They were a nightly event that summer. Every evening around 9 o’clock, wherever you were in the great city, you could hear them. The sounds of pots and pans banging together, police whistles, groups chanting. You could see them too, the lights in all the apartments and tenements flashing off and on, like fireflies.
Whenever you heard and saw that it was happening again, you went out to the balcony, and looked out and waited for the procession to pass. For they always did, in neighborhoods all over the city. Big groups of mostly young people. They held up signs, sang songs, clapped hands. They proclaimed themselves the soldiers of Ataturk, and called upon the prime minister to resign.
Even in the summer rains, they marched. Many of them marched long distances, trying to make their way across the bridges and up to Taksim Square. That’s when things could get ugly, when the police cut off access. Up on Taksim, the scene could be like a war zone at night, with police shooting tear gas pellets, some of the brave protesters picking up the pellets as soon as they landed and launching them back in the direction of the police.
Readers may recall the reason for the protests. It all started early that summer 2013, when tractors arrived in Taksim Square to begin redeveloping Gezi Park. The municipality had plans to convert at least part of the park into shopping center. Protesters immediately descended on the park to protect it from the tractors, the developers. The police were brought in to disperse the protesters, and suddenly it all mushroomed into something bigger, a general anti-government protest. It became the Summer of Gezi.
I’ve always been somewhat averse to such demonstrations, owing to squeamishness. Even as a journalist in California, years before, when I covered environmental and anti-war protests, I was intimidated by the police, put off by the crowds and their potential for mob-like violence. Here in Turkey, those fears are multiplied. Indeed, during the Gezi protests, local shop owners armed with machetes were caught on video chasing down protesters, and others were reportedly beaten. Along with police crackdowns, you always have the memory of military coups, which have haunted this country over the decades. I wanted no part of Turkish police or soldiers or coups – or machetes, for that matter.
So that summer we –- me and my good friend Omer -– watched, mostly from the relative safety of our balcony in Kadıkoy. You always had a good view, as they passed by in the streets like clockwork every evening. We knew lots of people who did actively protest. Every day on Facebook, you saw friends, colleagues, bravely heading up to the square. They wore gas masks, they sang songs, and waved the red and white Turkish flags, standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others.
This was usually early in the evening, those summer evenings where it stays light out until well after nine. After nightfall is when things usually got real. Then it was best to be home watching it all play out on TV, the arrival of the fire hoses and tear gas, the protesters hunkered down in positions, falling back into the park.
Then daybreak would come, and each morning the square would be shattered, littered with debris, most of the people having gone home, except for the hard-core activists who had set up tents in the park. Each morning you would check online for the latest updates on the number of arrests, or injuries, of possible deaths. According to an Amnesty International report, nearly 5,000 people were detained by police in the first week of protests alone, and many more in the weeks and months that followed.
All of this for a piece of green space not much bigger than a football field. Well, most wars are fought over land.
They were called çapulcular, or “marauders,” by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In angry speeches, Erdoğan called for national unity, insisting that Turkey would not be ruled by a pack of hooligans, çapulcular, who had no respect for authority. Pro-government newspapers sought to discredit the protesters, reporting that some of them were seen drinking alcohol in or near mosques, for example, or using profane language, insulting political figures (a jailable offense here).
The protesters, and their sympathizers, themselves defiantly embraced this term, “çapulcu.” “Every day I am çapulling,” people spray painted on walls, on sidewalks, on street curbs all around the city. It became a social media phenomenon for a while. Songs were written about them, including “Gas March” and “That’s What You Get For Loving Trees.”
Again, much of this I watched from a safe distance. After all, when I was in California, at least I was a paid journalist. You are more willing to take risks when your rent and food money are on the table. Here in Istanbul, teaching was my bread and butter. As for reporting, all the big boys were already here – CNN, BBC, you name it. Let them take the risks, they earn a lot more than I do. (Aside: can you imagine your reporter being detained, and the police aggressively inquiring: Who do you work for? The Lost Coast Outpost, I say. The what? I’m a freelancer. A what? They would probably then accuse me of being a CIA operative –- a not-uncommon charge here –- and kick me out of the country.)
My curiosity soon got the better of me. One Saturday morning, Omer suggested we take a trip up the hill to Taksim. It was a safe bet, considering that the mornings generally were quiet. So we we took the ferryboat from Kadıkoy over to Beşiktaş, then walked up to the square.
Along the way, we passed signs of the growing protests. Broken glass, bits of concrete torn up from the streets, even elaborate bunkers constructed by whatever materials were at hand, lay everywhere. Passing Istanbul Technical University, we noticed somebody had put up a doorframe in the middle of the street, and labeled it “Yeni Turkey,” or New Turkey.
“So! We are now in the New Turkey,” my friend Omer joked, as we each passed through the door.
The New Turkey, well it certainly was a messy one, that’s for sure. Fortunately, there were no sign of police at that hour. The whole neighborhood had that sleepy, hung-over feel from a night of heavy action.
Still, I was drawn to these “çapulcular,” the more I saw of them. I liked their courage, their idealism, their dangerous naivete. They thought they were changing the world. It felt like you were magically transported back to San Francisco in the Summer of Love.
Making our way over to the park, we passed the charred remains of the tractors, abandoned by the workers when the protests started. Police had formed a line at the entrance to the park. Nearby, a small crowd of journalists were focusing their cameras on some guys sitting on the concrete strip. Peering past the journalists, Omer reported. “They are just reading books,” he said. Apparently, in an effort to appease the cops, the protesters had adopted a novel approach. The read-in, if you will, was intended to show the cops that the protesters were not doing anything wrong. Like, this is a park, sir. I’m just reading a book. Is there any problem with that?
The police seemed generally OK with that. In fact, they seemed business-like but fairly chill that morning. They let people go past them into the park. As for the journalists, there wasn’t that much to report, so they got their bit and soon moved on. Omer and I continued into the park. We passed the Revolution Cafe, which was organized by some local students and activists. They were handing out plates of free breakfast, so we each took a plate and sat and ate our Revolution breakfast and looked around. Again, much of it reminded me of old documentaries on the 1960s. There was a free health clinic where injured protesters, or sick ones, could receive treatment. There was a free book shop, with the inevitable Chomski and Marx and other leftist material, but if I recall there were other books too, general fiction. It was like the Diggers all over again, reincarnated in their Turkish brothers, the Çapulcular.
And there were lots of tents, with tired protesters sleeping off their nightly battles. Many of them looked as though they hadn’t had a bath in days, and had slept in the same disheveledclothes.
Taking out my phone, I started to take some pictures, prompting one of them, a young man with a rough Castro-like beard, to emerge resentfully from his tent. Recognizing me as a foreigner, he signaled his displeasure.
“He’s my friend,” Omer intervened, speaking in Turkish. “It’s no problem, we are just taking some photos.”
“He is your friend?” the young Turk asked, his eyes still hard with suspicion. He regarded me a moment longer, then relented and crept sleepily back to his tent.
From my previous years of experience covering such demonstrations, I knew to expect such treatment. Back in California, it wasn’t unheard of for environmentalists to accuse you of being in the pocket of corporations, of being sent in to spy on their activities. You get accused of being a lot of things, which just goes with the territory. But California was familiar territory, and you had the First Amendment. Here in Turkey, you generally feel far more exposed.
Anyway, we took some pictures, checked out some of the banners, the hand-made brochures, and continued on. At a sort of mini amphitheater a woman was giving a speech, and people sat around and listened. I noticed that not all of the people there were hard-core. Many were daytrippers, the curious, like Omer and I, or else university-age kids who wanted to be a part of the atmosphere, the vibe.
One girl, who couldn’t have been more than sixteen, sat with some friends. She looked friendly, so I approached her and we talked for a while. She and her friends had been coming every day since the protests started, and their parents did not know about it.
“Where are you from?” I asked. “I mean, which part of Istanbul?”
The girl smiled, squinting in the bright sunshine.
“Taksim is my home,” she said. “Here, all around.”
The protests went on much of that summer, and later come fall, began to fade. Elections came that fall, and Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party won again. Triumphantly, Erdoğan and his supporters declared that the great nation had prevailed over the forces of lawlessness.
Three summers later, in July 2016, attempt, the country again would be rocked by upheaval, during a failed military coup that resulted in more than 200 deaths. Tens of thousands of people would later be either jailed or sacked from their jobs.
And this past month, now-President Erdoğan and the AK Party (with a coalition of nationalists) strengthened their hold on the country, winning elections that granted Erdoğan sweeping new executive powers.
With so much that has happened over the past five years, the Summer of Gezi, or Istanbul’s Summer of Love, now seems to belong to a vanished time. Five years. No doubt that girl I spoke to has gone on to college now. Who knows what happened to my angry Castro wannabe? Maybe he’s moved on Che Guevara. Or enlisted in some rebel faction down in Syria. Or maybe he got a job selling tents at IKEA, who knows?
Taksim itself has changed a lot. In part because of the protests, but also because of the threat of terrorist attacks, and the even more tangible villain of inflation, many shops have closed and moved away. In a move many here view as symbolic, the Ataturk Cultural Center was torn down and replaced by a large new mosque (which the powers-that-be justified by claiming that Muslim tourists visiting Takism should have the convenience of a nearby mosque. As if Istanbul didn’t already have hundreds of mosques, critics argue).
At any rate, the park itself –- Gezi Park -– is still there. I don’t get up to Taksim Square that much nowadays. But when I do, I always pass by it, the green trees providing a breath of fresh air, the green hills a measure of reassurance in that compacted, urban atmosphere.
It’s nice to know that it’s still there.
Also, I think of Muharrem Ince, the “Gariban,” who despite only gaining 30 percent in the last election, led a spirited opposition campaign this past spring that no doubt mobilized many of those who fought to save the park. A sign perhaps that perhaps the voices of dissent are still alive and well here in this troubled part of the world. So maybe in the last analysis, Istanbul’s Summer of Gezi did achieve something lasting, after all.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher who does not like the smell of napalm in the morning unless it is Robert Duvall who is doing the smelling. He lives in Istanbul.