Out of İstanbul

By chance, we were staying in central İstanbul while the riots kicked off. There were clashes all around our hotel, though we managed not to get caught up in any of it, and with the local broadcasting blackout much of our information came from the same sources I’d have been using had I been in Seattle.  Here’s what little I saw firsthand, and a bit of context gleaned from twitter & international news (spoiler: it’s not that much):

Thursday, May 30th: We flew in to İstanbul, and drove past Gezi Park, where there was a small but noticeable group of people out protesting the removal of some beautiful old trees. It reminded me more than anything else of the protests about cutting down trees in Seattle’s Occidental Park a few years ago. It didn’t take too much additional reading to see that there was a bigger issue here, about privatising public space and conducting urban planning by fiat, but I didn’t expect much to come of things at this stage. We went out to dinner, came back to the hotel after a bit of a stroll around Ortaköy, and the only thing out of the ordinary that night was a Rihanna show at the nearby stadium making traffic even more abysmal than normal.

Friday morning, May 31st: From our perspective things felt normal enough at the start of the day. Apparently police had already mounted their first raid on the Gezi Park protestors, at dawn that day, but this was just far enough from the hotel (and not in the direction any of us had windows facing) that we saw nothing firsthand. My brother, sister-in-law and their kids visited our grandma and then headed to the airport to fly home, Melinda and I took a nice walk through Maçka Park (the opposite side of our hotel from the protests), down to Dolmabahçe and back, and the only time we saw any evidence of what was going down was when we happened to walk by the police & media staging area some way away from the action. On the way back the police vans had all left and most of the media had too, and it looked like the whole thing might have been over – we heard that police had cleared the park with the use of tear gas, and it sounded like they had won, though there were rumours that protestors would regroup at 7pm.

Friday afternoon: we had lunch with my grandma, and after that walked down to the Divan Hotel, right in front of Gezi Park, to drink tea and buy lokum. We had been planning on continuing in that direction, to visit some art galleries in Beyoğlu, but the hotel staff advised us not to because there were still riot police that way, so we headed back the other way and avoided the Taksim/Gezi area for the rest of the afternoon. We spent a few hours wandering around Teșvikiye, Nișantașı & Șișli, all within a couple of miles of Taksim, with no sign that anything unusual was going on, though we did heed advice to avoid Taksim or anywhere from which we’d have to go through Taksim to get back to the hotel.

Friday evening: We had dinner plans with my parents, for which we met in the hotel lobby at 7pm, and started to head out.  As soon as we walked out of the front door, we could see a crowd running from police, some way away.  As we tried to figure out how to keep out of it, we started feeling the effects of tear gas in our eyes and throats, so decided to head back inside. We were never close to the action, nor directly downwind of it, so getting noticeable amounts of tear gas where we were seems to imply that an awful lot was used.  Even from that brief, distant glimpse we could also see that the heavy-handed police response earlier that day had backfired, bringing out a crowd many times the previous size.

We spent the rest of the evening in the hotel, reckoning that even though there were openings that we could have used to get out safely, we’d then just be worried about our ability to get back.  From the windows we could see people building sandbag barricades in a street on the other side of the hotel (opposite side from the entrance), and police breaking down those barricades and firing large volleys of tear gas at protestors. We could also see people gathering in my grandma’s neighbourhood, though from afar that looked more like a relatively orderly march than the skirmishes we were seeing closer by. It was also clear that everything within out sight was a bit of a sideshow—no windows we had access to faced Taksim, and police attention was only intermittent while we could see larger numbers marching to Taksim ignoring these barricades—and yet enough tear gas was deployed that we started feeling it inside the hotel. It was clear by now that something really big was happening, though Turkish media were resolutely avoiding mentioning it, even though the state broadcaster’s office was itself surrounded by tear gas.

At some point we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner, with a bag of wet towels in case  we would need to run, and while we were eating about 100 protestors took refuge in the hotel lobby. This was as much as we’d see for the rest of the night. It was clear from twitter that a battle was raging between protestors and police at the square itself, but nothing was visible to us and the hotel gradually became incongruously calm.  When we went to bed, the open-air wedding venue to one side of the hotel was pumping out dance music as if everything was normal, while in the opposite direction we could just distantly make out a noisy crowd.

Saturday morning, June 1st: Everything I could see on twitter made it quite clear that the protests and police response were both growing, but the appearance of and atmosphere in the hotel were calm and normal to the point of surreality. We had breakfast, saw my grandma once more, and then got out to the airport and left town as planned.  In the end, we only saw fringes of the protests and the direct effects on us were pretty small, but the whole experience was tense to say the least, and I’ve never been so glad to leave İstanbul, if only out of fear that things could still get bigger.

Context: This article in Foreign Policy is a pretty decent primer on the concerns beyond just one park that have mobilised people. At some point I’m inclined to write a little primer on the broader context still—the various different fault lines that explain why Erdoğan is simultaneously a genuinely popular leader and reviled or feared by a large minority of Turks—but that may take me a while, and given that I’m no expert myself I’m kind of hoping someone else will do this and I can simply link to it.  I’m just seeing from both twitter and foreign media that there’s a great deal people don’t understand about exactly what is contested in modern Turkey and why.

Impact: Frankly, I have no idea what kind of impact these protests will have in the long run. There are plenty of reasons not to expect a Turkish Spring—first and foremost that Erdoğan was fairly elected and probably would be reelected today—but there are ways these protests could more subtly change Turkey for the better, or they could easily fizzle back into nothing, or they could just deepen the country’s polarisation without achieving any of what the protestors hope. I don’t even have a sense of which of these outcomes is more likely, never mind the confidence to stick my neck out and make a concrete prediction.

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