Dispatch from Istanbul: Occupy Gezi Park digs in
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The occupation of Taksim Square and Gezi Park have hit the one-week mark, and the anti-government movement has fully taken hold in other big cities around the the country, including the capital, Ankara, and the southern city of Antakya, where heavy violence broke out last night between police and protesters.
Nobody knows where the movement goes from here, though things are clearly escalating all around Turkey. But let's focus on the people at the heart of the protest. I spent a few hours last night talking with protesters who have come to Taksim to be with this movement. Some are heavily involved, some are just here in solidarity. They are students, nurses, office professionals, doctors, and even actors. They are all Istanbullus.
Meet Ekrem Utku. Speaking not far from a banner that spells out the chant of the week — "Tayip Istifa! ("Tayip (Erdogan) Resign!") — Ekrem told me, "We respect that he was elected, but he does not respect us. He does not recognize what's going on with our park or our way of life. He doesn't get our secular system, the rights of women and children."
Ekrem Utku (right) (Courtesy Ben Pomeroy)
Ekrem, 44, is on the older side for the protest at this time of night, and might actually have a lot to gain from Erdogan's plan to turn the park into a mall, since Ekrem works for a retail association. But he's been coming to Gezi every day and rejects that idea that a mall should be here. "Taksim represents our republic," he says.
After Erdogan's insistence that the protesters are just drunks and extremists, Ekrem is a striking example of the disconnect between the rhetoric of the government and what is actually going on here on the street.
It is unclear if this protest will lead to what the people on the street demand — saving Gezi Park and removing Prime Minister Erdogan — but one thing is clear: Turkey is a different place than it was before last week.
Take Ezgi Gunsel, 22, a student of dentistry on her second night at Gezi. She said that the movement has changed her generation's mindset when it comes to civil disobedience. "My parents saw this when they were younger, but this is the biggest resistance of my lifetime. We were sleeping before. People who did not have an opinion with politics do now."
Actor Umit Kaya, 27, had blunter explanation for why people had taken to the streets: "It's not about politics. People have been angry in Istanbul for awhile. Our government is set up to like a dictator."
Beyond the recent bloom of large banners all over the park — each one a different version of invective against Erdogan — the movement is showing its lasting quality with infrastructure. Over the last day, a fully operational kitchen and first-aid clinic have been set up, both of which were carved out of an abandoned concession stand in the back of the park. I was instantly reminded of some of the same support systems I found in New York City's Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 during Occupy Wall Street.
Sitting on top of table with a bullhorn by his side is Utku Aslalm, 25, one of the first leaders to voluntarily emerge in this nascent organization. Once the long line of volunteers eager to speak with him had died down, Utku assured me he was not some angry lefty but a civil guy. He came here to protest censorship and the crackdown on democracy. Utku says he picked up the bull horn for the first time when he saw the gas canisters go off in Taksim over the weekend, and has been motivating the crowd ever since.
We spoke next to a long queue — the dinner line. "We started the kitchen today," he told me. "Oven and grill were here. We broke in and somebody came and got the stove working." Bowls of freshly cooked rice and chick peas were handed through a window as a clutch of busy young women ladled the steaming nourishment to volunteers, many of whom had been in the park all day, some overnight. Donated foodstuffs were stacked high and out the door of the cramped kitchen. Utku said that the supplies would last 20 days.
He then boasted that they had raised 1,500 Turkish liras (around $800) in the first 30 minutes of a plea on the square. This money goes to help pay for the travel expenses of the many people who have come from afar. I asked him how long he planned to keep doing all this. "We will resist until we can't," he said.
He held a sheet of names and cell numbers. "Night shift people and day shift people for the kitchen."
Next to the kitchen is the nursing station, ablaze are fluorescent lights. The tables were loaded with medical supplies: Bandages, disinfectant, and now ubiquitous liquid anti-acid spray bottles.
Narim assists a protester. (Courtesy Ben Pomeroy)
Narim is a pharmacist who barely has time to look up from reinforcing hospital face masks with gauze to give to people for the gas. She told me that other pharmacists, nurses, and doctors are now showing up to offer their services.
I met a doctor back outside in the heart of the park. Ahmed Kaya is Kurdish, Christian, and gay. Wearing a shirt that read "Le Bears", a reference to bearded gay men, he seemed to relish in his triplet of outlier qualities as a gay Christian Kurd. Ahmed runs the LGBT table in the park.
Ahmed Kaya (Courtesy Ben Pomeroy)
"People are homophobic still in Turkey," he reminds me. "Some are afraid to associate with us." Nevertheless, his table of sweets next to the rainbow flag and the whirl of different people who greet him warmly, make it seem as though this man with a big grin is a pillar here in Gezi.
There is a mandate for change in Istanbul. It is emphatic, and perhaps also enduring.