Istanbul: A Tree Grows In Gezi


This is a story that spans the continents, and is spreading. The recent occupation of Gezi park in Istanbul and the ripples it has had throughout 48 cities in Turkey is filling a political space that exists between Occupy and the Arab Spring; linking them like the bridges of Istanbul that span the continents. This week we have seen the violent repression of expression that marks the fine line between democracy and dictatorship, the domination of private financial interests over the common good. We are learning each year that all of our grievances are connected.

A single tree, in a small park, in the crossroads of the world. It began.

Power is a rebel force, and here in Turkey the prime minister, Erdogan, is armed with the conviction of a religious man who has been elected. He has recently passed a series of deeply unpopular but tolerated laws. He pushed his people into a corner, and has kept pushing. Like many leaders, he is acting as if the national power is his, because the millions of people in this representational democracy had given their power to him. He has played their power like a violin – so loud he couldn’t hear there wasn’t any applause, and so long he didn’t notice the rest of the orchestra had dropped out. Maybe he is afraid of what could happen in that silence.

Pots and pans

Saturday night the silence was filled. From any open window you heard the people playing their pots and pans as if these utensils were finally freed to be the joyful instruments they had always wanted to be – singing their metal hymns for a good life. This is that sound that comes to fill the silence. People who had nothing in their hands used their hands, and sat leaning clapping from car windows and in crowds. The people had retaken the park, and it was Saturday night, so there would be too many people tonight to do what they had been doing the past nights. Saturday night felt like a celebration, in some places.

In other places the violence was still building like friction in any unoiled machine. Violence was encouraged by Erdogan himself, who broke the media blackout and had gone on TV and asked his supporters to personally stop 'the terrorists', who he claimed were a marginal group of radicals. A friend had seen teenagers attack a group of students because they were carrying gas masks. Erdogan is mixing strong forces, concocting dangerous politics in an earthquake zone.

These stories I share were told to me by a friend who noticed he was still trembling to speak of them. He arrived late, because he had been teargassed again, and so had to shower the chemicals from him. He told me these stories, recounting like legends in days of this same week. Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Today.

The trees and the machines

Wednesday. It started with machines. The supreme court had ruled that Gezi, the last green space in the center of this sprawling megalopolis, would not be razed to make way for a new shopping center. The rogue prime minister sent the excavators anyway, but by the time they had ripped out the first of the trees, some 20 or 50 people had gathered. Some hugged the trees (perhaps the most pacifist of all possible acts), others tied themselves to the trees. They set up tents, read to the police and shared food. They called it Occupy Gezi.

Thursday. At 4am the police came and filled the air with teargas. They didn’t fire the metal canisters at the ground, they fired it at the people, at their faces, smashing holes in skulls. They burned down their tents. They kicked people from the trees they held on to. The police expected to have the park cleared by morning, but by morning 5,000 people were there. A line had been crossed – if people are not allowed to peacefully demonstrate what they believe in, and if their expression is met with such brutality, then this is not a democracy. And if one is obedient, silent or waits in hopes it will pass, than power is the only one who has freedom.

Friday. These days were battles of bravery and violence. The police surrounded the park, attacked, and refused to let anyone leave; later they wouldn’t let anyone enter. Water cannons threw people off their feet and onto their thin necks, batons cracked skulls of anyone within range, the teargas canisters littered the ground like confetti. Police fired gas into residential buildings that were helping the wounded and housing those hiding from the acid smoke. Police fired gas into a Starbucks full of people and into the Hilton Hotel. Every photograph from these days is wrapped in that tyrannical gas.

Violence vs kindness

But opposites attract, and the people who lived in the area began to leave out baskets of lemons to help soothe teargas. Old ladies lowered baskets of food from their windows by rope to support the people below – doing what they could to support those doing what they could not. Restaurants left bags of food outside their windows. The state’s violence was countered by the people’s kindness. Lovers led their gas-blinded lover through the smoke-filled streets to safety; strangers did the same.

Turkish flags with their floating moon and star sprang up everywhere, and the bridge that you cannot walk across was filled with 40,000 people walking in the space between two continents. What was 50 people in tents became 5,000, became the more than a hundred thousand that surrounded the park until they so outnumbered the police that they were let back into it, and the shade of the trees that were still standing.

Today. In this small park, a great many conflicts are colliding. There is the tree that started this, and the fight for the rights of nature against the cold machinery of progress. There is the fight to protect the commons: to save one of the few public spaces that still exist from its transformation into a private space dedicated to the production of personal capital. There is the issue of democracy: that the people have the right to speak out, and the necessity to be heard by those they have empowered. This is history, after all, and people know that if they cannot speak their mind then it is not their story.

This is no longer a story about a tree, a park, a politics or a cause. It is a story of a people, all over, knowing that they are standing on the global frontline of history. It is not a struggle to change the story, it's the struggle to be allowed to write it.

Tomorrow. No one knows what will happen in the coming days, but some of that will be determined by us. We need to make sure the world is watching the trees and people of Gezi square, and that Erdogan knows we are watching. Where do you draw the line?

Kevin Buckland is on Twitter: @change_of_art

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