After only a few months of living in the city, I had quickly become invested in the well being and integrity of the Istanbullus. I think of the photographer I had met who led me to a magically secret corner on the roof of the Grand Bazaar, and how the sun shone on his face as he snapped pictures from the roof of the world. I think of Mehdi, the old man with the keys, and how I had to bribe him each time I wanted to get to yet another roof on the medieval shopping mall, and how he seemed to withstand time itself, and that 600 years ago he was probably still guarding the heavy iron door which swung open to reveal the view. I think of the old woman with the crooked back in Cihangir, and how she shuffled out of her apartment three times a day to feed the cats that wandered her neighborhood. I think of the student at the fish restaurant who began proselytizing over a cloudy glass of raki, and the two owners of the conjoined kebab shops who would always fight over customers like an old couple (hello, yes please, hello!). This is why I could not help but partake when I began to witness the violence and police brutality against peaceful protestors. The first images of the conflict that began to circulate online quickly became symbols of the resistance itself. The “lady in the red dress” getting sprayed with mace at point blank range became a ubiquitous symbol of the heavy-handed repression of civilians by police. When CNN Turk aired a documentary on penguins in the first heated days that summer (nothing to see here), the streets surrounding Gezi park became littered with drawings of penguins and the tag line, “the Revolution will not be televised.” Later, the images would become increasingly violent: videos of water cannon tanks running people over in the streets, the burning and destruction of Besiktas, the man who nearly lost an eye when a policeman shot a tear gas canister directly at him, pro-government thugs wielding machetes in the streets. I thought of the photographer, and Mehdi, and the old lady with the crooked back, and the student from the fish restaurant, and the squabbling kebab shop owners. I could not watch these people getting tear gassed and hosed down with water cannons and stand idly by. I was drawn into the protests, as if the city itself was beckoning me to partake. It all began when a small group of activists occupied Gezi park, a small park in the middle of Istanbul, when the government had announced it would tear down the park to build Ottoman era style military barracks. The activists were concerned with the destruction of one of the last remaining green spaces in the city, and organized a sit-in to express their opposition. Police came and assaulted the peaceful activists, and before they knew it they had created a monster: the movement grew tenfold, twenty fold, until the entire city was engulfed, and until that anger spread like wildfire across the entire country. What began as a small sit-in of mostly environmental activists soon swelled into a coalition of millions protesting Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly Islamist agenda, creeping authoritarianism, and general contempt for freedom of speech. The nights always started the same. There was a routine that everyone became familiar with, which despite the chaos provided some comfort and structure to the nightly resistance in the streets. Around dusk, Istiklal Avenue would swell to thousands upon thousands of people. The crowds of people were overwhelming - as far as the eye could see, men and women, young and old, stood shoulder to shoulder in a show of force and solidarity in a veritable ocean of humanity. This ocean would jeer, boo, and chant slogans. Some would bang pots and pans, others would dance, many would wave a Turkish flag or don shirts with Ataturk’s face on it.
In the distance, choking off Istiklal from the park, a single, menacing water cannon tank would stand at attention in the center of the wide avenue. On either side of the tank, riot police armed with shields, helmets, and tear gas guns would calmly survey the crowd, prepared for battle. After the day’s fifth (and last) call to prayer, police knew they could attack, uninterrupted. After jeering and booing and whistling and dancing and banging pots and pans, the last call to prayer of the day would drift over the streets. In many respects it was a battle cry, a signal that the confrontation would come to a head. And then, they would charge. The water cannon tank would speed towards the crowd, hosing down anyone in its path. Immediately behind the tank, police would follow suit, shooting tear gas. Anyone that had been unfortunate enough to get caught would likely receive a beating before getting arrested. This three-pronged attack would generate a stampede down the entire avenue. The massive crowd would run, panicked, as fast as possible in the opposite direction. As I ran with the crowd, I would see thousands of people sprinting behind me, and thousands of people ahead. A few poor souls would fall down or succumb to the tear gas and then disappear into the ominous haze. Out of that haze would emerge a massive tank speeding in our direction, along with armed men in black pointing their tear gas guns at the crowd.
“Are the streets safe?” people would ask protesters from the windows. “No,” they would reply, “there are police.” This nightly ritual was in many respects a battle for the public space. The crowds, hundreds of thousands strong, would disperse and dissipate among the smoke and fog, and eventually reorganize and re-emerge. Riot police would follow splintered groups into narrow alleyways and then regroup, much as the protesters were doing in adjacent side streets. One of the most dramatic scenes I witnessed was on a night off. After about a week of protesting, I decided to retreat from the risk and exhaustion for a few beers at one of my favorite rooftop bars. It was a particularly pleasant summer evening and the retractable roof had been scaled back to let the moonlight illuminate the bar. I noticed many people were wearing backpacks, but didn’t make much of it. Beer in hand, I had been chatting with an English journalist who was there to cover the protests. I joined the dance floor to show off a couple moves when, seemingly out of nowhere, tear gas had begun to envelope the entire bar. Almost in unison with the creeping smoke, the bartenders shut off the lights and turned off the music, out of fear that the cops would raid their establishment. I immediately got on the ground, struggling to breathe, coughing and rubbing my eyes. I didn’t look up for about a minute or two, keeping my head down and trying my best to get fresh air into my lungs. The next thing I knew, the lights were turned back on, the music on full blast, and as I got up and adjusted to the light, I saw something remarkable. Almost everyone in the room was suddenly wearing gas masks, and as the music blared they all continued to dance. While I was on my hands and knees on the floor of the bar struggling to breathe, the patrons had opened their backpacks and put on their gas masks, and continued life like nothing ever happened. To see these young men and women continue to dance and enjoy the night despite the obvious obstacles was a beautiful sight. The bartenders, also suddenly wearing gas masks, served free beers to the entire bar once the smoke had dissipated.
This was one of many experiences I had with tear gas. It became a familiar feeling; painful yet empowering. The more I inhaled, the more alive and motivated I felt.