A few days ago, on June 6 & 7, 2013, I visited Gezi Park in Istanbul, the epicenter of huge ongoing anti-government protests. (See my photos and video.) I have the feeling I was a witness to history, and I want to set down my impressions while they are still fresh. In a few days, I will pass through Istanbul again and we will see what has changed.
My visit on June 6—arranged before the protests—happened to come during a lull in the violence when police had withdrawn and protesters had taken control of Gezi Park and adjoining Taksim Square. The protesters were peaceful and had no weapons apart from huge numbers. At the time of my visit, to call it a "protest" was almost too strong a word. It was more like the Turkish version of Woodstock or Burning Man—more a spontaneous cultural festival than a traditional anti-government demonstration. Any organization with a progressive or counter-cultural message set up a makeshift booth to hand out flyers. Street vendors moved in to service the crowds. There were even vendors selling gas masks, hard hats and Guy Fawkes "V for Vendetta" masks.
To clarify the geography: Taksim Square is the central crossroads in the newer part of the city, Beyoğlu, which is far removed from the old quarter and tourist sites like the Hagia Sophia. (I actually made a video in Taksim on my first arrival in Istanbul three years ago.) Before the protests, Taksim was a major crossroads, but once the protests began around May 31, it was taken over entirely by pedestrians, essentially extending a long pedestrian-only shopping street, İstiklal Avenue. Although Taksim seemed central to traffic on my previous visits, the blocking of roads there turns out to have very little effect on the rests of the city. Traffic has simply rerouted itself around the blockage, and the life of the rest of the city appears unchanged. It is certainly not true that Istanbul is burning down. You would have to be close to Taksim to see any obvious change in daily life.
Taksim is a big open plaza, ideally suited to big rallies. Adjoining it is Gezi Park, a greener and more confined space with trees and a bit of grass. The protests began when bulldozers moved in to demolish the park and a handful of activists blocked them. This lead to clashes with riot police that involved liberal use of teargas and water cannon. It is clear that police created the bigger protest with their harsh attempt to dislodge the original protesters. Soon there were thousands and then hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of whom had never taken part in a protest before. Gezi Park was the rallying point for hundreds of divergent cultural, liberal and anti-government forces who previously had no common ground. Even if they couldn't agree on anything else, everyone could agree on saving Gezi Park and a nearby cultural center, and everyone was opposed to police oppression.
I walked through Gezi Park about six months before the protests, before I even knew the small park had a name. It didn't strike me as a particularly interesting place or a frequently used park. It was almost empty when I was there, and I would guess that few of those who are now protesting the demolition have visited it within the preceding year—if ever! It is mainly a symbol. For the generally secular and Western-leaning protesters, unilateral demolition of the park was seen as the final straw in the steady erosion of civil rights under the 10-year rule of conservative Islamist Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. If Gezi Park had not been the spark that set off the protests, something else would have.
Gezi Park just happened to have all the elements needed to make it go "viral" in social media. Essentially, this is a social media revolution because all the mainstream media in Turkey have turned into fearful puppets of the regime. (The local CNN affiliate famously ran a documentary on penguins during the initial violence.) However, there seem to have been no significant attempts to suppress the internet or cellphone coverage in Istanbul. In fact, you will see in my photos and video that Vodaphone had set up mobile cellphone towers to serve the crowd, just like they would for a big sporting event. As long as the internet is available in Istanbul, the protests will continue and be coordinated in ways that the government has no control over. If internet users can't get reliable news from the major media in Turkey, they can certainly get it from the overseas media and from increasingly sophisticated social networks in Turkey.
When I was there, the protesters were continuously occupying the park with the aim of keeping the government from demolishing it. When I say "occupy", I mean that virtually every available spot of grass was covered by a tent or other encampment. The gathering of humanity here was truly massive, especially in the evenings when people came here after work. After 8:00pm on June 6, the crowd was so thick in the park I could hardly move (and I would not have been able to shoot a video like I did in the afternoon). The symbolic message of the crowd was, "To demolish this park, you have to dislodge us first."
Although the level of fervor my vary, the number of people involved was staggering! This was probably the biggest spontaneous, unmanaged rally I have ever attended and probably ever will attend. By "unmanaged", I mean there were no clear leaders and absolutely no police in evidence anywhere. New Years Eve in Times Square is probably a lot bigger, but in that case the crowd is carefully managed by a huge police presence. Gezi Park was self-managed and extremely orderly. Although a lot of people were chanting political slogans and many were openly painting graffiti on every available surface, I saw no other hint of conflict or lawlessness. There were families with children in the park, and I myself felt absolutely no danger there, even knowing no Turkish.
Clearly, this benign situation could not continue indefinitely. Either the government would crack down, or the gathering would go sour on its own. Imagine if Woodstock had gone on for weeks: Sooner or later there would be some sort of disorder, crime or major accident, but no authorities to respond. Sooner or later you need police and a credible government to maintain the functioning of society. (There was volunteer-staffed MASH-style medical compound in Gezi, and municipal services were picking up bagged trash, but there were no other services like restrooms.)
I predicted at the time that the stalemate would go on for a long time. Apart from the huge crowds, the park was crawling with international media, and any police response would be instantly and widely reported. Now that the police had withdrawn, the government wouldn't be so stupid as to bring them back to do battle with this huge force of peaceful citizens. I figured the police would wisely stay away, and the protest movement would slowly disintegrate from within.
I was wrong! From what I read tonight in the news, the police have now cleared Taksim Square by force. This is relatively easy, as this is a flat and open square that riot vehicles can easily move into. Gezi Park is more of a problem, as it is naturally fortified by trees, stairways and sunken courtyards—a sort of Helm's Deep for the protesters. As of last report, protesters are still occupying the park, and I assume the police have them surrounded. Since the protesters are unarmed, how long it takes to remove them depends on how much force the police are willing to use. They could move in by force or simply wait the protesters out.
Any government in any real democracy would do the sensible thing and back off from the park—let the protesters win and suspend the construction project. That is the best way to deflate the symbol. Erdogan, however, has chosen the hard-line and stupid route. He has apparently chosen to attack the symbol the protesters have laid before him. When the police gain control of the park, I predict that Erdogan will do the despotic thing and immediately demolish the park. It is like turning your opponent into a martyr. "Remember Gezi Park" will be the new rallying cry—much more powerful than holding the park itself.
I actually see this as a blessing for the protesters. If they had continued to hold the square and park, their protest movement would have eventually lost steam and disintegrated from within. Demolishing the park will just make the protest even bigger and push it to a more sophisticated level.
Erdogan seems to have firm control of the government, and there is no credible political opposition to challenge him. This is actually a problem for Erdogan, because it means he has no one to negotiate with. The protesters are essentially a leaderless group, so there isn't anyone to imprison who will make a difference. Erdogan has essentially created his own perfect opponent. He can jail opponents and journalists, but he can't imprison the whole internet or half the Istanbul population. Turkey is still fundamentally a free democracy, and Chinese-style censoring of the internet is far beyond the government's means. (If nothing else, all the internet talent is on the side of the protesters.) The government can only unplug the internet altogether—which Mubarak tried unsuccessfully to do in Egypt.
Slightly more moderate elements of the government have called for "dialog" with the protesters, but there is no one to have a dialog with! There are no recognized leaders in this movement, only hundreds of thousand of highly motivated citizens with smart phones. Every act of oppression just forces them to get more creative.
Istanbul is fundamentally different than Syria or Egypt, although they may look similar on the news. This is overwhelmingly a safe and peaceful uprising. As of the latest reports, "only" five people have been killed, which is a remarkably low number given the hundreds of thousands of people involved. In Syria, the government is using real bombs and bullets, and in Eqypt there is real anarchy and lawlessness. In Istanbul, there has been remarkably little bloodshed, but what there has been has been videotaped and instantly broadcast. Istanbul looks like Syria on the evening news only because every explosion and act of violence is being recorded by a hundred cameras.
Who are the protesters? Since I don't live in Turkey and don't have to be polite, I can state things bluntly. The protesters are all the smart people in Turkey—all the lawyers, all the doctors, all the professionals, anyone who regularly uses the internet, everyone with half a brain. Erdogan's supporters are all the dumb people in Turkey—the farmers, the laborers, the traditional religious believers, the simple country folk who fall for his populist rhetoric. As in every country, the dumb people outnumber the smart people, which is why Erdogan is in power (and why America got George W. Bush). Unfortunately for the dumb people, they are dumb and can't handle new technology like the internet. They can only try to suppress opposition the old-fashioned way: by force. This just pushes the smart people to become ever-more creative and clever in their opposition.
This is a relatively safe and lively uprising, more a blossoming of culture than a civil war. I compare it to America in the 1960s. Back then, opposition to the Vietnam war brought people together and created, for a short time, a movement of flower people and free love. It couldn't go on forever, but it was fun while it lasted.
STOP PRESS!!!!! New update on June 14!!!
I wrote the above last night, but I wasn't happy with the conclusion. It turns out I am not a neutral observer of the Turkish situation. I actually have a horse in this race! My first "real" book was published in Turkey! The Case Against Marriage was published in Turkish translation months before it came out as an English ebook. It is still my only physical book published by an outside publisher. Arguing against marriage may be routine in America but it is much more risque in a traditional culture like Turkey.
Like it or not, I have become part of the counterculture in Turkey.
Right now I am in Santorini, the perfect peaceful Paradise, but I have been here for five days, and Paradise is beginning to wear thin. As the news heats up in Istanbul, it occurs to me that I need to get back there. I was planning to pass through there in a week, but maybe it should be earlier.
I just changed my reservation. I'm heading back to Istanbul by ferry and plane over the next two days. I'll be there for the Saturday Night Riots. I won't put myself at any risk, but Istanbul seems a lot more interesting right now than any dumb Paradise.
Maybe then I can come up with a more meaningful conclusion about the protests.
Update: Much Later
I did return to Istanbul, just in time for a big crackdown in Taksim Square. I could write a whole book on this experience, but, alas, I just don't have the time. You'll have to make do with the photos....