I arrived to Istanbul in the afternoon of May 30th. At around one in the morning I found myself racing for my camera to photograph thousands of people flooding down a main pedestrian boulevard chanting for the resignation of their prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The protest began earlier in the day as a small demonstration to stop the government from building a mall on top of Gezi Park, a gritty urban patch green in the city’s downtown. That peaceful gathering had now escalated into an angry throng advancing through tear gas toward police in riot gear. I snapped as many shots as I could, returned to my flat and emailed an editor in New York. Something big was happening here.
The next morning clouds of police tear gas had enveloped most of my neighborhood. Just down the street from my place protesters were now dodging water cannon as they clashed with authorities. Events had accelerated even more in the last 12 hours. The expansive commercial hub of Taksim Square and now sacrosanct Gezi Park had been fully taken over by newly minted activists. Cop cars had been flipped, hand made barricades had been established and as the police retreated to other points in the city, Istanbul’s version of Zuccotti Park had taken shape.
I spent the next week reporting on the many dimensions of this growing anti-government protest and the Occupy movement that Turks in their 20’s told me was their generation's political awakening. The protest to protect Gezi Park was the call-to-arms that finally allowed residents to address long simmering resentment towards Erdogan’s conservative religious agenda and his overall indifference to the voice of the secular public.
The most seductive and dramatic imagery- the tear gas canisters thrown back at police by masked protesters, the giant fires fueled by stripped construction materials, the handmade shields used to repel arcs of water cannon- these were the scenes that captured the imagination and told the narrative we expected back home.
What was actually going on in and around Gezi Park however was no anarchist free for all. A peaceful, highly innovative and organized community had sprung to life in a matter of days. I saw many of the hallmarks that had made Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park an effective stage to support a resistance: a first aid clinic, a media center, a kitchen, food carts, guitars and many tents and sleeping bags.
It was Utku Aslalm, 25, who became politically engaged for first time a few days before when he picked up a bullhorn to organize volunteers; it was my expat landlady, a clothing designer from Paris, who made gas masks from a plastic bottle and wadded up gauze; and it was the hundreds of personal handwritten notes taped to a burned out police vehicle, all of them a person message against the government . These smaller stories were the reasons I remained in Gezi and Taksim Sq. for hours every day.
Today the park stands intact and the protest movement is still on-going, dispersed through the city and looking towards future elections. Turkish friends of mine told me throughout this uprising that it was the most alive they had ever felt. I tried to imagine what I would do at home in New York if somebody planned to take away my open green spaces? Classified as non-essential, all national parks are closed as of last week until congress re-opens government.