'I believed in the power of music' says Gezi protest ‘piano man’

The Gezi Park protests began in late May 2013 as an effort by a small number of environmentalists to save a park in central Istanbul.

But they ballooned into nationwide demonstrations against the increasing authoritarianism of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government after footage of police brutality against protesters was shared widely on social media. 

On the seventh anniversary of the protests, Ahval spoke to German musician Davide Martello, who became an unlikely icon for the sit-in at Istanbul’s Taksim Square after he wheeled his piano among the crowd and began performing for the protesters.

Martello was living in Sofia, Bulgaria when the demonstrations broke out. He and some friends drove overnight to Istanbul with his piano to support the protests after seeing the violence unleashed by the police.

"I never thought that I would play an influential role during the Gezi protests. All I wanted was a peaceful demonstration and I can't believe it worked out," Martello said.

"I felt anxious when I first started playing the piano, but after a while, people started to gather around the piano. The police stopped firing tear gas, and that was my goal anyway. After a while, the tear gas was completely gone and I felt safe when people started applauding me," he said. 

The protesters called Martello the “piano man”, and - alongside Ceyda Sungur, who was pepper sprayed by the police and became known as the “woman in red”, and Erdem Gündüz, a performance artist who became known as the “standing man” for joining the street protests by standing still for hours - he became one of the icons of the protests.

Yet, hundreds of people associated with the Gezi protests have faced prosecution since 2013.

"I am not in a position to judge any action of any world leader, but I know that many innocent people at that time went to jail just for saying their views. This is not right,” Martello said. “A country that wants to be a member of the European Union, in particular, should provide freedom of expression and diversity of thought.”

A Turkish court accepted an indictment on March 2019 seeking a combined 47,520 years in prison for businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala and 15 other defendants, including human rights activists, journalists and actors, who were accused of drawing millions of demonstrators to the streets in the Gezi Park protests.

The indictment said the 16 defendants worked in concert with foreign powers including Hungarian-American businessman George Soros in an effort to overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Human rights groups and the European Union labelled the Gezi Park trials as an attempt by the government to crackdown on its critics, stifle dissent, and criminalise anti-government demonstrations.

In February, nine top civil society activists, including Kavala, were acquitted of terrorism charges linked to the Gezi Park protests. However, Kavala was re-arrested the following day on espionage charges related to the July 2016 failed coup attempt.

Martello's piano was seized by the Turkish police during the protests, and he was also accused by the Turkish authorities of being a protestor recruited from abroad.

He said that such accusations are illogical, and that he came of his own free will to support peaceful protest in the best way he could: "At that moment, I believed in the power of music."