Leaves From Taksim

Tag: Taksim Square

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Istanbul, June 16, 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.


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.


“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.


Istanbul, June 7, 2013

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

A Few Observations on Accumulated Knowledge and Collective Resistance

On Friday evening I finished work after the school shuttle service stopped running, so I took a cab from the end of the Golden Horn to my home near Taksim. As we passed the Kasimpasha exit and headed toward Dolapdere I could see a fog rising from the hotels at the top of the hill in Talimhane. “I can’t take you into Tarlabasi,” the cab driver told me after a muffled conversation with a fellow taxi driver on his phone. “There is a code 005.” I tried to argue with him, but he insisted it was something official and he could only take me as far as the bottom Kalyoncu Kullugu Avenue. “Fine,” I agreed in an annoyed tone. As I trudged up the hill, the quality of the air changed.  It smelled sulfuric, like rotting eggs, and my nose and eyes became irritated.  When I got home, the irritation continued the entire night. Even my cat seemed bothered by it.  A friend later told me that he had taken the ferry from Besiktas to Kadikoy on Friday evening and the clouds of tear gas were so thick that it was not comfortable for the ferry passengers to sit outside in the middle of the Bosphorus. Tear gas had enveloped the city.

This was not the first time most inhabitants of Istanbul had experienced the effects of tear gas.  State repression has a long history in Turkey. Over the years people from diverse backgrounds and of different political views have been the target of it for one reason or another: marching in banned May Day parades, protesting the right to wear a headscarf to school, participating in an illegal strike, speaking out against the ruling party, going to the concert of a banned music group. Police violence is a shared experience of living in Istanbul and many residents have developed tactics to deal with it.

Saturday morning I was having trouble breathing, so I decided to do some internet research on how to combat the effects of tear gas. On English language websites there was little information about how to deal with tear gas.  With the exception of a few anarchist websites, most carried the incredibly useful advice to simply stay way from situations where tear gas was present. Seeing as I was wheezing in my apartment with the windows closed this was obviously not an option I could pursue. Turkish language websites provided ample information on what to do in the event you are tear-gassed. Some suggested covering your face with a bandanna or scarf soaked in vinegar and biting into lemons. Others provided detailed instructions for making your own gas mask using plastic bottles and a surgical mask. One offered information about the chemical composition of tear gas and advice on over the counter remedies to counter its effects. The site even suggested mixing the antidote and keeping it at your side in a clean spray bottle for faster relief.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the square and met up with an old friend and his girl friend who had ventured to Taksim from the Asian neighborhood of Kadikoy on Thursday. He told me that before they left Kadikoy they stopped by their neighborhood pharmacy to buy some first aid supplies.  Every neighborhood in Istanbul has at least one pharmacy.  They are local establishments usually run by people from the neighborhood and staffed by members of the person’s family.  Many people go to their neighborhood pharmacist with minor health complaints and it is common for pharmacists to know not only the names of their customers, but also their medical histories by heart. My friend described this pharmacy as a classic Istanbul pharmacy with dark wooden fixtures, glass bottles filled with substances to cure every aliment, and staffed by an urbane gentleman wearing a clean white smock in his early 70s.  It sounded like the kind of place that smelled like my grandmother’s medicine cabinet and hadn’t seen much change since the early 1960s.  “That should be enough supplies,” my friend said as the pharmacist continued to gather gloves, surgical masks, bandages, medicines, as well as tear gas antidotes.  The pharmacist only stopped when it seemed he had put everything thing he had that could be of use on the counter.  When my friend asked how much money they owed, the pharmacist said, “I am old and can’t go to the other side, but since you all are young, I will give you what I have, so you can fight in my place and help others that might get injured.” He proceeded to then give them a lesson on how to administer the tear gas antidote he had provided them.

Later as we sat on a side street stoop drinking a beer, my friend showed me pictures on his phone of the pharmacies around Taksim that opened their doors to injured protesters and bystanders.  Many of the pharmacists, according to my friend, had refused payment for the treatment and medicine they provided.  My friend also showed me pictures he had taken on his phone of some of the people he had given first aid too.  One of the most graphic photographs was of an elderly shoe shiner who had been sitting in his usual spot on Istiklal Avenue when he was hit on the head by a tear gas canister. When my friend saw the injured man, he stopped the bleeding, cleaned the man’s wound, and put a bandage around his head. “Where did you learn first aid?” I asked.  “During my military service.” he casually replied.

The knowledge and strategies not only protestors, but also people in the surrounding areas, like shopkeepers, residents, and hotel staff, have used to organize themselves and defend themselves from police brutality over the past week have been accumulated overtime through a range of experiences. For some people their knowledge has come through years of direct political struggle against the state.  For others their experiences have come from running shops or businesses along popular protest routes and keeping lemons and vinegar on hand to aid affected protestors. For some Turkish men their experiences come from having served the state directly during the course of their mandatory military service. For others their experience in collective organizing comes from running football fan clubs or managing busy offices, everyday skills creatively deployed in a new context.

As I walked through Taksim and sat in the Gezi Park on Sunday evening it was amazing to see how this accumulated knowledge was being put to work in the course of the current struggle. A friend told me in the early hours of Sunday morning as he and some friends were resting in a Cihangir home word came across Tweeter and Facebook that vandals were beginning to attack shops and businesses along the stretch of Istiklal Avenue they had been fighting on Saturday night. They rushed to protect the spot, confronted the vandals, and stood guard until the proprietors returned later Sunday morning. “We weren’t going to let some thugs ruin this amazing thing we were creating,” my friend said.

Never before have I witnessed that kind of collective being or responsibility for shared urban spaces. Along the streets leading up to the square protestors had secured light blue garbage bags to lampposts, railings, and fences every 50 meters. In the square occupants were taking turns collecting garbage and picking up cigarette butts. This part of Istanbul has never been so clean! In the park people had placed fresh mounds of food for the resident cats and dogs and left containers of water for them to drink. It is common in Istanbul for people to feed the street animals and put water out for them, but I was touched that amidst protests and violent confrontation with the police the human inhabitants of the city were still caring for its animal inhabitants.

As I approached Taksim Square on Sunday evening I encountered a barricade protestors had erected across Iononu Avenue.  It looked as though every heavy object in the vicinity had been used in its construction: old sofas, steel filing cabinets, bus tires, wooden tables, and sheets of corrugated metal.  Crowd control gates originally belonging to the police had been placed on top of the heap like icing on a cake. The navy POLIS lettering had been covered by spray paint.  On some of the gates POLIS had been blacked out and on others people had crossed out POLIS and written “The people” or “The people’s police.” A friend of mine who is an artist and has been involved in some of the demonstrations against the upcoming Biennale remarked as we walked past one of the barricades “ Now that is public art, that is something people made.”

One piece of graffiti was “Partizan” written in black or red ink on a few concrete walls around the Ataturk Cultural Center. Another protestor had taken gold spray paint and written “Disko disko” invoking the Shantel song “Disko disko partizani.” Angry militancy meets wry humor. Graffiti becomes a collectively authored mosaic.

On Sunday morning another friend took her young daughter to pick up trash on the street they live in near the Gezi Park.  As they picked up garbage her daughter found several pairs of cracked swimming goggles and a snorkel mask some protestors had used to protect their eyes from the tear gas police had sprayed.  “Mommy,” she said, “this isn’t like the garbage we normally pick up. We are not at the beach!” We may not be at the beach, but as summer begins in Istanbul, it seems there is, in fact, a beach beneath the street.

Istanbul, June 3, 2013

An abbreviated version of this post was published by Bulent Journal: http://bulentjournal.com/i-hear-istanbul-saying/