Leaves From Taksim

Tag: 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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Tables on the Street!

Life in Istanbul happens on the street. In the mornings, people sit in improvised tea gardens sipping small, tulip shaped glasses of tea and smoking the day’s first cigarette. In the afternoons, women-particularly in the city’s poor, working class neighborhoods- sit on the steps of their apartment buildings exchanging gossip and commiserating about life’s troubles as their young children chase cats and play ball with each other. On summer evenings groups of friends sit at street-side tables with large bottles of raki and a selection of mezzes telling stories and laughing about life. The Istanbul street is never a lonely or a boring place. There is always someone to talk to, somewhere to go, something to do.

Tables on the Street in Asmalimescit, 2010

Tables on the Street in Asmalimescit, 2010

During the summer of 2011 the tables disappeared from Beyoglu. Apparently, the prime minister’s motorcade was unable to pass through the narrow streets of Asmalimescit and he ordered the district council, which is controlled by the ruling AKP, to remove all the street tables. Over the course of a few days in early July, large flatbed trucks drove around the district confiscating outdoor tables and chairs from cafes, restaurants, and bars. It was a few weeks before the start of Ramadan and many people suspected that removing the tables was an attempt to curb public alcohol consumption and police behavior according to the AKP’s vision of Islamic morality. The AKP’s attempt to redefine the nature of urban space in Beyoglu predates the Taksim Barracks Restoration Project.

After the tables were gone, people devised a number of ways to sit on the streets. Some restaurants built small platforms with tables. Others opened their fronts and provided customers with cushions so they could perch along low windowsills. Still it wasn’t the same. Without the business street-side tables attracted, many establishments were forced to close their doors.

In districts of the city controlled by the CHP, the main opposition party, like Besiktas and Kadikoy, there are still tables in the street. In fact, after the tables were banned in Beyoglu, the Besiktas district council strung banners across the small side streets lined with cafes and bars that read, “Besiktas, there is life in the street.”

On the evening of Wednesday, June 5, as I walked down the street where I spend much of my time in Istanbul, something felt different. After a walking a few paces, I exclaimed to myself, “The tables are back!” People sat with bottles of raki and mezzes smoking cigarettes and laughing. Others sat in front of bars with glasses of beer and small bowls of nuts conversing with friends. This everyday act, which had once been a regular facet of life in the district, had returned as a deliberate jesture of resistance against the planning policies of the AKP and its neoliberal, Islamist vision.

The festive mood continued on Sunday, June 9, and the tables were still out. Cafes and bars that are usually closed on Sundays were open. The streets were so crowded that people were smoking inside despite the ban on indoor smoking that has been in place for nearly five years. The protests had overflowed into the small “finger” streets that surround Taksim Square and the Gezi Park.

As soon as I saw the tables, I took my camera out to take a few photographs. I wanted to document this beautiful sight. FLASH! I hadn’t meant for my camera to flash, but the light was already lower than I thought it was. Instantly, a portly gentleman dressed in a freshly pressed shirt and pleated black trousers appeared in front of me. “Miss, what are you doing?” he inquired in a polite, yet firm voice. “This is forbidden. There could be a punishment.”

At first, I thought he was telling me that taking pictures was forbidden. I was momentarily confused. “For what purpose are you taking pictures?” he asked. “I wanted to put a picture of this on my blog,” I said as I gestured to a group of diners. He seemed a little relived, but still anxious. “You know it is forbidden for tables to be on the street. I could get a 3,000 YTL fine.” I showed him the picture I had taken. “The name of your establishment is not in my picture,” I said. “That may be so, miss, but this is forbidden and I could be seriously fined.” “No, no, of course, I wouldn’t want anything like that to happen,” I insisted.

As I walked away, I erased the photograph. No, of course, I wouldn’t want anything like that to happen.

Istanbul, June 9, 2013

Revolutionary Paraphernalia

The street vendors of Istanbul have a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions in the city. It only takes a few drops of rain for men to appear on every street corner with trash pails full of plastic, pastel colored umbrellas. A few snowflakes fall and folding tables full of acrylic hats, scarves, and gloves appear intermittently along Istiklal Avenue as if by magic. One can always tell when a football match is happening and which teams are playing by the jerseys, scarves, and flags the street vendors sell at metro entrances and bus stops. When the weather is hot, people sell ice-cold water. When the weather is cold, men go around with large, aluminum thermoses peddling tea and instant coffee to pedestrians. In the fin de siècle passages of Beyoglu where people gather for an evening out, women sell red roses and young boys walk around with hats, flower chains, and various plastic creations that light up. These people lead precarious lives on the edges of the informal economy that has been created by the neoliberal economic policies at the center of the protests.

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On Tuesday, June 4, every single street vendor I saw along Istiklal Avenue was selling equipment to protect one’s self from tear gas. A man I often see in Nevizade selling funny glasses and headbands was selling facemasks and protective plastic eyewear. He had strung facemasks along his right arm and goggles along his left arm. Three lira each or five lira for a mask and a pair of goggles. Along the city’s main pedestrian street, every 100 meters there were vendors with large cardboard boxes full of surgical masks and various kinds of eye protection. In Taksim Square and the Gezi Park, vendors had carefully arranged yellow construction hats and primary colored swimming goggles on checkered picnic blankets.

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“It doesn’t seem like all of this is necessary anymore,” remarked an older friend of mine who writes about merchants and laborers in Ottoman Istanbul and has lived through even rougher periods of Turkish history. We were strolling along Istiklal enjoying one of the first ice cream cones of the summer. “Maybe on Friday or Saturday afternoon people needed all this stuff, but there hasn’t been any tear gas for a few days now in Taksim. Usually the street vendors are so quick to sell useful things,” she continued, “but this time they are a couple of days too late.”

Despite the truth of her comments, people continued to purchase the items the street vendors were selling. But they weren’t buying masks, goggles, and hard hats because they needed them per se. They were purchasing them as souvenirs of the spectacle, paraphernalia of the revolution. The abundance of the items and the ease with which people could purchase them served to mock the violence police had unleashed against the protestors. They spectacularized the cracks in the regime’s authority.

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Istanbul, June 7, 2013