Sunday, July 14, 2013

What's Happening with Gezi Park Now?

Hello friends! It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged, and that’s because the last six weeks have been a flurry of activity – we spent a week in Ankara wrapping up my hubby’s green-card application and when we returned to Istanbul, it was time to sell our furniture and pack our things in preparation for a June 1 move-out date. Since then, we’ve been traveling around Turkey, visiting various relatives, and Internet in some places has been scarce.

So it’s a little late, but I wanted to talk about Gezi Park again. The international media has moved on to Egypt (a coup being ironically a godsend for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan) and the national television media from the beginning has barely covered the protests, so admittedly, it’s been a little hard to know what’s going on. Now that we’re not in Istanbul, it’s like the whole thing never happened – aside from the occasional graffiti, there are no signs that anything in this country is amiss. It’s just…weird.

The biggest development in recent days is that Gezi Park was reopened to the public. I believe it is generally open now, though we have not been in Istanbul since before then, so I can't be sure. On our last day in the city, we passed by Taksim Square and could see construction workers busily beautifying the park. Word is that the municipality planted flowers and trees, but the biggest change that I could see (from the outside – no one was allowed in at that point) was that they created a grassy slope on one side, a definite improvement giving better access to Gezi Park. 

But it’s also very weird – there’s that word again. I mean, the prime minister wanted (wants?) to rebuild these old military barracks on the site and not once has he, arguably the sole holder of any real power in this country, acknowledged the validity of the protesters’ concerns. In fact, he continues to lecture on how very wrong everyone else has been. And thus, the government chose to improve the park? I almost feel like I’m living in Alice in Wonderland – it’s hard to explain, but it’s like they’re trying to confuse the issue, acting as if they always meant to improve the park, and the protests were just these little anarchistic acts perpetrated by marginal groups. But I was there, and that’s not what happened. An estimated 2.5 million people across Turkey, in something like 80 cities, came out in support of the Gezi Park protests, and they came out despite the tear gas and water cannons and police blockades. They’ve been ordinary people, and they weren’t bused in/fed/coerced to show up as was seen with the AKP’s recent rallies.

Things had seemingly settled down at the end of May, after the police cleared the park and surrounding area. As I mentioned before, everyone felt really angry, but without being able to gather in Taksim, the protests seemed to lose steam. There was never one group organizing the protests, so there was no one to re-organize the protests. I was in Taksim at the end of May, on two subsequent days, and there wasn’t a lot going on. The first night, June 25, the police had physically ringed the monument and Taksim Square, presumably to block people from putting up banners on the monument and from continuing the Standing Man protests in the square. The friend I was with that night wrote an interesting column about how protests like this force the police into "dilemma actions" -- in other words, into absurdity.

But other than that, people were going about their business; there had been a march an hour or so earlier, and some of the marchers were hanging around, but that was it.

The next day, I was there in the afternoon, and although there was still a large police presence, nothing was happening. The only form of protest I could see was a few “standing men” at the end of the square, looking up at the large portrait of Ataturk hanging down from the cultural center.

 But from what I can tell on Facebook – my biggest news source on Gezi Park – people have regrouped, and there have been protests every day for at least the last week, if not longer. And the police have responded with tear gas and water cannons. The Istanbul Tear Gas Festival continues! Last night's protest apparently stemmed from a midnight bill (ahh, another midnight bill) passed by parliament "which curbed the supervision of the Chamber of Architects and Engineers (TMMOB) in all urban projects, giving full authority to the Environment and Urban Planning Ministry," according to one of the local papers. There was also a protest two nights ago in the southeastern city of Hatay as an estimated 3,000 people gathered there to commemorate 19-year-old Ali İsmail Korkmaz, one of the reported five to have died in the protests. He was beaten by unknown assailants in Eskisehir and later sent home by a doctor – the next morning, he was unable to speak, and he passed away after being in a coma for 33 days. The footage of the attack has apparently disappeared. And as with all of the public gatherings for those who have died in the protests, the police responded with the usual force, refusing to allow people to express their grief and commemorate the dead.

The story of Ali Korkmaz brings up one of the most disturbing things about the Gezi Park protests, and that is the violence that has been perpetrated against the protesters, or anyone seen as not supporting the AKP. The horrible stories spread around by government officials of protesters assaulting women in headscarves, cavorting in a mosque with alcohol or violently attacking  the police have mostly been proven untrue. Protesters have thrown rocks, certainly, but it hasn't been proven that they were the wielders of Molotov cocktails, and anyway, most people believe those men were undercover police. But acts of violence against protesters? The tear gas and water cannons are one thing, but protesters are also being physically attacked by those who don't support the cause. I have read about some awful things, none of which have been disproved. In my last post, I mentioned how participants in a Gezi Park group meeting in a park were attacked, and the attack was allegedly led by the neighborhood's headman. Last night, shop owners threatened protesters with wood batons. My friend has told me of watching from her window protesters being attacked with rocks. I also read the story of a friend's friend on Facebook -- a less reputable source, of course -- who attended a press event for another urban project as an accredited journalist, was harassed by the project's supporters, and then had her press pass circulated on Twitter with the allegation that she is a foreign spy. There's also video footage of a man chasing people with a machete and then kicking a woman -- but the police ultimately let him go, and he fled to Morocco.

What the hell is going on here? And where is the international media? As usual, stay tuned...I still can't say where this is all going.

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