I had just passed the socialists’ war drums on my way down to the barricade. Up on the escarpment, I had seen them drive an abandoned truck onto the flames.
I thought it would probably make for a good photo.
The police were breaking in on two fronts, and it took several of the bravest and best equipped to return the canisters of tear gas they were throwing around us. Up at the barricade, choking on a combination of tear gas and burning rubber, I saw a pre-pubescent kid playing chicken with the water cannon. It took two of his older cousins to convince him throwing stones at the riot tanks was a pointless endeavour.
It was June 12, 2013, and I was in Istanbul, Turkey. Around me raged one of the longest and largest street battles the city has seen: an Occupy-style protest against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan andhis infamous army of riot police.
Taksim Square was a flaming, acrid wasteland. A few days earlier, it was was described by one local journalist as a “utopic freetown,” insulated from the heavy-handed operations of Turkish riot cops by a series of barricades on neighbouring streets.
Inside the adjacent Gezi Park was a self-regulated collective society, where Kurds rolled tobacco for the anarchists’ “Free Cigarette” boxes, the
Anti-Capitalist Muslims led Friday prayers, and political parties – legal and illegal – organized food and water distribution and patrolled the park’s exterior.
The burnt-out husks of police cars and media vans stood like public art around the square, shading those who took a break from the front to catch some rest in the park’s more docile areas. The local media had become a target after they refused to do live coverage when the protests were at their peak. This is Turkey – a censored country famous for having more imprisoned journalists than China and Iran.
It was hard to believe this began over a tasteless redevelopment project. In a typically heavy-handed fashion, Erdogan had approved the construction of a Disneyland-esque neo-Ottoman mosque and shopping centre complex on one of the last remaining green spaces in urban Istanbul.
A sit-in of dozens on May 28 ballooned to tens of thousands overnight after a particularly brutal crackdown. Turkish police, not known for their tact, had been especially careless, gassing tourists and locals alike, even launching a canister into Taksim Square’s busy metro station and terrifying thousands of commuters.
Turkish commentators called this symptomatic of Turkish policing, which learned its techniques from the brutal suppression of Kurds and communists. They relied too much on the stick and not enough on the carrot. Turkish prisons were still full of political prisoners, journalists, and demonstrators from the days the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) was fighting for independence in Turkey’s east.
But many more joined for less tangible reasons. Istanbul is not like other cities in Turkey. Despite having a skyline littered with minarets, it is not particularly pious. A smoking bylaw, introduced by Erdogan’s conservative Islamist government, is rarely enforced, as was a liquor bylaw introduced on the eve of the protests banning alcohol sales after 10 PM.
Beyoglu, the dense, post-imperial hub of modern Istanbul, is a prime example of the city’s culture. Ancient churches and local mosques are crowded in by tall, narrow buildings, filled with nightclubs, restaurants, and antique stores. To the west sits Tarlabasi, a downtrodden district of decaying Ottoman tenements, now host to transvestite brothels, art galleries and auto repair shops.
Everywhere, there is tea. It’s sipped, not drunk, and delivered by hand in tiny glass cups. It is a city that takes its time, that revels in public space, that lounges and says hello and doesn’t mind a grey sky or a hot sun.
And yet, in Beyoglu today, there are very few places that aren’t owned by somebody. Increasingly, what used to be owned by the government or by the poor is now owned by wealthy Anatolian businessmen: conservative, religious, and proud supporters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), rewarded for their loyalty with lucrative business contracts and multi-million dollar condos in lovely Beyoglu.
Talking to the street kids building barricades out of paving stones, it was clear why these protests had grown so quickly.
They had never lived outside of Istanbul, and yet had never had a stake in government – even under previous leadership. Every complaint they voiced was met with whiff of all-to-familiar tear gas, as they were pushed off the streets and into suburban projects where they could be more easily ignored.
The police won the battle on June 12, but not the war. They had forced the political parties from Taksim Square, where they were in danger of painting the protests with the terminology of electoral opposition. But the park, littered with construction materials and covered in tents, remained.
It was only a few days later, on June 16, when Gezi would fall.
In a particularly ill-advised move, I had bussed six hours away to the capital of Ankara to cover a pro-government rally, one of several organized by Erdogan as a sort of counterprotest-cum-media orgy. At the rally, I listened to Erdogan spew the usual paranoid rhetoric – the protests were the work of Syrians, terrorists, Israel, the US, the “interest rate lobby”, the communists, the Kurds – to a crowd of thousands brought on public busses from the countryside.
Hanging over us was a colossal portrait of Erdogan himself. Standing there amid the lukewarm crowd, with police helicopters filming that night’s news coverage overhead, it seemed vaudevillian, a tinpot dictator manufacturing a cult of personality, painted in the AKP’s colours of orange and blue.
But in many ways, Erdogan has been successful in supplanting Turkey’s republican founder, Kemal Ataturk, as the new national patriarch. In the conservative districts of Istanbul, where once the portrait of Ataturk would glower from every wall, Erdogan face is now a is now a permanent presence, in hairdressers, restaurants, and corner stores.
He has undone much of republican Turkey’s secularism with new moral decrees. He advised women on the number of children they should have (three) and the number of alcoholic drinks they should have in a year (two). He even called Ataturk a drunk – a comment that in previous decades might have caused a military coup.
Perhaps most alarmingly, he is rewriting the constitution to grant new presidential powers, and preparing for a run that will ensure 10 years of near-dictatorial powers. And yet, he has done all this with a confident majority of voters behind him. There is no real political opposition to his power.
I left the government rally before it had finished and headed to Kuglu Park, Ankara’s own occupied Gezi, and ran into a riot. The news had just come through on Twitter and Facebook – Gezi had been lost…
Reading the reports, I was for a moment glad I wasn’t there. Almost 8,000 were injured, and 59 suffered life-threatening injuries, according to the Turkish Doctor’s Union. Police gassed medical centres, businesses sheltering protesters, and even a hotel lobby, where a pregnant woman miscarried in the panicked press of bodies.
Journalists were arrested and detained for several days, without access to lawyers. Some remained missing weeks later. By then, five people had died, most from brain injuries caused by “non-lethal technologies” employed at point-blank range.
In Ankara, I was warned several times by protesters that journalists without press accreditation, issued by Erdogan’s office, were in danger of being detained, beaten, and interrogated. One student was badly beaten when trying to prevent an officer from sexually assaulting a female protester – his account was relegated to the “Sex” pages of the national English-language daily.
And yet, even in the aftermath of the worst of the police brutality, the protesters could not be stopped. With Gezi now closed to them, they found new ways to protest. Some followed the lead of performance artist Erdem Gunduz, who simply stood, in silence, in Taksim Square, offering no cause for arrest in an act of passive resistance. He was, in the end, arrested.
Others organized marches up Istiklal Avenue, excuses for more conflict with the police, which ended in violent clashes at the entrance to Taksim Square. More than a week after Gezi was broken, I found myself huddled in a doorway, trying to be invisible while a water cannon searched for targets in Istiklal’s side streets.
But this city is too resilient for even the most overwhelming police force. I watched protesters coordinate counter-attacks over Twitter, dodging canisters in tiny alleyways and firing stones on absent-minded police. Whenever they were pushed back, there was a storefront to hide in, a business that would shutter their windows and turn out their lights and pretend no one was inside.
Two months on, and little has changed in Turkey. New restrictive laws make organizing protests over social media a crime. The court order that for a moment prevented construction in Gezi has been overturned on appeal, and Erdogan continues to plot expansive and unwelcome development projects for Istanbul’s new elite.
But even here, where I catch my breath next to a fellow fleeing bystander in the lobby of some shuttered hotel, Istanbul does not change. The security guard watches his tea cool on the counter, and in front of one of Erdogan’s non-smoking signs, my new friend offers me a cigarette, and asks me where I’m from.