A personal account of arriving in Istanbul – with my luggage – as the Gezi Park erupted in protest
I have to admit I felt just a little awkward. Four-wheeled cabin baggage would not have been my apparel of choice while walking into a riot zone, but I had no choice.
I am in Istanbul this weekend to attend the wedding of an old friend. My hotel, booked weeks ago, is a small place in the backstreets of Şişli, just a few streets away from a certain Gezi Park.
It’s normally a two minute walk from Taksim’s metro station; today, I had to find my way on foot from Mecidiyeköy, several kilometres away, as passers-by warned me there was tear gas about.
What follows is an account of what I saw.
The stench of gas
The main street leading from Şişli into Taksim is Halaskargazi Caddesi. It’s a traditional Turkish shopping street: narrow, busy, and with shoppers double- and even triple-parking their cars to rush into the shops.
But today there was also a steady stream of pedestrians – all walking towards Taksim. No-one was chanting anything, but whenever a car drove past waving a Turkish flag they would burst into applause.
At the junction with Cumhuriyet Caddesi, the final square before Taksim, the atmosphere changed. Many cars stopped and turned around: no-one was telling them, the drivers just seemed to know.
None of the walkers turned back; rather, they prepared for the tear gas, pulling out bottles of lemon juice and milk from their bags. A street seller weaved through the crowds, selling surgical masks for 5TL (£1.79). He should be ashamed of such shameless opportunism, his customers told him. But business was good for him.
Tear gas smells exactly like the stuff they spray around the roads of Turkish holiday villages to kill insects. Only much, much stronger. It makes your eyes sting and your throat contract – and this was still hundreds of metres away from the street battles.
As I trudged on towards Taksim with my suitcase and the now-chanting and clapping protestors, I decided to slip down a back street to – and here’s journalistic endeavour for you – find my hotel.
Tear gas smells like the stuff they spray around Turkish holiday villages to kill insects. Only much, much stronger.
If anything, the backstreets were more tense than the main road. Other people had had the same idea as me, but we were all walking in silence again. You could hear what was happening on the main road – the chants, the whistles, the thuds of someone hitting something – but you couldn’t see it.
A police helicopter hovered overhead. Every so often someone would look up, wave a middle finger at it and bellowa profanity. “They don’t dare come down here,” one said.
All of a sudden, there was a shout.
“They’ve thrown gas!”
The effect was electric. People began to run.
Someone came up to me and pressed a surgical mask into my hands. “You’ll need this,” he said, before putting on his own. The range of headwear was impressive: scarves, swimming goggles, even military-grade gas masks.
People were grabbing stones and rushing back up the hill towards the main street to find someone to hurl them at. The gas didn’t feel any more pungent than it had done before, but I donned my mask and pressed on.
At the next intersection someone rushed out of an estate agents’ and shouted: “They’re pulling back! The president’s just announced it.”
We crowded round his small television to watch the strapline: President Abdullah Gül had criticised the excessive use of force and demanded the police withdraw entirely from Taksim.
Everyone turned and ran to the square; I, on the other hand, disappeared inside my hotel to drop off my wretched luggage.
Stepping out bag-free a short while later, I found the mood had changed. The steady stream towards Taksim had not stopped, but the corner store was now doing a roaring trade in beer and snacks.
It’s worth mentioning the kind of people who were protesting today. All the demonstrators were well-dressed and in European clothes. The vast majority were snapping photographs on expensive smartphones. Many were swigging bottles of beer. There was barely a headscarf to be seen.
This is the section of Turkish society that is urban, comfortably middle class, Western-minded and fiercely secular.
You may remember the so-called “Republic meetings” of six years ago, when the self-declared “children of Mustafa Kemal” met in cities across Turkey to protest the AK Party government, reassert the country’s secular status and implicitly suggest it was about time the military stepped in to sort things out.
Given the same section of Turkish society had turned out to protest, you may wonder what made today any different.
It is that today’s protest was not about Ataturk and there was a hardly a poster of the Turkish Republic’s founder to be seen. I know this, because I was so surprised when I finally saw one that I took a photograph.
The Taksim Gezi Park protests are not about the perceived threat to Turkey’s secular system or Ataturk’s legacy, but government arrogance and oppression.
The road from Şişli to Taksim takes you directly past the Gezi Park, the proposed redevelopment of which caused all this unrest and awful police brutality over the past week.
But the police’s sudden withdrawal – first from these streets, then from the square itself – turned the park into a festival zone. People were clapping and dancing, with celebrations punctuated only by a few rounds of chanting.
Much of Taksim square itself was a construction site and had been closed off by hoardings. These were all now knocked down and people were wandering freely around the site, sometimes alarmingly close to sheer drops.
Everything was being destroyed – and not always the Turkish state’s belongings.
Diggers, lorries and cranes parked inside and presumably belonging to the site’s private contractors had been graffitied all over, with their windows smashed and their tyres flattened .
Setting things alight
One youth wearing an Anonymous mask – he couldn’t have been older than eighteen – pulled out a lighter and set fire to the digger’s cabin, precariously close to a fuel tanker.
He was rebuked by the watching crowd and he extinguished it immediately.
Not a single vehicle had been spared. Behind the Gezi Park itself, a police van was upturned and smashed. I counted three buses – one belonging to the police, the others operated by the council – and five cars that received similar treatment.
The local clerk’s office had been gutted and official papers were scattered everywhere. I found one signed by Sadettin Tantan, the interior minister thirteen years ago.
The pyromaniacs struck here too: somebody thought it would be a great idea to set fire to the clerk’s office. There was a sudden shout of “bring water!” and in an instant a human chain had been formed carrying bucket loads of water to put the fire out.
“My friends, we have got to stop this,” one man shouted at the crowd. “It will only end up spreading to the trees.”
Turkey’s broadcast media have been a particular focus of ire these past few days because of their perceived reluctance to broadcast the demonstrations live, and the six live broadcast vans parked in the square bore the brunt of the anger.
All had been graffitied, the one belonging to Turkey’s largest news channel NTV worst of all.
I saw one reporter vocally rebuke a demonstrator for deliberately wandering into her live shot: “Don’t blame me. We’re here covering the story, aren’t we?”
The only officials that could be seen were paramedics. Ambulances would occasionally weave their way through the crowd, sirens silent, with the driver politely asking crowds over the tannoy to make way.
I saw one man stop stoning a lorry’s front windscreen for a moment to buy a bottle of water
There was something delightfully Turkish about today’s events: there were street vendors out in force, selling ice-cold water, one lira whistles, Turkish flags and, for the more daring, V for Vendetta-style Anonymous masks.
I saw one man stop stoning a lorry’s front windscreen for a moment to buy a bottle of water. I saw another walking quite cheerfully around holding a souvenir road sign.
Tear gas had been replaced by cigarette smoke and even the smell of barbecues as salesmen appeared from nowhere to flog meatballs-in-bread to the hungry visitors.
It really felt like a national picnic day for most; some, however, were quietly and methodically retrieving the metal barriers that the police had discarded and carrying them back into the Gezi Park.
They were taking no chances with the authorities: they were barricading themselves in.
Is the park saved?
The Istanbul protests have sparked demonstrations of solidarity in Ankara and Izmir, where pepper spray was again deployed, and abroad, where it was not.
Following the past week’s events, I have three observations to make.
The first concerns what this means for Istanbul and whether the Gezi Park redevelopment can continue. The mayor has been on television repeatedly to say he thinks a shopping centre on the site is a bad idea, but that is not the same thing as saying the redevelopment has been cancelled.
The core of the protestors were there because they wanted to protect one of the few remaining green spaces in a heaving metropolis. There is no guarantee tonight that it is any safer.
The media’s role
The second concerns the broadcast and social media.
Many say Turkish television failed in its duty to report the news and there is much evidence to support that view: most rolling news channels did not switch to live coverage of the square until the police withdrawal was announced.
Many then cut away when the prime minister began his 45-minute speech. The suggestion is that media bosses were ordered not to cover it to prevent the spread of disorder.
The news vacuum was filled by some smaller broadcasters – like BBC Turkish and the opposition party’s Halk TV – and social media.
Access to 3G Internet services was particularly difficult in Taksim; again, the suggestion is that mobile telephone companies were ordered to restrict their service in the area to voice calls only.
Another explanation for that could be the sheer number of people trying to access data services; I did spot two mobile cell base stations in the middle of Taksim, perhaps brought in to increase capacity.
The prime minister’s tone
The third and final point relates to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose name is emblazoned unflatteringly in graffiti across Taksim tonight.
The prime minister spoke only once yesterday, at an opening somewhere else in Istanbul, where he acknowledged the police – specifically, its use of tear gas – had been excessive.
But he did not adopt the conciliatory tone of his deputy, Bülent Arınç, or the Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbaş. He left it to his interior minister to announce there had been nearly 90 demonstrations in 48 provinces across Turkey leading to 939 arrests, 26 police injuries and 53 protestor injures, including one in a critical condition.
It was the same interior minister who announced they would review CCTV and other camera footage from the Taksim protests and prosecute officers who used disproportionate force.
The prime minister, meanwhile, expressed frustration at the court order preventing further development (“We hadn’t started building anything yet”) and said their plans would not be changed.
In many Western democracies, a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the mood on the streets has led prime ministers to their downfall.
For Mr Erdoğan, the Gezi Park incident could be where it all started.