Tactics of Vision in the Taksim Gezi Protests

by Kate Elizabeth Creasey

As I approached Taksim Square from Gumussuyu early Sunday evening, June 2, I first noticed people posing for pictures in front of a large barricade protestors had erected to protect themselves from police. Friends snapped photographs of each other on their smart phones and tablets. A young man wearing a Turkish flag with a picture of Ataturk as though it were a superhero cape had climbed on top of the barricade and punched the air with his fist. A teenage girl with blonde hair in a Besiktas soccer jersey stood in front of it and made a V sign with her fingers. Her two friends giggled as they took her picture. At the other end of the barricade an elderly man took pictures of his wife who was dressed in a mid-length skirt, a short sleeve sweater, and low platform sling backs. Both wore somber expressions as though they were taking photographs in front of an important national monument.

The protests in Taksim are likely the most photographed events in Turkish history given the number of people in Istanbul who carry smart phones and tablets. The ability to quickly relay visual information via social networking sites was critical to the victory protestors scored against the police last weekend in Taksim. They were aided by staff at surrounding hotels, who reportedly unlocked the hotels’ wireless networks making them useable to people gathered in the Square.

The presence the event had on the internet stands in contrast to the lack of coverage it received on Turkish television stations over the weekend. Last Friday when people turned their televisions on, they found cooking shows with middle class Turkish house wives giving instructions on how to make borek and kebab. Even on Sunday evening there was a notable absence of white broadcast trucks or television news correspondents in the square. The government had tried to make the protestors invisible, but in turn the protestors made themselves invisible to the state. By spray painting over the CCTV cameras that watch Taksim Square from high metal perches, the protestors successfully inverted the dynamics of state surveillance. Instead of being watched they used their wireless devices to watch the state and record nearly every action taken by the police.

A friend who had participated in some of the heaviest fighting against police on Friday and Saturday told me he had been in a group of protestors who all had proper gas masks. Some members of the group casually walked up to the riot police, took out their spray paint, and in the midst of thick clouds of tear gas, spray painted polices’ gas masks making it impossible for them to see. Some riot police then took off their gas masks to see only to be choked by their own tear gas. It was, in part, a battle to control who sees, what they see, and how they see it.

There were other reports that protestors had filled light bulbs and balloons with paint and thrown them at cameras and windshields of the TOMA vehicles making it impossible for the vehicles to record protestors or aim streams of water at them. When I walked by the Beyoglu police station on Tuesday afternoon there were two TOMAs parked on Tarlabasi Avenue. The vehicles usually look intimidating, but on Tuesday they looked humiliated. The front of the vehicles were covered in splattered white paint, which resembled the droppings of an extremely large sea gull.

On Sunday evening Taksim and the Gezi Park were free of overt state surveillance and visible police presence. The only sign of government authority were the traffic lights at the southern end of the square that continued to cycle, from green, to yellow, to red. No one was paying any attention.

Istanbul, June 5, 2013