Flowers, tear gas and public toilets: more thoughts on Gezi

Monday, July 8

Tonight I was working at my office in the Urban Bar in Galatasaray, next to the umumi tuvaletler, or public toilets, located on a little side-street next to Galatasaray high school. I've been going there (the bar, that is) for almost twenty years, and ever since the legendary Kaktüs became Lonely Planetified a couple of years ago, the Urban ("Oor-bahn") has been my main place in the neighborhood, mainly for old time's sake. The clock on the wall even bears my last name.

Anyway, at a little after seven pm I heard two loud bangs and then about a half-dozen people ran down the street in front of the bar. It was happening again: gas in the city in this summer of anger.

It turned out that the much-heralded re-opening of Gezi Park that took place today didn't last for long. The Taksim Solidarity Platform had announced that they would exercise, in the park, their right to protest peacefully at 7 pm tonight. The response? Police-sponsored mayhem, again. All of the pretty flowers that city officials had boasted of planting in the park since it was cleared of protesters in mid-June made little difference. People still want the right to demonstrate without getting attacked.  

At around 5-5.30 the police started closing off not only the park, but also Taksim Square. At that time I was eating a kebap at a place I like going to on the second floor of a building on Istiklal Caddesi, and had noticed the riot police cordoning off the area. Opposite them were about 10-20 protesters doing the 'standing' routine, but nothing much out of the ordinary, unless you count the two people walking around dressed as Trojans (USC-style), but I actually think they had nothing to do with the protest.

When I left the restaurant to head down to Galatasaray to hit the Urban, things seemed pretty calm, but tense.
It seemed like a pretty typical day in Taksim
Anyway, I went down to the Urban and worked there for a while. I have a bunch of printouts of documents I've been reading and was trying to figure out which of them I wanted to include in the book I'm trying to finish. I'd also bought a book on Mehmet Emin Resulzade--first president of Azerbaijan and one of the activists I'm working on--and was leafing through that while drinking some draughts of Bomonti.

The business around Galatasaray seemed pretty minor compared to all of the stuff that happened in the first weeks of June, but alarmed me all the same--it's at times like these that I remember what a coward I am. Because the windows of the Urban had all been open, a fair bit of gas came into the bar. The whole room started coughing, and I moved downstairs from my usual spot on the ground level.

At a little before eight I decided to get out before things got worse. I didn't want to get stuck there after dark, and had no idea how major or minor the goings-on were. The Urban is close to the Şişhane metro station, so I figured that if I could just get down to the metro station I'd be home free.

I left the bar and took a right. Immediately my eyes and throat started to burn
. I thought man, those umumi public toilets really need to be cleaned.

But no, folks. It wasn't the public toilets that were making my eyes water. As I made my way towards Istiklal Caddesi I realized that there was more to this burning sensation than initially met the eye.
It wasn't the public toilets that brought tears to my eyes
I turned left on Istiklal Caddesi in the direction of the metro station--it was just on the other side of Galatasaray high school. But at the intersection ahead were about twenty cops, firing tear gas canisters into the side streets.

To the right, further up Istiklal Caddesi towards Taksim Square, there were more cops, again shooting down the side streets leading off of Istiklal in both directions. The only way to go was back towards the Urban, which unfortunately meant having to walk past the public toilets for the third time that evening.

I retreated back in the direction of the Urban, and briefly thought about heading back into the bar. But I had no desire to hang around in the area after dark, so I kept walking past the Urban up to the corner, where I figured I'd turn a right and head down the hill in the direction of the seaside road.

As I walked up towards the street I planned on taking down the hill I heard another crack and suddenly a group of seven or eight guys wearing gas masks and hard hats--all the protesters wear this stuff now, as do the cameramen and other media types covering the events--appeared in front of me as they rounded the corner, running in my direction. But it was a false alarm--the gas canister had been shot, apparently, at some other group, and wasn't coming our way. 

From that point forward it was easy--it wasn't a dangerous situation and I was just alarmed because I was unused to it. I walked down the hill and before long had put well enough distance between myself and the teargas-canister shooting cops. 

On my way down I passed another fifty or sixty people who were climbing the hill, all of them wearing gas masks and hard hats, ready for a few hours of çapulcuing, the word that the protesters have appropriated for themselves after Prime Minister Erdogan's ridiculous characterization of them as 'looters.' Getting down to the bottom of the hill I took the tram as far as Kabataş, where I noted that the funicular running up to Taksim was 'closed for technical reasons.' Yeah right. I ended up walking back home, but could have taken a bus or taxi. Other than Istiklal Caddesi and the streets leading off of it, life seemed to be carrying on as it always does in midsummer Istanbul.

I got home right at 9pm and a few of my neighbors started clanking their pots and pans, which lasted for about three minutes, and then ended. I turned on the live Halk TV  feed from JMB and watched for a little while, hearing reports of police firing rubber bullets into crowds and people getting loaded into police buses in Taksim Square.

Judging from what I saw personally and then later on Halk TV, the protests didn't seem terribly large. Once again, however, the response of the police seemed totally out of proportion to what they police were actually facing. The cops, and the powers that are putting them up to this, seem bent on carrying on maximum force to drive home a simple message: you have no right to protest here.

And that, after all, is to a large extent what this has turned into. There were a few people shouting 'hooray, we won' when it was announced last week that the park would not be developed after all, but not very many. Because it's not about the park, and hasn't been since that first Friday when the police tried to clear the protesters on May 31.

I mean, people are happy that the park will be saved, of course (if it is indeed saved, in the long run), but the protests went way beyond this in their first weekend, mainly because of the violence of the police response and the fact that most of the media said nothing.  

The protests had been diminishing in recent weeks, but if anything, the heavy-handed response today seems destined to help keep them alive. Already, more meetings are being called for tomorrow night (Tuesday) in Ankara, Istanbul, and elsewhere. As I write this, I'm seeing constant updates on FB reporting on detentions and arrests taking place tonight. I don't know how much of it all is true, but it seems destined to prolong these conflicts.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the government has been trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle by making this all about the park again while continuing to deny people's right to protest. Well, today we had the park re-open, and guess what? People still wanted the right to protest without having tear gas canisters fired at their heads.

And that's not going to change, no matter how many new flowers get planted in Gezi Park.

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