Saturday, June 1, 2013

This Week in Turkey: Protests in Istanbul's Taksim Square

As I'm sure most people have heard, Istanbul is going CRAZY right now. The police have just left Taksim Square, allowing thousands of protesters to pour in -- from what we can see on TV right now, Taksim is absolutely packed, with what looks like thousands and thousands of people. Hooray, victory for the people! Hahahaha, probably not -- although the prime minister today admitted that riot police have used excessive force, he also said that the controversial barracks project that started all of this will proceed.

We've just gotten back home, but we never actually made it to Taksim today. When we left the house this morning, we took the metro as far as we could, to Sisli-Mecidiyekoy (two stops from Taksim Square), and then we walked. At first, all was peaceful, but as we neared the Osmanbey stop, the crowd swelled and an advance-retreat with the riot police began. Everyone would be walking toward Taksim and then the police would fire pepper gas at us -- Cagatay and I weren't really all that near the front of the crowd, but that pepper gas was powerful stuff, making our eyes, noses and throats burn unbearably. At one point, a man gave us face masks.

Fleeing from the pepper gas, the crowd would back up a couple of blocks, but then, within a few minutes, everyone would advance again and then it would be more pepper gas, and the cycle would begin again. We got as far as Harbiye, perhaps five to seven minutes on foot from Taksim, before giving up and heading into Nisantasi to find something to eat. Because by that point, we could see the front of the crowd and the police were letting off pepper gas over and over again, creating these huge plumes of smoke -- and it was pretty alarming to suddenly have a wall of people running back towards us.

Later, as we walked through eerily silent neighborhoods, past all the closed shops and along traffic-less streets -- it was sort of like the Muslim Rapture had gone down -- we ended up running into the huge CHP parade heading for Taksim. We thought about joining them, but we didn't know what was happening in Taksim and we didn't want to deal with pepper gas again or water cannons, so instead, we headed home.

This whole situation began at the beginning of the week when people gathered in Gezi Park -- located on one side of historic Taksim Square -- to protest the destruction of the park's trees as part of a project to reconstruct an old military barracks on the site that will apparently serve as a mall and residences. As I understand it, the protests started because some of the trees on the edges of the park had been felled, which made people believe that construction on the project had begun. Yesterday, Istanbul's governor and mayor held a press conference and denied that there were any plans to build a mall there; they said that they were just widening the sidewalks, but there have been rumors about the planned use of the barracks for months and I think it's fair to say that comments from other leaders have confirmed this.

Although the police had entered the park in the mornings to try and evict the protesters (one morning they burned their tents), for the most part, things were peaceful at Gezi Park. From photos I saw on Facebook and Instagram, people were kind of just hanging out. I was in Taksim on Thursday afternoon, coming home from an outing with a friend, and I was so worn out from the sun that I forgot all about what was going on in the park, which I was about 30 steps from. That's how normal things were.

But on Friday, everything changed and the riot police just went nuts on the protesters. You've probably seen the videos on TV. We had just entered the metro, on our way to Taksim, when we heard that the Taksim station was closed -- in retrospect, it was probably a good thing as we would have walked right into tear gas and water cannons. Things were pretty normal in our neighborhood except that in the middle of the night, a bunch of people took to the streets in solidarity -- I woke up terrified around 2:30am to people yelling outside and banging pots.

Anyway, more on this later...

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