21st July 2013 – The overseas interest has waned but our protests continue amid a brutal government crackdown and give us reason to smile.
On 25 June, three weeks after the Gezi Park protest started, an American friend sent me an email. He asked me whether I was OK, and hoped that the protests hadn’t “affected me in a negative way”. There was something in his tone that suggested that he thought the protests were already in the past, the camp in the park having been liquidated on 15 June. He was wrong; they have continued ever since. Why?
Because five people have died, more than 8,000 have been injured, and 11 people have lost an eye; because prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to cut down thousands of trees all over Turkey to build shopping malls, hydro-electric power stations and skyscrapers; because whoever criticises him – journalists, students, teachers who join a trade union – is in danger of ending up in jail and if they are a woman, being sexually harassed; because doctors who treated the injured and lawyers who represented protesters have been arrested and beaten; because those responsible for the deaths of protesters have not been brought to justice; and because Erdoğan’s rhetoric has encouraged machete- and stick-wielding AKP thugs on to the streets whose attacks on us – with the police standing by – go unpunished.
What has happened since the night the police drove us out of the park and fired tear gas into hotel foyers and hospitals? On 17 June the famous standing man appeared in Taksim prompting a wave of standing people all over the country and briefly, around the world. The same day, Çarşı, the group of Beşiktaş football supporters that has played a major role in the protests, made a call: “From now on we will meet in Abbasağa Park in Beşiktaş; if they throw us from here, we will go to Maçka Park; if they throw us out of there we will find another.” Since then there have been forums in about 20 parks all over Istanbul, and in many other cities. I hadn’t been to Abbasağa Park before, even though I was born in Istanbul, nor did I spend much time in Yoğurtçu Park in Kadıköy, across the Bosphorus, even though I lived there for a year.
What are people doing in these forums? There is a platform, a microphone, and a chair person. Between 9pm and midnight anyone can go to the platform and talk about anything he or she wants. In the first week (starting from 17 June) many people made moving speeches, though not about unfamiliar things. After one week or so some experts started to come: lawyers, doctors, media people. Then workshops began: for children, filmmakers, women, lawyers. Photography exhibitions documented the police brutality that we refuse to forget.
Apart from that, if something outrageous happens, we march, at any time of the day. We marched in Kadıköy the day the police officer who shot Ethem Sarısuluk in the head was released on bail; a couple of thousand became tens of thousands as people came out of their houses to join us. We marched when we learned that people had been kept in custody illegally. We marched to the headquarters of the ATV channel to protest against their silence over their non-coverage of the protests. On 22 June we marched to the Taksim Square to lay carnations for our friends who died, and for the policeman who died falling from a bridge while chasing the protesters; a beautiful, peaceful scene, but still the police attacked and drove people out. The next Saturday, 29 June, we gathered in front of Galatasaray high school and marched to Taksim because two days before, in the village of Lice near Diyarbakır, the gendarmerie killed a Kurdish youth, one of a crowd protesting against the building of new gendarmerie stations. Again the police attacked us. The following day we went on the LGBT march along Istiklal Caddesi. On 6 July we organised a water fight (a Turkish tradition on that day) so the police could save their water cannons, but once again we were attacked, and chased into the surrounding neighbourhoods, where the police began randomly arresting people sitting in cafes.
I came back to England several days ago, having participated in the protests from the beginning, and wish to carry on here. At least I can write. I can write about what happened, and why. I can also find out how people here – people from Britain, people from Turkey – are reacting to the protest and how events are covered in British media. I can discover for instance that there has been little coverage of Turkey since 15 June. Maybe one or two things but that is all. I understand that there are other problems in other parts of the world, that the TV in particular likes spectacular images, but there are plenty of them being posted from Turkey every day – maybe the BBC and the newspapers should take a look.
I wrote back to my American friend to tell him that, far from affecting me in a negative way, the protests have changed me, and thousands of others, for the better: we have got used to tear gas and are no longer afraid of water cannons, I have been reunited with friends I hadn’t seen for years, met new and interesting people, given shelter to others, discovered Istanbul parks I didn’t know existed, seen the inside of mysterious old buildings, learnt something about human rights, and persuaded my parents that when they hear words like “gays”, “lesbians”, and “transvestites” they need not be afraid. And I have discovered that I won’t let my country be taken from me.
Turkish anti-government protesters in Gezi Park, Istanbul Photograph Bulent Kilic AFP Getty Images