Leaves From Taksim

Tag: Media Coverage of the Taksim Gezi Park Protests

Censoring the City

When I finished school on Friday afternoon, June 14, I took the school shuttle service to Kabatas and proceeded to walk up the steep hill toward Taksim. As I neared Siraselviler Avenue, one of the main roads that connects Taksim Square to the surrounding neighborhoods, the smell of spray paint made it difficult to breathe. Two municipal employees in bright green jumpsuits were spraying a wall with grey paint. They were erasing the protestors’ signature from the city.

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Two days after heavy clashes between protestors and the police, the police had recolonized the space of Taksim Square. In front of the Ataturk Cultural Center, they had erected large red umbrellas and were sitting on plastic stools while drinking tea and eating sunflower seeds. The asphalt beneath them had turned white with shells. On the opposite side of the square, where Roma women usually sell fresh flowers, there sat a dozen city busses that had been used to transport the cops. Near the park entrance, dozens of riot police sat on the Starbucks and Kitchenette patios. Helmets, shields, and body armor lay in piles on the pavement. Open areas in the center of the square had been cordoned off with yellow tape. In each corner of the square there were at least two TOMAs. Every inch of the space was now in the vehicles’ line of fire.

Friday was the first time that I noticed mainstream media broadcasters in the area. Reporters and cameramen from major Turkish and international networks stood in pairs around the square ready to capture the approaching spectacle of repression. A Turkish reporter in a navy suit, with red lipstick and matching hair, adjusted her bra before she went live. A Fox News reporter had opted for a more rugged look that suggested he might be in a combat zone. He wore a blue Patagonia shirt and cargo pants. “What will you do if the police enter the park again?” he asked a protestor. “ We will stay, yani,” the protestor replied. “And what if they use tear gas and force again?” the reporter inquired. “Yani, we will stay,” the protestor said shrugging his shoulders. It seemed the reporter was after a more dramatic reply, one that expressed fear of the impending confrontation.

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The events of the past week have been, in part, a battle over who and what can be seen in the square. The founders of the Turkish Republic first constructed Taksim as it exists today in the early 1930s. They wanted to give their new republic a modern, totalitarian face in the style of Mussolini’s Italy. When the protestors first conquered the square on June 1, they claimed prominent structures as their own by decking them in symbols of resistance. On Sunday evening, June 2, a large white and red banner suddenly appeared on the façade of the Ataturk Cultural Center. “DON’T SURRENDER” it read. No one knew who had put it there. Over the course of the next few days, more banners belonging to trade unions, opposition parties, and student groups appeared on the front of the building. One banner of a left wing political organization read, “THAT IS ENOUGH NOISE, TAYYIP.” An Alevi religious charity hung a long yellow banner with a red silhouette of a dervish holding a musical instrument over his head. It was a patchwork of symbols and slogans to fortify the resistance.

On the monument to the Turkish Republic in the middle of Taksim Square, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Ismet Iononu, Ataturk’s successor, and other major figures of the Turkish War of Independence now held anti-fascist flags. Graffiti slogans satirizing the brutality of the police and calling for Erdogan’s resignation masked the marble surfaces of the monument. The protestors had declared their sovereignty over the square.

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For the first time in 10 days the police entered the area on Tuesday in order to remove these images. The security forces ripped the banners from the Ataturk Cultural Center and replaced them with a large image of Ataturk flanked by two enormous Turkish flags. They cleared the standards from Republic Monument and covered the graffiti slogans with bands of grey paint. The raid erased signs of the protests. A huge battle had taken place to constrict the protestors to the less visible area of the park. Many press photographs and TV aerials of the area from Wednesday, June 12, onward showed the square virtually empty and made it look as though the protests were ending, disappearing the thousands of protestors still camped out in the park. The government and mainstream media were trying to make it look as though things were returning to normal.

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As I left the square early Friday evening, I noticed that the graffiti mural on the wall of the French Consulate had been painted over with bright yellow paint. The graffiti on the Ottoman fountain just opposite it had likewise been covered in white paint. An innocuous looking older man sat casually on the fountain smoking a cigarette. He had a leathery complexion and wore a black , trilby hat. He threw his cigarette butt on the ground and subtly touched the wall of the fountain with his palm. The paint was dry. He stood up, took a marker from his pocket, and proceeded to write “FINISH TAYYIP COMPLETELY” in large black letters. He slipped the pen back in his pocket and sat down. As he lit up another cigarette, a group of young men from the park approached him. “Uncle, you did it again!” they exclaimed. The man just shrugged and continued puffing away on his cigarette. “Did you see this, uncle?” It was a magazine some of the park protestors had printed and it featured an article about this man and his graffiti. For over thirty years he has been covering the walls of Beyoglu with subversive political slogans. One of them read “IF SPEAKING IS FORBIDDEN, SILENCE IS IMPOSSIBLE.”

Saturday afternoon state security forces cleared Gezi Park, the central site of spectacle. Journalists, photographers, and live broadcasts were forbidden at the site. Police relentlessly pursued protestors who had fled. They threw tear gas into hotel lobbies where health workers treated injured people and young children waited to be reunited with their parents. TOMAs attacked the front of overcrowded hospitals. The Turkish EU Minister declared anyone entering the area a terrorist. Neighborhoods across Istanbul exploded in rage. Tens of thousands of people from every corner of the city began marching toward Taksim Square and the Gezi Park. A large group gathered on the Asian side and attempted to cross the first Bosphorus Bridge on foot. They carried a banner that read “WE ARE NOT MARAUDERS, WE ARE THE PEOPLE.” Throughout the night city crews worked to replant flowers to make it look as though nothing had ever happened in the park. Yet the protests have spread to the city and the city will not be silent.

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Istanbul, June 16, 2013

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Tactics of Vision in the Taksim Gezi Protests

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