In Taksim square, citizen barricades have sent a powerful message of resistance to the government: Stop brutalizing us.
In much of the world, barricades are associated with law and order–even if people complain that police use them to restrain their freedom beyond what is reasonable. But for the past two weeks, parts of Istanbul and other Turkish cities have more resembled a scene out of Les Miserables and the series of French uprisings of the 19th century than the cityscape of a modern country which proclaims itself an example of stability and democracy in the region.
The citizen barricades popped up after a police onslaught on peaceful demonstrations that has resulted in at least four deaths and some 5,000 injuries countrywide. Many people have suffered brain damage or lost an eye after being hit directly with tear gas canisters–multiple eyewitness accounts suggest that police were deliberately firing these at protesters as well as at doctors and journalists present at the demonstrations. Thousands more were arrested in what Amnesty International called “an ongoing and serious human rights crisis.”
The main police strategy so far has been to wash the protesters away with powerful water cannons mounted on heavy vehicles known as TOMA (this video shows a TOMA attack on a man in a wheelchair) and to douse the area heavily with tear gas simultaneously. Protesters responded by building concentric rings of barricades around any space they occupied, using anything available, from concrete slabs pried out of the sidewalks to captured police barricades and burned-out cars and buses. At one point a few days ago, I counted nine barricades on the main approach to Taksim square.
Several protesters said that, despite a popular leftist song that calls on people to go to the barricades (in Turkish), barricades were something completely new to them. Nevertheless, they learned fast, and for a few days the makeshift barriers performed miracles.
They stopped the TOMA, and police contented themselves with periodically gassing the Occupy-style tent camp in Taksim and the adjacent Gezi park from a distance, mostly at night. But then, on Tuesday, they brought in heavy bulldozers and armored personnel carriers to break down the roadblocks. Behind came the TOMA, and behind the TOMA were marching squads of riot police in full gear. What followed was one of the most brutal episodes in the entire two-week history of the protests.
As of Thursday, the remaining protesters had once again barricaded themselves in the smaller space of Gezi Park while police stood just yards away, waiting for orders to attack. The previous day, Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said that the protests would be over “in 24 hours” and the atmosphere was tense. While few had any illusions that the demonstrators could hold out against the vastly superior police forces, some believed that the images of burning makeshift libraries and medical tents would deter the authorities.
A larger point remains. While much has changed since the 19th century, and makeshift barricades are only of limited use against heavy bulldozers (even back then they could rarely stop the bullets and cannons), it is difficult to silence a popular uprising against the heavy-handedness of the government.
“We are here to protect our rights and free speech,” said 32-year-old Hüseyın who teaches at a primary school in Istanbul. “And we will not stop until Erdogan hears us.”
All Photos by Victor Kotsev for Fast Company