Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gezi Park: Beauty from the Gas

Never in my life have I had so much faith in humanity and been in such a panic. Thank you Gezi Park and the Turkish police.

Banu and I are veterans of this protest. We've slept in the park. We've gotten gassed. We've hid from the police in someone's prosthodontics business... We've been through it. But today, we were afraid to go.

Before we left the house, we had been watching a live feed from Taksim square about the happenings of the protests. Earlier in the day 30 volunteer lawyers had been arrested, while waiting to defend people arrested during the protests. As we watched the video of them being forced out of the judicial building, I thought, if the government is damaging the right of its citizens to fair trial what might they do to me?

Banu, Niklas (our Finnish couch surfer), and I arrived in Taksim in the afternoon. Shoulder-to-shoulder, people filled the streets. Slowly we squeezed towards the park. We could see a large black column of smoke but we were unable see where it was coming from. Every square foot of the park was covered by a tent or a blanket. Make-shift electrical lines hung between trees, people were everywhere, sitting, standing, and others holding hands forming a human chain. We walked along the Western perimeter of the park and saw some construction machines which had previously been vandalized, completely burned out, as it was likely this equipment was going to be used to destroy the park. The area where we were walking is a steep cliff and allows a partial view of the square. Walking on a pile of rubble from a demolished building, we saw where the smoke was coming from. A burning van. We continued through the park, and it occurred to me what an exceptional juxtaposition we were witnessing. From the destruction of the riots blossomed this beautiful anarchist community of people living in the park. We saw tents offering free food, a large library of donated books, artwork everywhere, and we would soon witness, first hand, the infirmary.

Approaching the park from Harbiye. What's that smoke?

Welcome to Gezi park!

We thought they were holding hands in solidarity...

Similar to how the entire park looks.

Watermelons escaping from the overstuffed free food tent.

The Gezi park library.

The source of smoke. 

Free cigarettes. Anarchy in action.

We saw the police standing in a large group on the East side of the square. They were fully armored, with helmets, gas masks, shields, and body armor. They were surrounded by six water cannon trucks (called toma in Turkish). I felt eerie and curious watching them stand there. When were they going to make a move? In between them and the park there was a gutted city bus that was used as a barricade onto of which people were standing. Banu wanted a better look so we all climbed up there through the emergency roof exit. We stood for a while. Then the police began pulling on their gas masks and people panicked and started running away. Everyone on top of the bus rushed to get off, some jumped off the side, others pushed to get through the emergency hatch. If the police were about to use gas, we were going to get hit, hard. Thankfully it was a false alarm. Eventually we relaxed and sat down. We sat there for maybe 20 minutes and I wondered if we should explore elsewhere but we stayed put. We heard a large group of people coming from behind us, protesters chanting and fiery with energy. It was Çarşı, a group of activist anarchist football fans who, when the police first attacked the park, claimed that if they received 100 gas masks, they would retake the park. Their energy was contagious and they came right up against the police, the entire crowd cycled through chants, waving their arms at the police, booing them. We watched the spectacle from on top of the bus, which had become crowded. We began munching on some peanuts when the police began firing gas into the crowd.

The square was pretty empty when we first arrived.

Halk cephesi = public's first line of defense 

Putting out another car fire.

Tomas... waiting...

The bus that we took up residence on top of.

Space for everyone.

Niklas and Banu ontop of the bus.

View from our perch.

The police didn't look any nicer from up there.

Niklas is from Finland and single!

Everyone waiting for something to happen.

This is 'cool cop'

Standard Gezi park photo gear. 


Pre-gas good vibe.

Protection???  Hair removal ???
Hardly halloween, teargas burns your skin.

Çarşi cometh! 

No "temperature checks" here. Sorry OWS.

It was a face-off.

Canisters rained down. Six landed directly in front of the bus, a multitude of others behind. The tear gas hissed out like a monster. Everyone panicked. Gas consumed us. In a matter of seconds it grew thick so we could see nothing but white. We were completely unprepared, with our masks and goggles dangling around our necks, with mouths full of peanuts and me trying to shoot a video. The smoke was so thick and I began to choke. With my eyes and throat on fire I pulled on my mask and goggles, to limited relief. I almost threw up. All I could think of was to get out of there. Get out. Get out. My entire body screamed. My skin was burning. Nothing but white. I slid off the side of the bus in such a panic that somehow my camera fell from my neck. I heard it smash to the ground. White. Burning. I tried to look for it but I couldn't see the ground and all I could think of was to get out of the gas. I ran as fast as the crowd would let me. People poured over others, I felt a person fall in front of me and with people pushing on both sides, the crowd pushed me from behind. I struggled to stand and not step on this person, still choking on the gas, unable to see. I pushed around the poor soul in front of me, completely unable to help. I stumbled. Eventually the gas thinned to where I was able to see and I stopped panicking. Immediately I remember worrying how I was going to find Banu because she was using my phone just as we panicked. Where was she, was she okay? It wouldn't be until I calmed down that I felt a horrible guilt for leaving her.

This video is really difficult for me to watch but I think it's important to show.
For those of you that don't know, this is my brave wife.


Without knowing what to do, and feeling that I could breathe and see now that I had my mask and goggles on, I went back to the bus, hoping I could find my camera. The gas was still thicker than anything I experienced during the previous days. I could barely see the ground. I searched around, and thank goodness, I found it. As soon as I picked it up I heard Banu shouting my name. "Where are you?" I called. She was still on top of the bus! My relief was intensely mixed with a flurry of panic as I saw the police line a few meters away. I ran into the bus and helped her down from the roof. Despite not being able to see her well, she looked panicled and through her sobs told me that something hit her finger. One of the teargas canisters hit it, feeling so guilty about leaving her, all I could imagine was her finger was broken and I wanted to do everything I could to help her. Together we found our way out of the gas. As we walked to the infirmary we passed people in awful shape. Banu said she saw some throwing up. Others were hunched over, choking, crying. It felt like a war zone. The people we saw holding hands earlier were helping direct traffic, keeping the paths open for the seriously wounded. Banu spoke with the people at the infirmary gate and they let us in. The infirmary of Gezi park is a group of volunteers with medical experience. It was incredibly organized. There were makeshift beds full with people in poor shape. Some people were bleeding, others shaking from the gas. But they saw us immediately, checking Banu's finger to see if it was broken, then spraying something on it. Knowing that her finger was not broken we both took a deep breath and wondered where our couch surfer was.

Knowing that Banu was okay, I wanted to see if my camera still worked. I pulled it out of the bag and saw the telephoto lens wasn't retracting all the way and the front glass looked smashed. Luckily it was only the lens filter that broke, my camera still worked, and after some fussing, the lens retracted. Save my lens protector, all was well. Thumbs up, Canon!

After some texting, we met up with Niklas at the far end of the street where we had just been gassed. We were both glad to see he was okay. We excitedly exchanged our stories. He also jumped off the bus but, showing us a bruise on his arm, it appeared he had a rough landing. Once we felt up to it, we headed back to the front line.

It was getting dark and the battle with the police continued. We saw that the police had created a large buffer area between themselves and the protestors. The tomas were roaming about, pounding people with water. There was one relatively close and protestors were ducking behind whatever they could: some were throwing rocks. Tear gas floated around, but wasn't close enough to cause panic. The part of the square by Istiklal was packed with people who had started a large bonfire. From the area where the police were standing, we heard massive explosions. We heard stories of protestors using fireworks against the police, though I have my suspicions that undercover police might be trying to make the protests violent. Shells exploded in between the police and the protesters. The police responded with a volley of tear gas. A few canisters landed near us and we decided it was best to go. After the bus incident I had much more faith in our goggles and masks than before. I knew even if we had to walk through a cloud of gas we would be okay. The three of us stuck together and got out of the gas relatively quickly. We relaxed. The next time we would repeat this procedure we wouldn't be so lucky.

Hiding behind anything to avoid the toma's wrath.

After some peanuts we headed back to the edge of the park where we could see what was going on. A bright red light shone from a man holding a flare. Others gathered around him chanting. Bondfires roared amongst the crowd. The edge of the park was packed, we strained to watch protestors build a barricade that divided the square to stop the tomas. The entire time, the tomas pounded them with water. It was an incredible scene, illuminated by a burning van and two fires. Hard to imagine that this was the same Taksim square I had been in so many times before.

Look at those shadows.

Van fire.
Brave barricade builders vs toma.

Taksim square 6/11/13

I don't remember it was another round of fireworks, or what exactly motivated the police, all I remember was running, and gas. A lot of gas. We were trying to get away but they kept falling in front of us. At one point something landed immediately next to me and made a loud explosion. Banu and I gripped each other's hands. As far as we walked, there was more gas. More gas. It felt like the police were trying to evacuate the entire park. Luckily our masks and goggles held up and despite the massive volume of gas, we weren't suffering so much. There was a slight air of panic, and at one point, when we couldn't see from the gas, we lost Niklas again.

Once we were able to find clean air, we mentally regrouped and headed off for our predesignated meeting point. Some time later, Banu spotted Niklas. Again we excitedly exchanged stories, but we were getting tired. Niklas pointed at his feet, which were bare. His sandals broke when he was running. He described the feeling of something exploding right next to him.

After three rounds of, by far, the most severe gassing we've had to date, we had enough.

As we walked home I wondered what we had achieved. I felt so overwhelmed by everything that I saw and felt. Banu spoke of her admiration for those who were on the front lines, extinguishing the gas, building barricades. When we got home, Banu showed me a photo of a man laying underneath a toma with his head pressed up against its tire, so that if it moved it would kill him. The passion of the people is incredible.

Despite all precautions, I felt like we could have ended up in there.

Yes, that's a tent bunk bed.

I'm glad that we are to overcome our fear, go, and show our support, but it's not easy. Being there is definitely exciting but also super dangerous. But despite this danger, what made us go?

Banu, our guest, and I almost got seriously hurt, arrested, and I almost lost my camera. But we will go back. We saw people with bloodied heads or convulsing from the gas. We will go back. Every time we see some video of the police planting weapons, arresting lawyers, beating people up before they arrest them, that is our fuel. We will go back.

For all of you that have showed concern for me, thank you, but I don't know what to do with it. We understand that it's a dangerous situation, but we go anyway.

This has got me thinking, I'm not from Turkey, so why am I fighting? I'm fighting because I'm here, I can fight, and I see injustice. It does not matter whether this is 'my country' or not. I am here, I can see, and I can fight. With my words, with my camera, I can help show the world not only the injustices, but the beauty that is happening here.

Now that you have heard my story, I ask you: when you think of Gezi park, please do not think only of the clashes with the police–know that the park is a fully functioning, loving community. Know there is free food, free books, free healthcare there. Know that there is an oasis in the middle of all the fear, and it's something worth protecting.


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