Friday, July 19, 2013

Update from Istanbul: Has teargas become a Saturday Night Ritual in Taksim?

Protesters, tourists, old people, families, run from water cannon
Since the expulsion of the Gezi Park protesters from the park on June 15 and the following day, the only protests in Istanbul that have been met with a strong police reaction have been confined to Taksim Square, Istiklal pedestrian avenue, and the side streets of Beyoglu and Cihangir, no longer extending to Besiktas, Harbiye, and other surrounding neighborhoods.  

water cannon sprays protesters on Istiklal causing all to run
In fact, during the last three weeks, it seems that it has become a Saturday night ritual for police to clash with protesters; with teargas being shot off, water cannons sprayed, and police chasing protesters into the side streets, where they sometimes also run into unknown assailants beating them with batons in civilian clothes. This of course happens in the midst of tourists running for cover, curious onlookers, and families with children working to keep a safe distance.  

During a 8-day span between two Saturday nights, July 6-13, I made my way down to Taksim to observe some of the protests (some turning into clashes); while other times during the week, I observed the chaos while eating dinner at a friend’s house on a street near Istiklal (literally with teargas seeping in through the windows), or having dinner at a restaurant with friends from abroad (with sounds of the teargas being shot off in the background). 

While some in government tried to paint Gezi Protesters as
disrespectful of religion, they hold Iftar
Here are some short observations and thoughts concerning what I have witnessed:

1. If the police just let the protesters march without interference evenings would end peacefully. Twice now I have witnessed demonstrations (one almost 3 weeks back) where police did not interfere and protesters dispersed within less than an hour. However, this was not the case on July 6, 8, and 13, when protesters clashed with police both on Istiklal, Cihangir (at least on July 8), and in the side streets of Beyoglu.  

2. As in the past, it seems then that Taksim is continuing to play its role as a game of honor on behalf of the Turkish authorities. For example, when protesters held a massive rally in Kadikoy, along with concerts and speeches, the approximate hundred thousand plus people dispersed with no problems with no police intervention whatsoever. The government’s obsession with not allowing any protests to take place in Taksim is costing the Turkish economy a great deal, while tearing parts of Turkey’s social components at the seams. Police intervention in the heart of the entertainment hurts tourism, and to claim that protests detour tourism cannot be supported; in fact, from my impression most tourists do not mind the protests and actually find them interesting.    

  3. While many shop owners have blamed protesters for their serious loss in business, they might look at the two above points.  In fact, protests often bring business to local restaurant and store owners, such as Istanbul’s LGBT Pride, which on June 30 attracted almost 50,000 protesters to Beyoglu. This massive march was left unhindered by police and ended peacefully despite its pro-Gezi chants. In this case, it was an all win situation. The police's non-intervention could be interpreted as a show of soberness and even strength, the protesters got their message out, and local businesses profited nicely! 

4. It is also important to point out that there are many shop owners who are on the protesters side, after also becoming victims of the mass urban renewal projects undertaken by Beyoglu Municipality and new orders limiting outdoor seating (see my previous blog from 2011: the Day the Bars died: Bring Beyoglu back to the people). Unfortunately, it seems that shop owners who speak out against the government are also worried about the negative impact this could have on their business due to “paybacks” by the government. This week, when one owner spoke out in favor of protesters, Tarkan Konar, his cafe bar, Muaf, was closed for 3 days under an order issued by the local municipality (AK Party) for previous code violations.

5. Returning to the topic of tourists; among many of the people victimized by the teargas are tourists. Numerous times I have guided tourists caught in the middle to safe zones including families with children. On July 6, I met two Egyptian tourists, a mother and her young adult daughter. Both had received a heavy dose of teargas; the daughter was in full panic mode. They were crying since they were not able to make it to meet the husband/father and the younger daughter/sister who had been waiting for them at a spot that turned into a battle zone. I helped them find their way, crossing two police lines, with police treating us with respect, letting us pass unhindered. This is just one example of many I have encountered. I should point out that I still encourage tourists to come to Istanbul, but warn them that if they are on Istiklal and hear commotion due to rising tensions (slogans shouted, whistling, heavy police presence) to go the other way.

6. On July 6, while most of the press focused on the acts of a man pulling out a machete threatening protesters while kicking an innocent woman in the back, I witnessed people who had been beaten black and blue by civilians donning batons; just last week came the news that one student who lived in Eskisehir, Ali Ismail Korkmaz, died of his wounds due to being beaten in the head, after days in a coma. Despite arrests, no one has been charged in his killing. Whether the people beating the protesters are shop owners, pro-government factions, or undercover police, the truth be told that it is dangerous development and one that needs to be investigated.    

7. During this period I observed that it seems due to the lower number of protesters there is closer proximity between the police and protesters leading to a more violent outcome, and more arrests. On July 8, on my way home around 1130 PM I crossed Istikal and watched a police shoot off a canister that appeared to be directed at a bystander’s head who was curiously watching the events unfold; luckily he ducked and the canister crashed into the window cracking it. Turkish police have been documented by Human Rights Watch (and the European Court of Human Rights) as wrongfully firing teargas canisters; in place of shooting them at an angle in the air, or directing the teargas directly at ground, that turns them into a weapon that can inflict death and serious injuries. As a result, scores of people have been hit in the head, suffered breakage of facial bones, lost eyes, and serious hemorrhaging, leaving people in comas and paralyzed, without even addressing other parts of the body injured. In fact, you can read about one of the first victims, Lobna Allami, a Turkish Palestinian, who was hit in the head during the first day of protests on May 31, and remains paralyzed among other serious conditions she is facing.  


8. During the same evening of July 8, I also was able to observe from a window on a main side road not only protesters but also police. For the first time since Gezi started I got the chance to see what appeared to be new recruits patrolling the streets. As it is, many of the police seem be in their early twenties, and these officers could have come in place of older recruits that were long overdue for a break; recent reports have been coming in on how the long hours days without sleep has taken a toll on them. In one case, I witnessed a young police officer who had been hit badly by teargas since his gas mask was put on improperly, with his friends comforting him. Perhaps one attribute that made me think they were young recruits, in addition to the one getting gassed, was the fact that they were marching like soldiers down the side streets, chanting slogans (usually common among military forces and not police) such as “vatan sana canim feda” (I'll die for my country), as if they needed some encouragement. Whatever the case, chanting such slogans only causes a dangerous polarization and sense of alienation towards the other (on both sides).
marching through side streets July 8
  9. Lastly, on the protesters side, it is clear they have entered a new phase. From the masses at Gezi park, numerous forums have been setting up, while other groups protest independently (like we saw with the journalists). I have also met a group of professionals who meet weekly brainstorming how to move to a political action stage. There are great examples of learning about the other, and building on the extreme diversity of the different groups. This was demonstrated greatly by the massive Iftar breakfast dinner, where protesters opened a massive dinner for those fasting during the day along Istiklal, enjoying their evening in the shadow of riot police. While some are skeptical about a major political movement emerging from the Gezi protests, it is clear that the protesters have kept their demands alive through creativity and setting the agenda of when and where they will protest. Further, it seems that until now, they have set the agenda, a fact that should send a strong signal to the government to adopt new policies.  

A lone man walks up Istiklal checking phone teargas
in background. After police enter Nevizade; July 8, 1130 PM  

So the question remains: Will the government turn clashes on Istiklal into a ritual? Will it adopt a strategy to bringing the tensions to an end? Well, I think for now the answer is no. Firstly, the fact that arresting of protesters is still continuing, while others are being detained seems to signal the government is opting to continue its zero-tolerance to any forms of anti-government dissent. Nevertheless, I think it is clear that the government seems to have mismanaged the Gezi Protests from A-to-Z, giving protesters more reason to continue to their struggle. This is truly unfortunate for a government that on one hand is taking courageous steps to make peace with its Kurdish population, and that during the last decade has moved the country forward on so many levels.  


  1. Hi. I found your piece on Istanbul really informative. I've been planning a trip to Istanbul in September. I'm a single woman and it's my first solo international travel. I know you don't have a crystal ball to look into the future...but what's your best guess? Should I be thinking of another destination for relaxing vacation travel?

  2. HI, I wouldnt worry; as I stated usually the protests are confined to Taksim, and you wouldnt have the slightest idea something's happening if you were not there; beautiful country, vibrant city, great people and amazing food; seems like a safe call to me!

  3. Hello there. I just had a chance to read this article and I want to thank you. Great analysis and observations while most of the Turkish media is sleeping. Most of them even didn't go to Taksim while these major clashes were happening.

    Take care and don't forget, "Bu Daha Başlangıç.."

    Batu from Bilgi Uni.

  4. Thank you for such an honest and informative post! This is the first time I've stumbled upon your blog, and I am so happy that I did  Online Travel Agencies