Barricades, Tear Gas, and Friendly Neighbors

Istanbul is the noisiest city I’ve ever been to. On a typical morning I wake up to a cacophony of construction equipment, calls to prayer from the nearby mosque, and the general din of a bustling urban center. Today is different. The silence outside is deafening. Today is International Worker’s Day and the government has declared it illegal for anyone to demonstrate at Taksim Square, a 10 minute walk from where we’re staying. I don’t expect to get anywhere near it but of course I’m going out to see what’s going on. Any gathering near Taksim will be taken to as an attempt to destabilize the country in order to affect the elections.

Nathan’s still asleep. I scribble a note that says I promise to not get tear-gassed and arrested without him. I figure that will make him laugh. Of course there’s no chance of anything like that happening. The streets are empty. It’s downright eerie just how little life there is today compared to the typical vibrance of these bustling streets. I read that there would be 10,000 cops deployed to Istanbul today. I believe it. The closer I get to Taksim, the more I can see that the neighborhood is absolutely crawling with cops. Brandishing nightsticks, riot guns, and the occasional AK-47, their presence is intimidating to say the very least.
I decide to ask one of the police some questions
“How can I get to Taksim?” They just laugh.
“Ok, what about Istikal?” They shake their heads.
“This is the police.”
I take this to be the last word on the matter.

I go a different route to the square. I spot a woman with a lanyard around her neck from which a badge of some sort is dangling. I figure she knows something.
“So, it’s not possible to go in, huh?”
“No, it’s not. Everything about what they’re doing today is illegal. All of Europe has condemned the Turkish government for banning the demonstration, not that they care. You’re an American, what are you doing out here?”
“I heard that the CHP and the trade unions were calling for a demonstration in defiance of the ban.”
“Last year the police killed people for this. You should go home. I’m a lawyer. I’m out here telling everyone to stay away because it’s dangerous and stupid to be here. They kill children here. Please be careful today.”

A city on lockdown.
A city on lockdown.

Back at the flat, Nathan and I discuss the possibilities for the day. With this call for a demonstration by the opposition groups, something will happen.
We hear a helicopter flying overhead.
“That’s interesting,” Nathan says. “Maybe it’s started.”
Outside I ask a woman where we should go to find the protest. She points us toward Beşiktaş. Along the way we encounter a TV crew from some media outlet but their van has no logo. They have riot gear, including helmets that say “PRESS” across the front. We ask them which station they work for but they don’t tell us. Nearby, a group of police officers are drinking beer and eyeing everyone who walks by.
We stop to ask a group of young men about Beşiktaş.
“Yes, the protest is happening now.”
We thank them. One of them says the president’s name and turns his thumb down.

A few people came prepared.
A few people came prepared.

As we approach Beşiktaş we spot man holding a blood soaked cloth to his stomach being carried by his friends. Apparently he had been stabbed. We watch the police chase after any medium-sized group of people assembled on the street. They shoot teargas and paintball sized pellets full of white pepper powder. It’s fairly difficult to speak with anyone under such conditions. It’s difficult to breathe. The protesters play cat and mouse with the police, gathering, chanting, getting dispersed, and then gathering in a new spot. The air tastes of teargas.
“Can you tell me what’s going on here?” I ask one young man holding a red flag.
“This is International Worker’s Day. It’s a day for all working people and the government says we cannot gather.”
“Yes, I hear they made the demonstrations illegal.”
“This government is illegal!” He’s shaking with rage.
“Do you think the government will survive the elections?”
“Maybe they will because they cheat!”
Another young man approaches us.
“You are Americans? I would suggest to not be here today.”
“To be honest, we spent a good portion of the day trying to figure out how to get here because of what is happening.”
He smiles. “Ok, stick with me then. If it gets out of hand we can go to my flat.”
He tells us that if detained and questioned, it’s best to just say we’re lost tourists.
The 10 minutes we have spent standing next to this small group of people on the streets marks us as part of the illegal gathering in the eyes of the police. The shooting begins and we scramble with everyone else to avoid getting hit. There’s no sense in standing still and waving our passports. They wouldn’t see us through the teargas clouds anyhow.

We get separated in the scramble. Nathan takes refuge on the other side of the door to someone’s flat. A 12-year-old boy kindly barricades the door until the police are gone. I follow a smaller group up a long flight of stairs. From their balconies the residents of the neighborhood cheer for us and toss down water bottles. We decide it’s best to move back to the periphery and try to get some photos but we linger for a moment because we want to speak to people.
“You’re Americans! Why are you in this mess over here? Surely you’re not lost.”
“No, we’re just trying to observe what’s going on.” Nathan waves his camera.
“Ah yes, well be careful. They shoot at our journalists too. They don’t care.”
Just then a police van pulls up, doors open and riot guns blazing. We’re like fish in a barrel out here.

Non-lethal but plenty painful and that's before you breathe in the powder.
Non-lethal but plenty painful and that’s before you breathe in the powder.

After taking a riot pellet in the head, I take cover in the doorway of an apartment building. The police have us pinned down. My head is throbbing. Each pellet releases a cloud of white powder and the effect is such that it appears someone is attacking bags of flour with a machete. Someone in the building buzzes us in.
As we stand there coughing and brushing off the powder from our clothes a young woman asks if I’m alright.
“I’m ok!” I say between coughs. She must have asked because I’m holding the back of my head. I check my hands and thankfully there’s no blood.
“You’re an American? Goodness, what are you doing here?”
I’m not sure what to say. “Learning!” I flash my biggest grin.
Hers is just as big. “Oh, well just…muah!” This two-handed kissing gesture from a young Turkish activist makes the whole ordeal worthwhile.
We step back out onto the street and part ways.
“Where did you run off to?” an older man asks me. “Your friend is very brave and stayed here!”
“Oh? I was just down there.” I point down the stairs. Did Nathan really stay put? Judging from the lump on my head he must look like he got into a boxing match with a beehive. Actually, he had ducked into a different doorway. It’s not clear where the roaming protests have gone.
“I guess we should go home.”

– Jason