Friday, June 7, 2013

A Monday Night Stroll from Besiktas to Gezi Park


Well, after a long week, I left for a week trip abroad. I really hope upon my return that Turkey will have started the path to reconciliation, and wish my condolences to the families who lost members, and a quick recovery to all protesters and police hurt in the clashes. It is truly sad to see a people so divided, and to see a country that was full of hope for most of the last decade to reach such a turning point.

I have spent the last week twittering non-stop, visiting protesters and pro-government factions, hearing what other random people have to say, and trying to understand the complexities of the Turkish society. There is no doubt that the tense moments spent at clashes between the protesters and the police and the exhilarating hours spent at the park (before and after the clashes) have been some of the most interesting in my life. It will take some time for all of us to grasp what exactly happened this week. 

For now, for those interested in reading my thoughts about events leading up to Gezi Park, I will direct you to two articles. The first one was an article I wrote for Todays Zaman, just weeks before the breakout of violence. In this article I outline how the Turkish Prime Minister, RecepTayyip Erdogan, was in danger of losing popular support, entitledSpring in Turkey: theKurdish initiative, public dissent and dialogue.

Despite most football fans belong to Besiktas, Fenerbahce
and Galatasary  are ever present
For my analysis of the first twenty-fours of the Gezi Park protest and a review of how Erdogan turned from a popular leader to one that is by despised by such a large part of his population, you can read the following article that I wrote for Haaretz’s English and Hebrew edition, entitled With one voice they yelled: Erdogan Resign!  I was happy (and honored) that this article was translated and appeared in Radikal, here is its link.

A Monday Night Stroll from Besiktas to Gezi Park 

protesters preparing for clash with police
During the first two days, my neighborhood of Osmanbey saw two days of clashes, with clouds of teargas seeping in from my balcony, where I witnessed street battles of teargas being shot off by police, pushing demonstrators from Harbiye as far back as Sisli. However, once the police retreated on Saturday night from Taksim, due to the massive amount of protesters arriving, Taksim became a zone free of police, with the protesters quickly building barricades and creating a type of protester controlled free zone. Parallel to this the police abandoned Osmanbey to Taksim, leaving a huge part of the city without any visible police presence (civil police of course are present).   

On Monday evening, equipped with a camera and two friends, I set out to see the neighborhoods that were still subjected to clashes, starting our way in Besiktas, to Akaretler, on to Macka, and finally to find Gezi Park-Taksim controlled zone. These neighborhoods remained under heavy police control due to the fact that within the compound of the famous 19th century palace, Dolmabahce, is also home to Prime Minister Erdogan’s Istanbul offices. 
protesters. faces blurred to ensure protection.
On our way to Besiktas, we met with a few protesters who had opened their home to protesters who might need to take refuge if police took the offense.  In their house they had emergency supplies, and gladly handed out masks against teargas, and goggles.

Arriving to Besiktas port around 8PM, already the scene was set: people of all ages and backgrounds chanting slogans against Erdogan, with a younger group in the frontline challenging the police. Being in Besiktas was especially important since it is home to the “Carsi” group; die hard fans of the Besiktas Football club, who have captured the support of all the protesters by challenging the police in protests, and gaining respect of its two major rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahce.
Spraying formula into burning eyes in a 5 star hotel

After playing about 20 minutes of a game of cat and mouse between the protesters and the police, with a water cannon shooting off water and police firing teargas into the crowds, a surprising development occurred: the police and the protesters called a cease fire. As fast as the crowd grew it dispersed, with the youngsters explaining to all that despite the ceasefire battles were still occurring in nearby neighborhoods and to be extra careful. At the moment, I turned to go to the neighborhood to Akaretler along with ten other people who wanted to make it to Taksim.
While most protesters are not affiliated with radical left in
Taksim Square, Communists and Socialists, among other groups
have set up camp. A general feeling of solidarity among all protestes

On the way, onlookers supporting the protest cheered the people making their way through the backstreets, and locals directed us on routes to avoid police forces stationed within the neighborhood even warning about areas where there were groups of civil police. Arriving to Macka, we got a view looking over Besiktas Inonu Football stadium: clouds of teargas covered the landscape as if it was a foggy morning, along with sounds of chaos that left all the onlookers in a moment of awe. 
Looking at Inonu Stadium with hazy teargas cloud

From there we crossed Macka park, crossed over a bridge, and crossed through a small forest making our way up to the barricades. On the way, we saw other protesters crossing the same path back and forth. Once we reached the barricades, we crossed into the protester controlled zone, passing two barricades, and burnt out buses. It was surreal, and before we knew it from the other direction the police succeeded firing teargas right next to the barricade I was at, just next to the Ceylan Intercontinental. It took about one minute for me to go blind from the pain of teargas; within seconds the protesters in charge of cleansing eyes had shot a dose of milky water in my eyes, and held my hand leading me to the lobby of the five-star hotel where I was allowed to rest around with about two hundred protesters.
On top of a barricade coming into Taksim

12:30 AM Taksim Square
If the story was not surreal enough, once I left the hotel, I made my way to Gezi Park that was only a minute walk away from I had been immobilized just minutes beofre, there I met tens-of-thousands of people, chanting slogans, singing protest songs, and camping out in the park. Like the night before, organizers stressed not to leave the park to join protests in other parts of the city since they believed that the police would seize the moment to take back Taksim, and especially Gezi Park. 

Well, after walking through the park, and Taksim Square, meeting with tourists staying at nearby hotels, and watching people dancing halay in a circle, I checked out the burnt out buses, where many Turkish youngsters took photographs as if trying to catch some strange moment in history. Generally tired from the whole week, I made my back way to Sisli, passing across the huge urban renewal pedestrian project, next half-finished tunnels to direct traffic in the future, and freshly laid cement; before the Gezi park protest this had been behind built up walls.
Dancing Halay in the Square

Besiktas football fans take rest on a barriade
From there, I went through the last barricade where three guys were resting on top of it. After crossing the barricade, the cheering and slogans did not stop. Thousands danced, honked horns and beat pots and pans. I imagine that never again in my lifetime will I encounter such an energetic upheaval of feelings of defiance, sadness, happiness, and some fear of what the future might hold. Once home, I took at last look on my balcony and could see that there were renewed clashes; yet, as I turned on the news it became obvious that compared to Ankara, and other cities throughout Turkey, Istanbul seemed as calm as ever.