Istanbul's Gezi protests: the first Anniversary - what remains and prevails of Turkey's largest unrests after the first year?


On 2013 one particular draw over central Istanbul's geopolitical future turned out to be a last straw on camel's back for many. The plan of demolishing Gezi Park, city's green spot adjoining the Taksim square, in order to replace it with an obnoxious Ottoman-style shopping centre continued a long line of projects tinted with a scent of gentrification and strong personal support from prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The unrest that might've sparked from anger over a loss of a park soon gave birth to a much wider awareness over variety of political issues, resulting in largest wave of protests seen in recent history of Turkey.

The government's interests soon moved from shopping center to crushing the dissidence. Hundreds of thousands took their stand on the streets: according to the Turkish doctors' organisation, eight people lost their lives and about 8000 were reported injured.

A year later plans over Gezi might have been been put on standby, but the legacy of protests still lingers over different corners of Turkish society. Erdogan, stubbornly demostrating of failing to learn the lesson, has cleaned the police and judiciary of critics and in attempt to muffle down all uncomfortable criticism has increased the pressure on the media. Due to the role of social medias during the unrest, Twitter has been temporarily closed and YouTube still remains officially inaccessible. Expectedly, atmosphere grew thicker when Istanbul started closing the first Anniversary of Gezi protests on 31.5.

Already during early hours of the day it became clear that the authorities had no intentions to allow any major protests to take place near crucial spots of last year's conflicts – if anywhere. Having learned some of their lessons, police closed several roads and most of the city's public transportation from afternoon on to deny and harden access to central city. Riot police circled the area of Gezi while hundreds of plainclothes officers with batons patrolled nearby streets. Major shopping street Istiklal, springing directly from Taksim, was walled in by police lines blocking most of its narrow side streets that played important roles during 2013's riots. Gathering groups of possible protesters and confused tourists bobbed around observing the renewed city geography. Warnings to tourists were given by passing locals or shopkeepers; ”be aware of the police, they don't care who you are, they can and will hurt you if you are in a wrong place on a wrong time.”

The public call-out for Anniversary protests had been set for 7 PM. Some tried to reach Gezi to read a statement and lay flowers to commemorate the deaths of last years protests, but attempt was soon proved impossible. Near Taksim, hundreds gathered chanting "Resign, murderer AKP" and "Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance". Soon enough police started dispersing crowds big and small with tear gas, water cannons and varying forms of non-lethal ammonition, forcing them to retreat. Along Istiklal tourists fleed into coffee shops and hotel lobbies. Several journalists got their hits from advancing police lines, one being shot in the face with pepperballs from a close distance. Warnings given earlier were proven true: police didn't take interest to differ between bypassers, travellers or protesters.

Along Istiklal, few hundred demonstrators carrying banners ran away from police towards the Bosphorus Strait. In neighbourhoods across the city windows were opened and sound of pots and pans being banged rang over the streets in a sign of support. Crowds of protesters soon split into smaller groups, consisting of 30 to 100 of participants, parting ways from one another.

Though no larger crowds of protest managed to form, clashes caused by smaller groups started to quiet down only after midnight. On street junction close to Taksim, during dispersing a roughly 40 protester's crowd, a riot officer was overheard saying ”We have dispersed this bunch for seven or eight times already – and they just keep coming back.” Heavy precaution methods of the authorities played their part in cutting down the force and numbers of Anniversary protests – but persistence of those participating seemingly did not allow itself to be intimidated.

During the day eighty people were detained and, according to Turkey's Human Rights Association, 13 injured, but no official figures were available. Widely repeated conclusion stated the number of reported injuries only including those who had been hospitalized. For Saturday 25 000 police officers were deployed and 50 water cannons brought to Istanbul. During the day police also broke up protests taking place in Ankara and Adana.

<The true legacy of Gezi?>
Most important remains of Gezi legacy and the unrest of 2013 may not to be found in single showdowns between authorities and displeased citizens. Instead of disappearing into recent history as a mere serie of singular street protests, experiences gaind around Gezi issue appear to have lowered significant walls between different parts of the Turkish society and created a new sense over joint intetrests and common grounds. A certain wall of fear much seems to have been broken down – and thus, experienced displease over different political issues more easily turns into words spoken out. A much larger part of society found itself aware of the nature and structure of police violence and that criminal justice is not necessarily as just as preferred. Many have learned to approach authority more cautiously. An awareness over issues connected to gentrification and displacement and growing attitude of not allowing decisions over living spaces forced down the throats without chewing on to them has taken its first steps.

Secularists, religious conservatives, nationalist Turks and Kurds, Alevis and Sunnis, men and women – different walls of separation being for many thinner now than a mere year ago. Before Gezi, different organisations were barely able to attract crowds of few dozens to participate in protests over workers' rights. Now, the protests over mine disaster in Soma gathered several thousands participants, willing to face the risk of police brutality over a show of solidarity. Social movements and ideas of how to challenge power have emerged along the year: neighbourhood forums, squatting and volunteer election observers can be mentioned as just few tiny examples of the social experiments now taking place.

Many feel such changes are at least partially owed to Gezi – though no absolute truths can be cast in stone over swifts and changes inside civil society. Will the legacy and the spirit of Gezi turn into a mere symbolical Anniversary repeating a yet another dead ritual – or does it keep marching on, sparking up or enforcing more and more varying forms of social movements, challenges thrown towards authorities? Only time will tell.