(The author is a Seattle native who moved to Istanbul in January of 2006.)
Demonstrators waved flags from the Monument of the Republic after the police withdrew from Taksim Square on Saturday.
I first saw the Gezi Park protesters on Friday morning at 5:30 am from the window of a taxi riding through the neighborhood of Gümüssuyu, just down the hill from Taksim Square, on my way to the hospital to meet my father-in-law who had been rushed there due to a heart attack. This put me on the street around the same time police were burning the tents of the protesters encamped in the park. The group of 20 or 30 that I saw were huddled together at the bottom of a hill, either about to march on Taksim or having just been chased off.
That afternoon I got a beer just off of Istiklal, the massive pedestrian street which terminates at Taksim. The newspapers were already full of stories from the morning's events. I abandoned my spot upon seeing a number of people walking quickly down the street, followed by the sound of tear-gas canisters being fired not far behind. One of the principal police tactics here has been shooting tear gas down the side streets off Istiklal to keep the protesters from congregating on the main street.
Nothing changed until 9 or 10 that night when the neighbors began banging pots and pans from their balconies and and marchers filled our street shouting, "government step down!" The march continued until at least 2 am. The first indication I saw that something unusual was happening was when a group of notoriously conservative MHP party members with their trademark handlebar mustaches joined in with the rest of the protesters.
Debris left over from the struggle on Siraselviler Street, Cihangir, on Saturday.
Saturday morning was sunny and warm. I stopped at two different hardware stores to pick up construction masks and goggles, a hot commodity which left me waiting 30 minutes for more to arrive. The protesters in my own neighborhood, Cihangir, were attempting to march up Siraselviler Street, which also terminates at Taksim Square. Halfway up the street, the police had created a barricade and were launching volleys of tear gas cannisters. The crowd pushed forward, the barricades moving with them, only to be answered with spray from a water cannon. The riot squad had mixed chemicals into the water which gave it an orange hue. A teenage girl who had been soaked by the cannon kept saying that her skin was burning. My wife doused her with a mixture of Tums and water, which helped a bit to nullify the chemicals. People in the neighborhood threw lemons out their windows for gassed protesters to squeeze on their faces.
At one point, things seemed to be settling down, and my wife and I ducked into one of the few restaurants which had remained open. Minutes after sitting down to eat, we heard the loud "pop" of several more tear gas cannisters. Those who were left on the street completely dispersed and the street filled with white smoke. One of the riot police appeared outside the window, looking like Mad Max on the original movie poster with a round helmet and a tear gas launcher in hand. The gas came in through the cracks in the door and the ventilation shaft in the ceiling, which left us both coughing and halfway blind. The police are known to come into shops and restaurants that provide sanctuary to protesters and arrest whomever they find there, so we hid in a closet behind the kitchen and rubbed lemon juice on our faces until the cops had gone. A few minutes later, people returned to the street and began to march again. By 3:30 pm an order came from the local governor for the police to allow the marchers to take Taksim Square.
Protester in home-made gear on Siraselviler Street, Cihangir, after the police confrontation on Saturday.
The long walk up to Taksim was strewn with burning garbage and no fewer than five overturned dumpsters. Taksim had the most tremendous mass of people I have seen in my life — at least 50,000 in the square itself and just as many more in the park and the streets leading up to it — some waving flags for their respective political parties (there are about 20 in Turkey), some standing on overturned cars. The one reliable news station, Halk TV, was broadcasting from the square. Next to it, the Fox News van had been vandalized beyond repair (by Sunday it had been overturned and pushed down a side street landing in a rubble of destroyed police barricades). We climbed the massive marble staircase which leads from the square to Taksim Gezi Park, where thousands of people mingled beneath the very sycamore trees which ignited the protests. Protesters had entered pre-fab buildings a construction company had set up on either end of the park (they were slated to destroy the park and begin building a new shopping mall) and were destroying the contents of those buildings. Others were taking pictures of themselves inside the remains of a pair of abandoned police vehicles.
By Sunday the action in Taksim had died down, the heart of the protests having moved to Besiktas, a neighborhood beside the Bosphorus. A second visit to the scene held one great surprise. Among the tens of thousands of people in the square and park were a team of college-age kids picking up all the garbage from the previous day and bagging it. By evening, hardly a scrap remained.
Pre-fab buildings set up by the construction company in Gezi Park are ransacked on Saturday. Graffito: "Welcome to the first annual gas festival."