Story and Photo by Dash Paulson
Around 1:30 p.m, I could smell the dust and gasoline fumes in the air. I noticed people with bandaged hands. White gauze wrapped tightly over palms and around fingers and wrists. One boy had his arm in a sling. One woman had cotton padded over her eye.
Tight patrols of three to a dozen police officers trudged up and down the sidewalks. Officers in plain clothes were easy to spot since they stuck together in the same tight, defensive knots, and locals flowed around them.
On the other side of the square was what was left of Gezi park and the trees that had ignited the demonstrations. Armored police vans encircled excavators, which were scraping away what was left of the park.
“Dash this is stupid,” was my brother Sully’s assessment. In hindsight, he was right. However, I had only read about conflicts like this, and seen them through TV. I wanted to be a journalist and this looked like a good chance to cut my teeth.
Istanbul had zoned the trees and paths of Gezi for destruction that year, to be replaced with commercial property resembling Ottoman barracks. When bulldozers ripped out the trees that summer, Istanbul’s reaction was similar to how New Yorkers might feel about replacing a piece of Central Park with a shopping mall in the style of a colonial British fortress.
Protests started in April inside the tree line, with a few dozen people occupying the park. In May, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, involved himself personally in the park demolition. He ordered municipal police to use all force necessary to drive out the demonstrators.
By the time Sully and I saw the park in early June, at least half of the park was leveled, the rest was going fast, and the protests had gone from a few dozen occupiers to more than two million demonstrators across the country.
We sat at a restaurant with a good view of the square. It seemed like everyone there who wasn’t a restaurant employee was a journalist. Like police, reporters were easy to spot. Videographers and photographers were laden with equipment; writers seemed too warmly dressed, and always had notepads and pens in hand.
Around 3 p.m. little things started happening in the square. A few people lined up on the concrete between the monument and the park. They stood still, side by side, and stared straight ahead at a huge hanging portrait of Kemal Ataturk, the revered founding father of modern Turkey. They were silently daring the police to make a scene.
Journalists left their seats and walked to the edges of the square to snap pictures or record video. Some of the photographers moved in for close-up shots of the standing protests. I took us to a corner of the square, taking my own photos.
“Dash!” Sully shouted from behind me. “Dash! Turn around!” I turned and saw a police squad coming straight at us. They carried shields, batons, and white helmets that they donned as they moved. One carried a weapon that I guessed may be a launcher for pepper gas shells. I froze up and stood as still as the protesters behind me. Taking a picture of the riot squad point blank seemed like a bad idea. I let my hands drop to my sides.
And then they stopped. The police put hands to their ears, perhaps to listening to orders. They turned and walked away.
I whirled back around to the standing demonstration and saw several other squads had sauntered down from their covered tent onto the other corner of the square. They had reached the line of protestors and started pulling the protest apart. Plain-clothes police came up from behind the protesters and grabbed them from under their arms.
When the protesters were grabbed, they started shouting, defying the arrests. Police pulled and carried them to police buses behind the national monument—temporary detainment blocks. One woman wouldn’t go. Three officers were trying to lift her away as I watched, but she thrashed and twisted in their arms.
Now another wave of journalists were coming out. People in the square converged around the police. “They’re surrounded,” Sully said. “They need to get out.” He was right, the police dropped the woman as the crowd thickened so they could break out of the swarm.
We headed for the crowd—actually I dove towards them. Sully started cussing me out for continuing to be an idiot. The woman was sitting crossed leg on the ground holding a sign. She was being asked questions and video taped. Cameras clicked off all around and video equipment hummed. It sounded like crickets in heat.
Then we heard drums. Coming from Istiklal Street, the drag leading to Taksim, was a parade. The marchers waved rainbow flags, wore pink helmets, beat drums, and made a lot of noise. It was a gay pride parade. The attention of the square turned to the mouth of Istiklal.
LGBTQ rights have not developed as much in Turkey as in other countries in Europe. Such a huge show of LGBTQ pride was only possible in Istanbul, and even there the participants were showing a lot of courage to come out on the street.
I found a woman who spoke English. She told me this was an annual parade celebrating the beginning of gay pride week in Istanbul and this year they were only marching to the edge of Taksim. “We don’t know what the police will do,” she said. “Anything could happen, so we are expecting anything to happen.”
The demonstrators in the square had been grim, but the parade members were convivial. Whistles blared, feet stamped, someone yelled into an electric loudspeaker. It was a big, colorful party.
Sully and I went back to our quiet part of Istanbul that night and heard the next day about how hundreds more protesters converged on the square while we slept and were aggressively dispersed with pepper gas. I couldn’t find any coverage of the parade the next morning in international news.
The reality I found in Taksim square was complicated, emotional, and informed by history I had no exposure to. When Europe was a backwater, this city was the heart of the world’s mightiest empire after Rome, but the Ottoman Empire is rarely discussed in western history. I felt a small piece of what some Turks might be experiencing; a terrible doubt in the news media after being shown a blurred, lazy sketch of events I could tell was inaccurate. Shouldn’t journalists bring their audiences not only blood and tears, but insight? I understood as a journalist how time constraints, fickle audiences, and the natural danger of reporting on this situation were limiting coverage. But beyond the moments of violence, there seemed precious little interest in who the Turks were as a people. That parade alone taught me more about Turkey than any bloody bit of buzzing news had.