“Find out just what people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong that will be imposed upon them.”
– Frederick Douglass, American ex-slave civil rights leader.
The citizens of Istanbul now appear in control of Gezi Park, protecting one of the last and most treasured green spaces in Istanbul from conversion to a shopping mall.
The protest, which began to save the park, became a rally for genuine democracy in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government responded with police violence – beatings, pepper spray, water cannons, and tear gas – but could not stop the protests from spreading to over 70 Turkish cities, exposing Erdogan’s persecution of opposition and media censorship.
When governments turn to violence to bully their own citizens, the system breaks down when people resist with courage. The Gezi Park uprising has become a model of genuine democracy for the world, a line of defiance in the battle to preserve nature and democracy.
When governments over-react
Last fall, the Turkish government closed roads into Istanbul centre, and announced plans to convert Gezi Park to a shopping mall and military artillery barracks. When construction began in May, Taksim Solidarity activists blockaded bulldozers. Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a Peace & Democracy Party deputy, joined the blockade, invoking parliamentary immunity.
Erdogan dismissed protesters as “marginal extremists”. At dawn on 30 May, police raided the park with tear gas and water cannons. They drove about 1,000 citizens from the park, and then burned their tents and possessions.
Calls went out on social media, and 10,000 people arrived at Gezi Park. Police attacked again, injuring hundreds of citizens and three reporters from Reuters, the Hürriyet Daily News, and Birgün newspaper. Citizens opened their homes to injured protesters. By evening, 100,000 people had re-occupied the park. That night, the public occupied the historic Bosphorus Bridge that links Europe to Asia.
The uprising spread beyond Istanbul to Ankara, Izmir, and over 70 Turkish cities. Izmir police detained 29 people for sending Twitter messages. The Turkish Doctors’ Union reported 4,177 people injured during protests and two deaths.
On Tuesday, 4 June, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç apologised for police violence and met with opposition leader Önder, who called the uprising “historic” and announced that “the democratic process would start”. The following day, Arınç met with the original protest group platform, Taksim Solidarity, which delivered the public’s demands: Cancel the Gezi park demolition, release arrested citizens, ban tear gas, and allow free public assembly and free expression.
Sirin Bayram, a woman who has worked for Greenpeace, wrote to me from Istanbul about inspiring acts of public support: “A bus driver saw police and a water cannon behind him in the street, heading for Gezi Park. He stopped his bus and blocked them. We were proud of him, because, of course, he lost his job. At the courthouse in Istanbul, lawyers made a protest by clapping their hands. The government arrested over 75 lawyers, for clapping!”
Bayram described working at the park to collect support for the protesters. “A little boy came to the park with some rice his mother had cooked for his lunch. He said ‘My big sisters and brothers in the park need this more than me.’ He put the rice on the table and he left. This put tears on our faces and kept us strong.”
The Greenpeace office in Istanbul stands on Istiklal Street, leading to Gezi Park. Police officers confronted demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons directly below the office, which remained open night and day, providing shelter to injured protestors. Doctors and medics arrived to offer medical assistance.
On Saturday, 8 June, protesters witnessed an unprecedented expression of solidarity as Turkey’s rival football fans – from Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, Besiktas, and other sports clubs barred from watching matches together because of stadium violence – walked through Istanbul arm-in-arm, wearing each others’ team colours.
Censorship in Turkey
The citizens of Istanbul have now occupied Gezi Park and Taksim Square, staged music and political speakers, and insisted on a new era of genuine democracy in Turkey. Twenty-two year old protester Yesim Polat told Al Jazeera, “Prime Minister Erdogan thinks that he is a sultan. He thinks he can do whatever he wants.”
Turkey once represented a modern, secular state that offered religious freedom. Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) advocate a return to an Islamic state. Once elected in 2003, Erdogan began arresting opposition voices, Kurdish leaders, and journalists, and harassing private couples for kissing in public.
Mustafa Akyol, a columnist with the Hürriyet newspaper, told Al Jazeera that journalists are being arrested under a abuse of Turkey’s anti-terrorism law. “The great majority of the journalists in jail are people who wrote positive things about the PKK.”
In January 2013, Erdogan’s police arrested 11 journalists attending an opposition political party meeting, and sentenced five of them to jail, increasing the number of jailed journalists in Turkey to 75. Prior to Gezi Park, freedom of the media had virtually vanished in Turkey.
Parks and People
From Amsterdam’s Vondelpark and California’s People’s Park in the 1960s, to Prague’s Wenceslas Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, protecting public parks has provided the backdrop for democracy around the world.
In 1970, a group of citizens in Vancouver, Canada – the “Don’t Make a Wave Committee,” which later became Greenpeace – rallied to save a park entrance in Vancouver. At that time, the Four Seasons Hotel chain announced a plan to construct six towers at the entrance to Vancouver’s magnificent, 400 hectare Stanley Park, a waterfront meadow that opened onto a lagoon, where swans nested in the bulrushes and families gathered for picnics.
Two of the Don’t Make a Wave group, Greenpeace co-founders Rod Marining and Bob Hunter, met to make a plan. Hunter, a newspaper columnist, had described his “mindbomb” theory, which became a key Greenpeace strategy. “The holistic revolution won’t be like storming the Bastille,” Hunter would say, “but a storming of the mind.” Hunter believed that campaigns to change in the world should create images that could change people’s way of thinking. Today, we call this a “meme” but in 1970, this was a “mindbomb,” an image that would travel on the global media and shift public perception.
In May 1971, during a light spring snow, Marining and his allies occupied the park entrance, pitched tents on the land, and put up signs calling the encampment “All Season’s Park”.The camp included indigenous activists, Québéquois separatists, hippies, and several early Greenpeace founders. Ben Metcalfe, the first Greenpeace media officer, organised a group of citizens to bring food and wine to the occupiers. Nurseries in Vancouver donated plants. Protesters laid sod over construction roads and planted trees. Images of “All Seasons Park”, with families in tents in the snow, became one of the earliest Greenpeace mindbombs.
The story appeared on Vancouver television and in newspapers. Occupiers demanded a public referendum, and Vancouver citizens voted 56% in favour of keeping the park entrance, but the by-law required 60% for approval. The stand-off continued until the wealthy father of a protestor offered to purchase the property for $4m. The entrance to Stanley Park was saved, and remains a part of Vancouver and Greenpeace heritage to this day.
Gezi Park and the World
Today, Gezi Park has become a mindbomb for the world. The protest over a park became a referendum for democracy. “We are here for our freedom,” Nihan Dinc, a 26-year-old publicist, told Al Jazeera. “We are here for a space to breathe.”
Journalist Pepi Escobar explains in an Asia Times story why Gezi Park is significant beyond Turkey. Escobar describes the Syria revolution as a “proxy war” between NATO and a new Russia/China alliance. Turkey sits at a strategic point between Europe and Asia, where NATO and western oil companies want a pipeline from the United Arab Emirates, through Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, into Europe. Escobar explains that NATO and the US want Turkey to support their military efforts in Syria to win the pipeline war. However, “Turkey has been plunged into the … Gezi/Down-with-the-Dictator maelstrom,” Escobar writes, “and the last thing an embattled Erdogan will be thinking about is to further empower a bunch of ‘rebel’ losers.”
But Gezi Park is important for another reason: The people of Istanbul have shown the world that citizens can stand up to military and police violence with peaceful solidarity.