Eyewitness: Riots in Istanbul – Part Two

by | June 2, 2013

Saturday – Taralabașı Bulvarı

It wasn’t until about 2pm on Saturday that I made for Istiklal Caddesi. The police had reclaimed the street in the night, and the avenue was lined with hundreds of police officers in full riot gear, milling about drinking tea and smoking, which is their go-to mode. The area was still electric with agitation. As I approached Taksim Square, the whiff of tear-gas lingered in the air, although you could feel it stinging your eyes long before smelling it. I squinted as I drew nearer the square, stopping several times whenever it became especially bad. Today, I’d had the basic foresight to bring a scarf, and I breathed heavily through it.

Taksim Square was packed with riot police, sitting in large clumps along the edges; it was still buzzing with groups of protesters, gathering in crowds across the square and chanting. The two sides watched each other warily but, for the moment, without intent. Some brave drivers were creeping through the square, but mostly the traffic had vanished. Having taken this in for a while, I returned down Istiklal. The barricades had been cleared, as had most of the huge piles of rubbish, but the avenue was still strewn with mud and a thick layer of litter. The metropolitan sanitation authority (itself an almost military operation) had been deployed, and dozens of street cleaners had taken on the task before them with apparent good humour. Some shops were open, but most weren’t, and the injuries that the thoroughfare had sustained were more apparent in the cold light of day: windows had been smashed, scaffolding torn down, and the old stone walls of the grand buildings had been plastered with spray-painted graffiti – anti-government slogans, mostly, or the initials of Turkey’s bewildering variety of far-left organisations.

Protest for graphic copy
International protests to support the rioters in Istanbul

The side-streets had endured less damage, although only marginally: on one alley, a row of phone-boxes had been smashed to pieces; cashpoints and flower-boxes had also suffered. The police were not venturing here, and the place was swirling with crowds of demonstrators, scarves wrapped around their faces, chanting loudly and moving parallel to the avenue. I returned to Istiklal and continued in the direction of Tünel, the far end of the avenue, stopping at Galatasary Square, which lies halfway between Istiklal’s two end-points. Here, the police had sprung to action, blocking access to the square from the intersecting street; I could hear chants and the sounds of confrontation beyond. A crowd of demonstrators began to gather in Galatasary Square as well, menacing the police. The straightforward battle-lines of yesterday were gone, replaced by murky geographic ambiguity, and the crowd seemed unsure which way to go.

Then, almost out of nowhere, the sky was suddenly full of incoming canisters, with an almost ethereal beauty right until the moment they came skidding onto the cobblestones and into reality. I couldn’t quite work out where they had been fired from, but the square immediately filled with thick, wafting gas. The crowd bolted up the avenue; with eyes, sinuses and lungs once again burning, I stumbled into a coffee-shop, along with dozens of others. Inside, people were crouched over tables and against the wall, retching and coughing, while those who had been less badly hit were struggling to shut the gas out of the shop – a futile task: the glass door had been smashed in. Plates of lemons and cups of water were handed out, along with tea, and after a few minutes – as the canisters continued raining down – we were ushered out the back door, through a courtyard and into one of the side-streets.

I lingered here for a bit, taking in the situation: demonstrators (and more than a few unfortunate bystanders) were stumbling off Istiklal, met by shop-keepers handing out lemon slices, water and ice. Throughout the Gezi Park protests, the city has pulled together in a striking way, united by civic pride and a shared hatred for the government. People crumpled against the walls, and the narrow streets echoed with screaming and crying as they recovered from the tear-gas, as others bustled up and down to help them, carrying spray-bottles full of the milky formula or of vinegar. Chants and the sound of rhythmic smashing of store-shutters broke out intermittently.

I followed a group of socialists down through the winding alleys until we found ourselves facing the police line in Galatasaray Square from the other side. The demonstrators kept their distance, but the police were having none of it, and we retreated away from Istiklal in the face of yet more incoming canisters.

This brought us to Tarlabașı Bulvarı, the main traffic road through this part of Beyoğlu. Six or eight lanes wide (lanes being a fairly notional concept in this country), with a concrete reservation running down the middle and an iron fence dividing the two sides, this highway runs from Taksim Square down the winding hills to the Golden Horn. At every hour of the day, it is flooded with light and packed with people, cars, busses, cabs and dolmuș, private minibuses. The neighbourhood clustered around it is notoriously seedy, and the ubiquitous drug dealers, lowbrow gay bars and transsexual brothels perhaps embody the darkest suspicions that Turkey’s rural villagers harbour about the glittering metropolis. That said, in the winding alleys that branch off from the boulevard, neighbours chat and children play, and life turns around the small family-owned groceries – bakkal -and neighbourhood shops, coffeehouses and büfe, snack bars. I’ve never felt threatened in Tarlabașı.

In any case, having retreated to the boulevard, the demonstrators – initially just a few dozen, although the crowds swelled as more and more were flushed from the area around Istiklal – began to tear down the iron fences running down the middle of the road, which came loose surprisingly easily. Dragging them across the street, along with street signs and rubbish dumpsters yanked from the roadside, they began to pile them up into barricades. The police remained several hundred yards further up Tarlabașı (towards the Taksim end), occasionally firing a few canisters at us, but they looked to be relatively few and the effort seemed half-hearted. More concerned were the drivers, as no one had made any effort to redirect traffic, and cabs and dolmuș had to wind their way slowly around the emerging barricades and through the crowds.

The crowds thickened as the day went on, and occasionally were bold enough to surge forward towards the police line, only to be repulsed with tear-gas. I stayed almost at the front, although always with half an eye on the nearest alleyway, which I’d shamelessly run to every time the canisters came hurtling in. Those in the vanguard, as ever, called out ‘gel!’ and gestured furiously, rattling anything metal to entice the masses forwards – a slow process of persuasion, set back very quickly whenever the gas rained down.

The police launched one full-on offensive against the crowd in Tarlabașı, again bringing forward the armoured cars for the occasion. (These have been parked for this entire year in front of the Beyoğlu police headquarters on Tarlabașı, and I have admired them a number of times, never really expecting to come face-to-face with one). They advanced alongside the two armoured cars; most of the crowd dispersed after the initial bombardment of tear-gas, though the courageous made a stand before being inevitably cast aside by the force of the water cannon. Cries of ‘yavaș yavaș!’ aside, the crowd began to sprint backwards as the canisters came down, some into the alleys, most further down the boulevard. From the alleyways, people hurled rocks and glass bottles at the advancing phalanx, but were easily driven further into the depths of the city by more rounds of tear-gas. Again, I found myself in the middle of a field of billowing gas, and again the pain was acute; wrapping my face in my scarf, I ran into the foyer of an apartment block.

After a while, I emerged back into the streets. Someone offered me vinegar to splash on my face, easing the stinging (I’m baffled by the chemistry of this, but it does work). The police had advanced past the alleyway, as far as the point where Tarlabașı bends along the hillside, commanding one of the most beautiful views in Istanbul: beneath it one can see the serene azure waters of the Golden Horn, with the poor and conservative neighbourhoods of Fatih on its far side, graced with the glistening domes and towering minarets of the Ottoman mosques, and Kasımpașa, the sprawling slum where prime minister Erdoğan grew up, just below; the stadium at the neighbourhood’s edge is named after him, and I imagine that the government is not nearly so despised down there as it is up here.

The police had effectively scattered the crowd, but perhaps they felt overextended, or merely that they had made their point; as they withdrew towards their original line, they were pelted with stones and returned fire with tear-gas, but continued falling back all the same. The crowd, after an interval, was exhorted to return, and it surged forward barricade-by-barricade until it had reached its starting point, and everything fell back to the old cycle of advance and bombardment. The crowd had swelled considerably throughout the day, there were now thousands. Their battle with the police aside, the crowd showed no hostility to anyone; its members helped usher traffic through, and huge efforts were taken to rearrange the barricades to let through the stream of ambulances constantly coming out of Taksim Square. The only exception to this was one driver, who, when a stray stone hit his car, got out and began yelling at the crowd. In a country where men are famously quick to come to blows, taking on a thousand demonstrators may not have been the wisest course; he was talked into returning to this car and moving on but, piqued, drove through the mass of people faster than was safe, enraging the crowd. Men chased after the car furiously, smashing it and hurling stones at it, although some others shoved the assailants back, fearing either bad publicity or the possibility of the crowd losing forward motion. Otherwise, the crowds have been nothing but gentlemanly towards non-demonstrators. Yet there was a vindictiveness which which they attacked civic installations, some of them (like road signs) innocent, others (like traffic cameras) decidedly not; all brought down in a haze of public anger, and thrown on the barricades or the bonfires lit to stop the armoured cars returning.

Advance-and-bombardment lasted a while longer, and then ended rather suddenly. The crowd, again taking its turn to lead in this strange dance, pressed forward, but the police did not fire back; somewhere near the very front, some sort of signal was given, and the demonstrators packed into the right-hand side of the boulevard (the police had been positioned on the left) and began to march forward. The police stood by, glowering at us, and although I was rather suspicious it seemed like an unmissable moment, so I filed in as the crowd marched up towards Taksim Square. To our left, the vastness of the force deployed became evident – there were thousands of police officers, packed into rows that extended for hundreds of yards along the road, watching us dispassionately as the crowd cheered, chanted anti-government slogans and taunted them. At the same time, I was also struck by the men working tirelessly in the dönercis lining the boulevard, face masks or scarves their only concession to the extraordinary events. We marched in our thousands up Tarlabașı, and I glimpsed equally thick crowds moving in parallel through the various alleyways around Istiklal, before joining the multitudes pouring cathartically into Taksim Square.

The police, it emerged, had been stood down, the government switching suddenly from aggressive to conciliatory mode: Taksim Square had been handed over to the masses. I remained there about half an hour, taking in the general air of excitement (and observing that the square’s statue of Kemal Atatürk had been decked, lovingly, in bunting, among other things). This done, I quietly withdrew, to return later in the evening.

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