Published January 13, 2015
The central square and its leafy park in Turkey's largest city has been occupied by protesters from all walks of life and all ages for the past six days — the strongest show of defiance to date against the country's popular prime minister, who many accuse of displaying increasing arrogance and attempting to meddle in his citizens' private lives.
What started as a mostly environmental movement to protect the park in Taksim Square quickly spiraled into demonstrations across the country. But the central focus remains Istanbul's small Gezi Park.
Now, more than six days after the protests began, tents have sprung up across the park. Morning finds demonstrators wrapped in blankets sleeping on the grass and beneath the trees they have vowed to protect. An improvised food distribution center has been set up in the center of the park, and throughout the day volunteers arrive to donate packages of cookies, cartons of milk, bottled water and juice, bread, cheese and vegetables.
Watermelon sellers soon make their appearance, along with enterprising adolescents selling swimming goggles and surgical masks — rudimentary protection against the thick clouds of choking tear gas unleashed during the frequent clashes with riot police, who are held at bay by massive barricades the protesters have set up on every street leading to the square.
Office workers join in after work, a yoga teacher holds an open-air class in the late morning. Students strum guitars, anarchists raise their red and black flag over a makeshift shelter, medical students walk around in white coats and hard hats, stethoscopes dangling around their necks. In the first five days of protesting, rights groups say more than 1,000 protesters were wounded in clashes with police.
At nightfall, the crowds have swelled to tens of thousands.
Those converging on the square are a disparate bunch, united by their exasperation with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the heavy-handed police response to the first night of peaceful protests and the near-total lack of coverage on that night by the media.
Some short profiles of some of the protesters:
THE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
Beste Yurekli, 18, donned surgical gloves and unfurled a trash bag as she and a friend started clearing up the detritus of the previous night's protests and police tear gassing. Her mother, she said, hadn't wanted her to come, fearing it could be dangerous and the shy high school senior could get hurt. "But I want to help, I couldn't just sit at home," Yurekli said. So she came to volunteer her services, pitching in to keep the park tidy.
Yurekli said she's lived in Istanbul all her life. She hopes to go to university to study English literature. "But not here," she said. "Somewhere else. In another country."
For now, though, the schoolgirl is excited by the protests, and by the diversity of the demonstrators who turned out to save the park and protest against the government. "It's everyone. For the first time it's everyone," she said. "All of Turkey, we are united. We are one for the first time."
Burak Sofuoglu, 30, practices international law and travels the world from his base in Istanbul. But for the past few days, he's abandoned work and home and has moved into the park. "I packed a bag, I brought three pairs of underwear, eight T-shirts, two pairs of shoes. I go to the Turkish baths nearby to wash. Because this is my home now."
A flashlight suspended across his chest and an improvised blue armband made of a shred of plastic trash bag tied around his left bicep mark him out as one of the volunteers helping keep the protesters fed, clothed and sheltered and the park clean.
Sofuoglu studied law in Canada, and has been practicing in Istanbul for the past eight years. Single, he lives alone in Turkey's largest city. His parents live in Bursa, south of Istanbul. "They're proud I'm here," he said.
He's determined to stay in the square for as long as it takes. "How long? That's not our problem," he says. "That's the government's problem. I am with my friends here. I can stay for years if I have to. We don't like this leader. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done bad things."
The prime minister's plan for the park was the latest in a long line of complaints. But it was the last straw. And, says Sofuoglu, it united everyone. "Before this, we had some disagreements among ourselves," he said, speaking of those who oppose the government. "But now we are together."
The determination to save Gezi Park and outrage over the police action has united people who might have little in common, he said. Many have left their regular work to be in the park and support the protesters.
"We have chosen this job at the moment, not our jobs," he said. "There are teachers here, and doctors, dancers, civil servants, retired people. Everyone has a job."
THE WORKING MOTHER
Burcak Ongur, 44, is involved in catering and gives cooking lessons. But for the past week she's essentially shut down her business. A mother of two teenage children, Ongur has been taking it in shifts with her husband to protest in the park: she does the mornings, bringing food to donate for the demonstrators and staying in the park with her sister and a group of friends until the evening. Then she goes home to her 13-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, and her husband takes over, coming into the protest area for the nightly demonstrations that have often turned violent. Her sister and friends do the same, she said; the women protest in the morning, their husbands take over in the evening.
Sometimes, Ongur says, she brings her son with her, though she hasn't allowed her daughter to come along so far as the protests have sometimes become violent.
"They're aware that this is for their future," she says.
The protesting has become a family affair. "My parents come too. They're both over 70," Ongur says.
"There's a very diverse demographic here. People from all sectors, from all religions. And many different age groups."
THE FORMER GOVERNMENT SUPPORTER
Elif, 59, leaped up from the park bench she was sitting on to clap and chant slogans calling for Erdogan to resign. A former supporter who voted for the current prime minister twice, the mother of three adult children says she regrets her decision. A pious Muslim wearing a headscarf, she said she was too afraid to give her surname. Outspoken criticism is not well-received by the government, and differences of opinion have frequently been punished in the past.
"I used to support Tayyip Erdogan, but he was a hypocrite. He's a liar," Elif said. "I voted for him twice, but now I wish my hand had been broken" and she had been unable to vote.
Elif said the only reason she didn't join the protests straight away was her health; her high blood pressure kept her away for a few days. She has fond memories of Gezi Park. "When I was younger I came here to have picnics with the children," she said. "Now, all over Istanbul I just see high-rise buildings. I can't breathe anymore."
Erdogan, she said, "is trying to polarize people" with his statements saying the protesters were nothing more than common troublemakers. "But as you can see, every religion is here."