From Turkey with love: On tear gas and Taksim Square

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My first experience with tear gas took place last Tuesday in a rundown bar off of Istanbul's İstiklal Street where my friend and I had come after visiting Gezi Park.

The Turkish prime minister's hallucinatory depiction of the composition of the anti-government protests had left me half-expecting to find the park populated by oversized Lithuanian lepers on unicorns. My friend and I detected no such "marginal groups," however, and the foreign terrorist alcoholic looters alleged to be fueling domestic unrest had apparently succeeded in disguising themselves as civilian non-drunks tranquilly sharing food, conversation, books, and music.

A few minutes after we had relocated from park to bar, riot police attacked the area with water cannons and tear gas, causing protesters to flee down İstiklal and surrounding arteries. Erdoğan has justified tear gas bombardments as the police's "en doğal hakkı" or "most natural right."

This point was made clear when tear gas canisters were fired down our street, engulfing the bar with smoke. My first reaction was to confirm my revolutionary grit by digging my nails into the stranger nearest to me and chokingly pleading with him to not let me die, as all manner of attractive mucous emanated from my nose and mouth.

The sense of imminent asphyxiation passed with the help of several protesters who had taken refuge in the bar and who doused my face with antacid solution and applied salves to my upper lip. Though normally cringing at starry-eyed gushing over the beauty of human solidarity, I gushed for the rest of the night.

The following Saturday when Turkish security forces brutally cleared Gezi Park, I again found myself in the care of strangers -- among them a young veterinarian who grabbed me by the arm as I ran from incoming tear gas canisters on İstiklal, where a sizable crowd was endeavoring to advance toward Taksim Square and the park. He remained with me for the duration of the ensuing routine: retreat into alleyways with the rest of the crowd, make way back to İstiklal, press forward until tear gas starts flying, retreat again.

Though Saturday night would have been the most likely occasion for the emergence of Erdoğan's much-hyped drunk terrorist looters, I witnessed nothing but interpersonal respect and concern in my section of the crowd, with demonstrators encouraging one another not to panic, assisting each other with escape routes, and sharing the usual assortment of tear gas remedies.

The Turkish regime -- actually terroristic, in the sense of using violence to achieve political ends -- has valiantly defended its monopoly in the business of inflicting physical harm to the citizens of Turkey. In addition to wanton tear gas, baton, and rubber bullet attacks, police have assaulted health care establishments such as the German Hospital near Taksim as well as impromptu clinics erected in the area to treat protest victims.

Ian Alan Paul writes at Jadaliyya:

Police have also resorted to beating medics during the demonstrations, in a direct attack against these spontaneous forms of care. The Turkish state has… declare[d] the organization of the health clinics illegal, and threatened to take away the licenses of any medical professionals who worked with the clinics. The attacks against the medical care of injured protestors represent a further assault against the affective capacity to endure, with the state hoping to increase the degree of precarity so much so that the uprising would eventually collapse in its failure to reproduce itself.

The current siege on solidarity is relevant for reasons other than its brutality. It so happens that the peaceful Gezi Park protests originated as an act of defiance against the ruling Justice and Development Party's scheme to convert Taksim -- long a symbol of Turkey’s protest tradition -- into a monument to neoliberalism.

As journalist Jay Cassano puts it, the pursuit of a "sanitized urban center" in Istanbul entails a "rapid process of gentrification" in order to woo foreign investment and tourists while disposing of unaesthetic working class inhabitants of the area. Cassano observes: "The new Taksim will eliminate mass pedestrian entrances from all sides in favor of car tunnels, making it an impractical site to protest and congregate."

To foreign investors or tourists potentially concerned by gas plumes, throngs of riot police, and random beatings and detentions, rest assured that such unsanitary scenes are merely a fabrication by the international media and its collaborators, who have detracted attention from an important documentary on penguins.

With analysts and pundits tripping over each other to determine whether Turkey's uprising is a Turkish Spring, a Turkish version of Occupy Wall Street, or some other category, it's meanwhile critical to recall that the protests in their current form can be understood without the invocation of previously-labeled phenomena: they are, quite simply, an assertion of humanity in the face of inhumanity.

The new "duran adam" tactic begun by Turkish performance artist Erdem Gündüz -- who by standing silently in Taksim Square on Monday compelled hundreds of others to do the same -- is an encouraging example of how individual creativity can translate into collective action in the quest to retake the area as a public space. But concerted strategic operations will be required to further undermine the government, especially now that even standing in silence has now proved reason enough for violent police repression.

The scope of the protests will need to expand, as well. After spending a week in Taksim, it has been discombobulating to proceed to other parts of the city and the country where gas masks are not a wardrobe staple, wafting smoke is a product of barbecue grills and brush fires, and pots and pans are not regularly clanged together.

It has also been less easy to forget that the delusional prime minister is not lacking in public support. This is enough to make one want to return to the tear-gassed reality of Taksim, where things were literally black and white.


Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. Her articles have also appeared in Al-Jazeera, Al-Akhbar English, CounterPunch, Palestine Chronicle, Palestine Think Tank, Rebelión, Tlaxcala, Electronic Intifada, Upside Down World, the London Review of Books blog and, among others. She earned her bachelor's degree with a concentration in political science from Columbia University in New York City.

This article was first published in Jacobin and is reprinted here with permission. 

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