Witness: Peaceful Protest in Turkey's Taksim Square
Text and photographs by Anna Shea, Amnesty International Canada Legal Program Coordinator
I was expecting to have a great vacation in Turkey. I wasn’t expecting to watch history unfold. Fortunately, however, I happened to be in Istanbul between May 26 and June 5. I had rented a room near Taksim Square, and I was in the square or the adjacent Gezi Park for almost 24 hours a day (it’s impossible to stay home when the world seems to be ending…).
For me, the beginning of the protests was the most difficult time, because we all felt forgotten. When I returned to the apartment in the middle of the night on Friday May 31, I anticipated frantic emails and phone messages from my family and friends. But no one had been in touch. This was not surprising, since unless you were directly connected with Turkish protesters on Facebook or Twitter, it was impossible to know what was happening. But the feeling of isolation was nonetheless dreadful. It was such a relief when bloggers and the international media started taking notice. Amnesty – the national office in Turkey and the international secretariat – was one of the first organizations to draw attention to the situation. Simply knowing that people were paying attention – especially people overseas, completely unconnected from the action – was incredibly empowering, much more than I could have imagined.
Overall, my experience was both terrifying and marvelous. Frightening, because the government’s response to these peaceful demonstrations has been vicious and relentless. Although the police had been expelled from Taksim within a couple days, and people had erected barricades to keep them out, the security forces were never very far away. Busloads of them waited, armed, at the end of every entrance to the square, and tear gas and pepper spray were constantly in the air. Helicopters circled ominously. I couldn’t leave the apartment without a mask and goggles – if I’d stayed longer I would have bought a helmet, as many people did. My friends wrote their blood-type on their arms – afraid of what might happen to them, yet refusing to be intimidated. I saw lawyers and doctors marching in uniform in the streets, jeopardizing much more than their careers. I saw people with bloodied faces calling for medical help, people with bandages and casts from their encounters with the police, people with eyes reddened and streaming from the tear gas, people running in fear.
But my experience was also wonderful, because of the creative energy and hope that have been released. In an Istanbul where Kurds perform halay ceremonies in Taksim Square, next to gay rights activists draping a rainbow flag over a statue of the founder of modern Turkey, nothing seems astonishing anymore. My friends expressed their enormous sense of relief: “Finally, it’s happened!” “We’ve been afraid too long; no more running away.” People were relieved, defiant, and exuberant. The atmosphere of possibility in Gezi Park was contagious. People handed out free food and water, built a library, set up a yoga space. As one friend told me, “If the quiet, stay-at-home yogis are protesting, you know it’s big!” A vet provided free care for the street animals who were injured by the water cannons and tear gas, and I saw food for dogs and cats laid out around the park, as well as dishes of fresh water. A café on the square allowed protesters to take it over in order to set up a coordination centre for medical and other supplies.
Something that particularly struck me about the protests was the cleanliness. Every night, tens of thousands of people would converge on the park and square – eating, drinking, sleeping, smoking, singing, dancing. Although there was barely room to move, I never saw anyone walk on the flower beds. And every morning, small groups of sleep-deprived protesters – gas masks draped around their necks, brooms and bags in hand – would sweep the park clean. By noon, it was virtually spotless. One day, I saw people washing out a dry fountain with buckets of clean water. There was a stark contrast between this respect for public spaces and local businesses, and the anger towards the police and construction vehicles (which had been smashed and burnt out), as well as many internationally owned banks and businesses (which were often covered in graffiti).
Another remarkable aspect about the protests was their dark sense of humour. Although I could only understand a very small part of the graffiti that appeared all over the city centre, it was easy to gauge by all the laughter that it much of it was amusing. On a store selling cosmetics: “Pepper spray is good for the complexion.” On a wine shop: “Şerefine Tayyip,” a sarcastic “Cheers” to the Prime Minister, referring to his restrictions on the sale of alcohol. There were humorous versions of the Prime Minister’s name; for instance, “Erdoğaz,” and “Recop” (“cop” means baton in Turkish). And of course, many stencils, posters and pictures of penguins; on the night of Friday May 31, instead of reporting on the massive, unprecedented protests and brutal police response, CNN Turkey showed…a penguin documentary.
One thing I learned over the past week is that screams of panic and cheers of joy are almost indistinguishable. It always required a few moments to determine what was actually going on. I think that likewise, it is impossible to know at this point what is in store for Turkey; whether police terror will triumph, or whether peaceful expression and joyful possibility will carry the day. Despite all the repression, I remain deeply hopeful about the outcome.
I have just returned to Canada, where I will continue raising awareness about the serious and ongoing human rights violations in Turkey. Turkey wields enormous economic and political power in the Middle East, and it is critical to speak out about these attacks on Turkish people’s fundamental freedoms.
Canadians are paying attention. Help show Turkey and the world that the protesters are not alone:
- Sign our petition to the Prime Minister of Turkey urging him to stop the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters and ensure respect for the right to freedom of expression and assembly
- Learn more about the situation in Turkey on our website
- Join us on Twitter and Facebook for ongoing updates.
- "Insan hakları" means human rights in Turkish #insanhakları and #humanrightsforturkey are the hashtags we are following
- Contact the Turkish Embassy: