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Occupied Istanbul: Scenes from the Front Lines

Thousands of people are sleeping in a public park to protest the actions of the Turkish government. Check out this photo essay for a view of daily life, music, and politics inside Turkey’s homegrown occupation.

A dense crowd flowing into Taksim Square parts to let an ambulance through on June 1, shortly after clashes between police and protestors ended. A traffic sign has been spray-painted with the phrase "Taksim belongs to us."

In the five days since police left Istanbul's Taksim Square, tens of thousands of protestors have poured into the area in ever more dense and diverse throngs, many of them engaging in protest for the first time.  Bringing family, friends, cleaning supplies, and the occasional gas mask, they say they are gathering to demand a more participatory democracy, defend their rights, and protect the last park in Taksim, the city's transport, protest, and tourism hub.

Demonstrators prepare to remain for as long as it takes Erdogan to concede the park to the public.

Now called the Gezi Park Resistance Movement, or Diren Gezi in Turkish, the past week's uprising began as a series of small peaceful protests carried out over months, after the Turkish government announced it would raze the nine-acre park to build a new shopping mall.  But a surprisingly brutal eviction of the park by riot police changed the dynamic last Friday.  Strong winds carried stinging tear gas through nearby neighborhoods, and social media brought reports to other cities, triggering a snowball effect that has rolled swiftly across Turkey.

With solidarity movements and police clashes rumbling across the country, thousands are now sleeping in Gezi Park to defend the space and protest a spate of unilateral government development projects, social policy changes, and crackdowns on political demonstrations. In the last month alone, government directives have banned demonstrations on Taksim Square (citing an ongoing construction project as a safety hazard), threatened the availability of over-the-counter contraceptive pills, and banned retail alcohol sales after 10pm. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan presented these latter two moves as public health measures, but they were widely interpreted as pushing an Islamist political agenda. When I arrived in Istanbul in late March of this year, daily protests were challenging a scheme to tear down a historic movie theater in Taksim, to make way for yet another mall. Unlike Diren Gezi, those protests received little media exposure, and the theater is now being gutted.

Occupying the park in shifts, after work, or round the clock, demonstrators prepare to remain for as long as it takes Erdogan to concede the park to the public. Using abandoned police barricades and salvaged building materials, they have constructed a library, a veterinary clinic, numerous infirmaries, and a kitchen, all of which are stocked by donations and operate at no cost. On Wednesday a vegetable garden appeared, planted with tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers.  Some of the young boys who peddle goods to pedestrians near Taksim quickly adapted to the park's gift economy, weaving among protestors to hawk "free water! No payment!" and accept donations if they are offered.

All photos by Fabien Tepper.

Young protestors hurry up the pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Street, to join crowds occupying Taksim Square a few hours after riot police relinquished the square to protestors, June 1.

By the morning after the police withdrawal from Taksim Square, the Gezi Park Resistance Movement has organized an immense volunteer clean-up of the garbage-strewn city center.  Bags line the edges of Istiklal Street, June 2.

Members of a bagpipe orchestra march up Istiklal Street to Taksim Square, in support of the Gezi Park Resistance Movement, June 2.

A watermelon vendor watches a bagpipe orchestra march across Taksim Square to support the Gezi Park Resistance Movement, June 2.

A man playing a zurna, a Central Asian folk oboe, marches with a bagpipe orchestra in support of the Gezi Park Resistance Movement, June 2.

An onlooker watches as volunteers find ways to absorb water and automotive fluids pooled on the street beside a city bus protestors had used to blockade Gezi Park from a police return, June 2.

Donations of vinegar, lemons, water, and a milky antacid are collected at one of several points along the edge of Gezi Park on June 2, to treat victims of tear gas.

Inside Gezi Park, volunteers clean gutters and gather trash on June 2, in the aftermath of the earlier day's uprising.

A clean-up volunteer pauses beside a brick retaining wall used as a transfer point for donated food and cleaning supplies in Gezi Park, June 2.

After a night of protest and police clashes, a volunteer digs a layer of dirt out from between paving stones in Gezi Park on July 2, to dislodge any glass shards that could hurt the feet of animals.

Two clean-up volunteers in Gezi Park applaud a speech by a fellow protestor, June 2.

A girl picks up free juice and cookies at a table of donated food in Gezi Park, June 2.

A crowd of protestors in Gezi Park clap as they demand the resignation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, June 2.

A protestor in the park shows patriotic support of the Gezi Park Resistance Movement, with a freshly dyed beard, June 2.

Protestors have attached key supplies to trees throughout Gezi Park, by June 2: garbage bags for keeping the park clean, and bottles of antacid for treating tear-gassed eyes.

Two friends sleep on a park bench as dawn breaks across Gezi Park on June 3.

Gezi Park occupiers sleep beneath a sapling and a sign reading "Temporary autonomous zone," June 3.

Protestors pause in a street near Gezi Park which is littered with with police water, tear gas canisters, torn-up paving stones, and a makeshift barricade, as a night of police-protestor clashes continues into the morning of June 3.

A few blocks away from Gezi Park, police fire tear bombs and water cannons at protestors to keep them away from Prime Minister Erdogan's Istanbul office on June 3.

A volunteer helps organize medical supplies donated to the Gezi Park occupiers, inside a park structure on June 3.

Medical students who have covered the night shift at the Gezi Park Resistance Movement's infirmary take a break as the rest of the park wakes up on June 3.


 

Fabien Tepper wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Fabien blogs at sentientcincinnati.com.

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