens. They run their own TV and radio stations, too, and use the Zello smartphone app that turns phones into walkie-talkies. They complain, though, that police jam their communications. But they’re taking revenge: protest hackers have hacked into police databases and retrieved phone numbers. “So now we can call the police chiefs and harass them”, says one member.



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