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Live from Taksim Square

by Jesse Rosenfeld

(Photo/Oren Ziv)

 

The attempt to contain anti-government protests in Turkey expanded into a widescale crackdown on Monday, when a day and night of pitched battles took place between protesters and police for control of Taksim Square.

It was 07.00 when I got a call from a photographer saying the police attempt to clear the iconic square that activists held for the last week had begun.

Throwing on clothes and grabbing my makeshift gas mask, I barrelled out of the door and around the corner as youth from the Socialist Democratic Party (SDP), wearing yellow construction hardhats, gasmasks and blue jerseys, scrambled to re-enforce their barricades as tear gas landed all around.

Arriving in the centre of the square as waves of riot police backed by a squadron of water cannon trucks lined the edges of Taksim, young people camping out in the adjacent Gezi Park frantically tried to organise a response.

New makeshift barricades went up and as police attacked with water cannons, teargas and rubber bullets, determined youth hunkered down and responded with molotov cocktails, fireworks and rocks.

No one was in a mood to surrender the Square they had wrestled from police the previous week during running street clashes in response to the violent police eviction of Gezi Park.

It was those clashes that sparked the nationwide protest and turned a small environmental protest into a national anti-government revolt.

Fighting for every inch of the square, the alienation of the youth in the park deepened and the call-out went out across social media for people to flood in to support.

Few were better organised than the SDP youth and as they held out during the initial attack, word quickly spread about their party offices being raided by police with 70 party officials and members arrested in the building.

“Shoulder to shoulder against fascism,” they called out at the police, punctuating their chants with firebombs landing on the water cannon tucks, forcing the flaming vehicles to briefly retreat, only to return to the barricades to spray pressurized water laced with pepper spray.

“This is nothing short of a fight for freedom, of our right to publicly assemble and make our demands known,” Arda Tasci, a 25 year old unemployed man who recently graduated from university with a degree in labour economics, tells me. “Now I will stay on till the end, we won’t let them shut us down,” he says with determination.

Meanwhile, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the protesters as radicals, police detained dozens of lawyers supporting the protest movement inside the court house.

It’s a surreal experience walking through the teargas around square that the previous day had its surrounding buildings draped in opposition flags and slogans of all stripes.

It felt as though a budding counter culture and new discussion being started in Turkey was being extinguished by water cannons and put down by rubber bullets.

As darkness descended, the thousands that had gathered in the centre of Taksim were again attacked with a barrage of teargas and hail of rubber bullets.

Activist medics circulated the crowds treating people by spraying their eyes with liquid antacid. Again people regrouped, marching out of the side streets and back to the square in what became an all-night pattern.

By morning, Taksim is firmly held by the police, menacingly guarded in the centre with giant water cannon trucks while Gezi Park remains in activists’ hands.

At stake is far more than the logistics of blocked traffic flows in the centre of Istanbul.

Taksim Square has become symbol for the protesters of democracy being driven from streets, while for the government retaking it is a sign of the unshakable authority derived from successive election victories.

Like the fight for the direction of a polarized country, the fight for Taksim continues.

 

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