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The Gezi Park Crackdown

A crowd flees tear gas fired by police near the junction of Siraselviler and Istiklal at the edge of Taksim Square on the afternoon of May 31, 2013. The police had raided nearby Gezi Park at dawn, using gas to disperse people who had been occupying the park in protest of government plans to redevelop the area with a replica Ottoman-style military barracks and possibly a shopping mall.

By Keith Rutowski

GEZI PARK, Turkey—I had only been living in Istanbul for little more than two weeks when I tasted tear gas for the first time. I spent most of the month of June in Gezi Park and the surrounding streets, trying to capture telling moments within the swirl of events. It is only now that the clashes appear to have ended that I've begun to process what I saw and to try to make sense of what transpired.

After the first violent police crackdown on May 31, I watched as the crowds grew larger, messier, and bolder. Those demonstrators who had hoped to prevent the destruction of the roughly nine-acre park in the city center were still around, but they were now flanked in Taksim Square by individuals hoisting political party signs and demanding the prime minister's resignation. I spent many evenings walking amidst the flags, banners, vendor carts, and dance circles, studying a scene that fluctuated between a festive celebration and a maelstrom of indignation and diverging agendas, depending on your perspective and the time of day.

For a period of time following the police's temporary retreat from the park, Gezi became a world unto itself, with an atmosphere distinct from the square and surrounding streets. While the latter frequently served as a battleground for police and protesters, the mood in the park was stable and, at times, reflective. I would often wander past the makeshift library, weave my way among the tents offering free food, and stop to watch a musician strumming a guitar or a couple quietly reading. One morning, shortly before dawn, before the rolling of sleeping bags and blankets and the sound of brooms on the pavement,  I came across a group of people slumped in chairs in the Gezi Park Cafe. Some dozed while others stayed glued to cafe televisions broadcasting news of protests springing up across Turkey—those that had been inspired by what was happening feet from they currently sat. It was difficult to determine whether their expressions were of pride and camaraderie or sadness.  

During that month I stood among the police waiting near Dolmabahçe Palace for a potential confrontation with protesters. I followed young people in helmets and goggles as they confronted police on main pedestrian thoroughfares and then retreated, gagging and eye burning, into Istanbul's steep side streets. I was caught in a stampede in Gezi when police fired canisters into a dense crowd, and people pushed in all directions, trampling tents as they tried to escape. I also traveled with a couple of other journalists to a pro-government rally where thousands turned out to show their support for Prime Minister Erdoğan.

It was a month with moments of clarity and bewildering contradictions. Government officials who had admitted wrongdoing in their initial crackdown proceeded to launch several more, leaving at least four people dead and thousands injured nationwide. In response, some members of the movement that railed against this barbarism reacted by hurling chunks of concrete at passing police vehicles, defacing buildings, and burning property.

The defining moment during the month of protests came when one man chose to stand silent and motionless in Taksim Square for several hours and in doing so inspired hundreds of others across the country to imitate the act of civil disobedience. Although Mr. Gunduz and the other "standing men" were eventually removed by police, and though water cannons and tear gas would later make a brief return to Taksim, it seemed as though this marked a turning point in the tenor of demonstrations. It seemed that the people who had been moved to the streets to make their voices heard now felt they were saying the most by saying nothing at all. 

The last two weeks in Istanbul have been decidedly quieter. Aside from June 22 when trucks again pounded protesters with water, several gatherings have occurred without intervention. The gay pride march on June 30, which brought back many of the participants and chants of Occupy Gezi, proceeded without a hitch. Forums to discuss issues and potential solutions are still being held around the city. The violence of past weeks has been largely replaced by even more finger-pointing, as many government officials continue to pin the blame for unrest on entities ranging from the international press, to the interest-rate lobby, to the Jewish diaspora, among others.

But for now, life in Istanbul has mostly returned to how it was before May 31. Gezi Park is set to re-open in the next few days. One of the only sensory reminders of what is being called the largest civil uprising in the history of the Turkish Republic occurs at around nine p.m. every day when people step out on their balconies with pots, pans, spoons, and whistles to make certain that the events of the past few weeks are not forgotten. 

 

 

A woman overwhelmed by tear gas fired by police is carried to a waiting vehicle at Taksim Square.

 

Protesters climb and attempt to burn a sign on Tarlabaşi Boulevard in Istanbul on May 31. Violence erupted earlier in the day after police fired tear gas on a group of peaceful protesters opposed to the redevelopment of Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul.

 

Protesters dig up bricks from sidewalks and pass them down the line to create a road barricade on the night of June 3. Barricades composed of debris prevented police vehicles from traveling down several side streets leading to Taksim Square, where thousands of protesters had been gathering.

 

Protesters douse one another with milk or sodium bicarbonate mixed with water to ease the burning caused by tear gas fired by police near Taksim Square the night of June 3. Many protesters sought refuge from the gas down side streets like this one.

 

Four friends enjoy one another’s company in Gezi Park on the morning of June 11. As this photograph was being taken, hundreds of police were en route to the adjacent Taksim Square. Approximately a half hour later, the police raided Taksim.

 

Police fire tear gas canisters at a group of protesters near Taksim Square on June 11. A few alleged demonstrators responded by hurling rocks, fireworks, and molotov cocktails.

 

A wounded demonstrater stumbles through Taksim Square after the June 11 police raid.

 

An alleged protester hurls a molotov cocktail at police during the June 11 clash.

 

A candlelight vigil is held in Taksim Square on the night of June 13 to remember those killed and seriously injured in the two weeks of clashes between protesters and police. Individuals lit candles and some held signs displaying the names of police and protesters who had died or lost eyes in the clashes. A period of observed silence was followed by clapping that could be heard across the square.

*****

*****

Keith Rutowski is an Istanbul-based photojournalist and writer.

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