It all started with peaceful protests against the destruction of Gezi Park, one of the few remaining parks in downtown Istanbul. It was here that the largest popular uprising in the history of the Turkish Republic began, in June 2013. For about four months, more than seven million people took to the streets in 79 cities across the country, almost continuously. It was a historic occasion in which the masses raised their voices against a fundamentalist, nationalist, corrupt, sexist, criminal, and homophobic regime.
On the evening of May 29, 2013, a dozen or so people set up tents inside the park with the goal of being on site when the bulldozers would arrive the next day to uproot the trees. In spite of numerous court rulings to the contrary, the park was going to be destroyed, partly to make way for a shopping mall housed inside a historic military barracks, the famous Topçu Kıslası, built in 1806 during the Ottoman era and destroyed in 1940, just a few years after the establishment of the Republic.
The violent police intervention during the night and the uprooting of the centuries-old trees the next day prompted numerous people to come to the park. In the early hours of June 1, Gezi Park was full of citizens, but there were also parliamentarians and cameras. Sirri Sureyya Onder, then representative for the city of Istanbul from the opposition, said in front of the bulldozers: “I also represent these trees, I have to defend them.”
The policemen from the Istanbul Municipality who were disguised as workers from the company that won the contract stopped their work. By this point, the eyes and ears of the whole nation were on Gezi: only the “main” TV channels were missing. Phones were ringing, millions of tweets were being spread, and the number of people going to the park was increasing all the time. The tone of the authorities, calm at first, slowly turned threatening: on the evening of June 1, the police decided to intervene with water cannons, tear gas and batons. In that moment, a popular uprising was born that would define the country’s next few months.
In just a few days, the police killed eight young men: Ali Ismail, Berkin, Ethem, Mehmet, Abdullah, Medeni, Ahmet and Hasan – for which no one was ever punished. In four months of demonstrations, more than 8,000 people were injured and about 200 arrested. During the uprising, Internet access was cut off and the mainstream media produced an endless river of fake news about the events. In the end, the construction of the mall was successfully stopped. However, the uprising was called an “unarmed coup attempt” by both the government and the judiciary.
As a result, the doctors who treated the injured, the reporters who reported the facts accurately, the lawyers who defended the people who were victims of police violence, even the imams who gave shelter to the injured were all put under investigation and made the focus of political and media lynching campaigns. A maxi-trial involving seven defendants is still ongoing, with lawyer Can Atalay as one of them, who after the May 14 elections became a parliamentarian for the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP) and is still waiting to be released from prison to take office.
The uprising was attended by millions of people, first and foremost by young people, women and LGBTQ+ people. Among them was Hazal Siphai, who now works as a journalist and produces podcast content on gender-based violence. During the uprising in 2013, she was 21 years old and studying to become a journalist.
“Together with other people, we had been collecting news for a long time for a blog about urban redevelopment and gentrification projects. We had also been following the Gezi Park case.” For Hazal, it was a spontaneous choice to be a part of the uprising. Throughout June, she stayed at the park and participated in the 15 days of occupation and self-management at the beginning of the revolt, which represented the grassroots organizational soul of the uprising.
Gezi Park had always been a place for labor and activism, but also a refuge for LGBTQ+ people, who were increasingly marginalized and excluded from society. For them, it was important to be part of the uprising: “LGBTQ+ people became more visible with the uprising. They were there with their visible identities. It was an inclusive uprising. All people united against evil, no matter what identity they had.” Out of that experience came an extraordinary edition of Pride that June, which was attended by more than 100,000 people.
“What stayed with me from that uprising is the idea that we can unite to defend our rights by stepping out of our bubble. Shouting, marching and fighting for various demands made me feel valuable. Gezi was an existential moment for me. I learned that organizing is necessary and it’s good and useful to fight together.”
The presidential election runoff fell on the 10th anniversary of the start of the Gezi Park uprising. The prime minister during those events is now the president of the country, and there are still a number of people in jail, detained for their direct or indirect participation in the uprising. Outside the country, there are many thousands of people living in exile waiting for the soul of the Gezi uprising to return one day and take the place of the regime installed in Ankara. Then, they will also be able to return to a freer, more secular and democratic Turkey.
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