I Went to Cover the Istanbul Protests and Got Arrested

01/07/2013 17:21 BST | Updated 31/08/2013 10:12 BST

Part 1

Thursday & Friday: Inside Gezi Park

The handcuffs are digging into my wrists. To my left a riot policeman is rough-handling a young detainee who can't stop crying. It's hot, I haven't eaten for hours, and I don't have my press card. Istanbul was supposed to be a stopping point on my way to visit my grandparents. I never thought I'd end up in police custody in front of a man insinuating that I was linked to a deadly bombing.

It was a decision I took on a whim that got me here: I had decided to book a plane ticket to Istanbul to spend a few days covering the protests before heading south to see my grandparents. I didn't have a plan, or any contacts, or anyone to publish me, but I was sure things would work out.

Besides, the timing seemed perfect: the Turkish government had been caught off-guard by mass protests that had shaken the authority of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Activists had re-occupied Gezi Park and waved their middle fingers at the authorities, who thought they had dealt with the problem by lobbing tear gas canisters at it.

I wanted to be there to see how Turkey's strongman would respond to the first real home-grown challenge to his leadership. This three-part blog is my record of what became the most surreal four days of my life.


The first time you visit Gezi Park, you begin to understand what motivated the original occupiers to move in under the trees. In the heart of Istanbul's suffocating sprawl of concrete, the park gives this overcrowded city a badly-needed pair of lungs. Now it's under threat, which is just one of many reasons why thousands of protesters here refuse to budge.

They've barricaded the camp against squadrons of Turkish riot police, whose presence in nearby Taksim Square is a constant reminder that the occupation could end at any moment, if and when the prime minister's patience runs out. Sometimes I wonder how willing they are to follow their orders. At night I see dozens of them slouched against battered storefronts trying to snatch a few precious hours of sleep.


Contrast their dreary world with the park, where colourful tents spill onto the pavements and huge banners hang from the trees. The occupation movement is hugely diverse. Members of the Turkish communists mingle alongside university students while gay rights activists hand out flyers underneath a rainbow-coloured flag. According to the organisers, more than eighty organisations are represented here, ranging from smaller activist-led groups to well-established political parties.

Out of this chaos of competing manifestos, the Taksim Solidarity Group quickly emerged as the leading umbrella movement to give the occupation some kind of unity of purpose. It set itself up on a platform overlooking the park's central square, where crowds gather to hear rousing speeches and the outcome of the latest round of talks between the movement's representatives. Organisers strictly regulate access onto the stage through a system of crowd-control barriers. Leaning over a metal barrier, I ask one of the group's leaders how the movement is organised. For his own safety, I won't reveal his identity.

"This is basically a tent where all the individuals and organisations meet... we give out gas masks and helmets... we have lost and found. This is the heart of the occupation," he tells me.

"Six tents come together, and say we're a 'street'... every 'street' will choose someone, and they will come here and discuss matters of our future and present, like what are we going to do if the police attack. They will discuss everything."


But the park is more than just protesters playing politics. An experiment in community-building - the likes of which I've never seen before - is in the works. Endless supplies of food and water come in from outside, which volunteers hand out for free.

"We made some announcements on the internet, and people reached us from all the cities of Turkey and from Canada, from China, from Brazil, and sent us food, medicine, and we collect it here and distribute it," says a gay rights activist.

"People call it the Taksim Commune... because everything here's for free. Everybody cooks, everybody brings something. We do the healthcare on our own, we keep the park secure."

Day and night, activists form human chains to bring in fresh water supplies and take out sacks of rubbish. Two days later I would see protesters using the same method to build barricades as riots spread through Istanbul. The park even has its own daily newsletter that advertises itself as 'The daily resistance newspaper'. In the Friday, 14 June edition of the Gezi Postası that I pick up, the headline reads: 'Biz Buradayiz, Hiçbir Yere Gitmiyoruz!' (We're here, we're not going anywhere!). Perhaps Erdoğan got hold of the same issue, because after two weeks of occupation he's made his decision: ironically, tonight will be the last night protesters occupy Gezi Park.