NEW YORK, June 15–A few steps below Mark di Suvero’s bracing abstract red sculpture, Joie de Vivre, in the southeast corner of Zuccotti Park, a grand piano has been installed: Justin Wedes, OWS activist and educator who has just returned from a week at the anti-government protests in Istanbul, is at the keyboard. This being Occupyland, though, an overzealous saxophonist from Harvard drowns him out.
Photo Vernon San“ On June 12, just as the tensions with the Turkish police were the highest” said Wedes,” a pianist arrived in Taksim Square with his piano.”
The German-born Davide Martello performed with Yigit Ozatalay, a Turkish musician, in front of the Square’s central monument to Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish republic after the collapse of the islamist Ottoman empire.
“It helped to calm the situation,” Wedes said, “to bring solace to the many people who have been injured or whose friends or family have suffered casualties.”
A hand-made sign at Saturday’s Occupy Gezi NYC rally lists 7478 injuries, 5 people dead (including one policeman), 91 trauma victims, 10 blinded by tear gas canisters fired at close range, and 55 in critical condition, according to statistics from the Turkish Union of Doctors.
“I felt we needed to bring the same creative energy here in solidarity with the protesters in Gezi Park who we hear at this very moment are being attacked again by police,” Wedes continues. “I saw a lot of parallels between Occupy Gezi and Occupy Wall Street 2011: a festive, joyous mood, an autonomous zone with a free store and a medical station. But Occupy Gezi has been much more intense because of the police response; the stakes are much higher for the protesters there . . .the Erdogan administration has very much underestimated the support that these young protesters have from their families and their communities. People really believe Turkey should remain secular and tolerant. They don’t want to see an overarching government imposing social policies like the prohibition on sales of alcohol after 10pm (a law recently passed) or official interference in family planning and women’s issues.”
For 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul has 1.5% green space compared to New York City’s 17% for 8½ million. Hence the destruction of a park, a quality of life issue, arouses strong emotions. The uprooting of fifteen 75-year-old trees in Gezi Park, the neighborhood’s last remaining green space, was the first step in a redevelopment plan to convert the park into a neo–Ottoman military barracks housing a mall. On May 28, fifty environmentalists who had filed a court petition to block the project began a peaceful sit-in when the trees were bulldozed.
Two days later, in the night of May 30, police raided the park and set fire to the protesters’ tents , firing tear gas canisters, pepper spray, followed by high-pressure, truck-mounted water cannon, also laced with chemicals. The excessive police response to sleeping protesters, documented in social media and the Western European press, though initially ignored by the local television networks--CNN Turkey ran a penguin documentary during these first riots—triggered a spontaneous outpouring of tens of thousands of citizens onto the streets of Istanbul, and hundreds of thousands in 77 cities throughout Turkey.
“The protests have expanded into a larger referendum into the legitimacy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, “ said Wedes.
On the Liberty Street side of Zuccotti, the assembled crowd of Turkish Americans and sympathizers, whose fourth support rally this is have been joined by Greek and Brazilian activists. They observe a minute of silence to honor the victims of today’s third major crackdown in Istanbul.
This latest crackdown of unprecedented savagery came after a meeting between Erdogan and representatives of Taksim Solidarity Platform, a sort of self-appointed umbrella for smaller artist, LGBT and other collectives who’ve been camping at Gezi.
At this meeting Erdogan promised not to touch Gezi until the court had ruled on the environmentalists’ petition. But since Erdogan had already ignored legal process by bulldozing the Gezi park trees, protesters don’t trust this latest promise to observe the law.
Other examples of Erdogan’s lack of respect for the law include the detention last week in Ankara of 50 lawyers about to testify against police brutality.
After the minute of silence here in Zuccotti is over, the young woman speaker urges the crowd to make as much noise as possible. Through their chants and signs, the tone of the New York solidarity protests has taken on a new urgency that reflects the escalation of violence in Istanbul. The chants of “Resign, Erdogan”, in both Turkish and English, have morphed into “Fascist, Erdogan” and “This is the end Tayyip, this is the end!”
Protesters here, as in Istanbul, are enraged not only by Erdogan’s broken promise, but also by the fact that on Saturday tourists and families were visiting Gezi Park, and children as young as four were tear gassed; when the wounded sought shelter in the 5-star luxury hotels behind the park, where emergency first aid clinics had been set up, the police pursued them there, firing tear gas into the hotel lobbies of the Divan Hotel and the Hilton.
“My blood is boiling,” said a Turkish-American man, a University of Nebraska graduate who has been in the US for 22 years. “I’m here for people and people are here for me. We are together. When you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your country, that’s when your blood boils.”
(c) Liza Béar June 2013
© Copyright Liza Béar June 2013