Wednesday 2 July 2014

Rioting and tear gas: Or, what I did on my holidays

I did not intend for my holiday in Istanbul to involve close observation of a battle between protesters and riot police. It just worked out that way.

What we saw

Riot police assembling in the street below our apartment.
Credit: Patrick Down / Flickr

Some friends and I happened to visit Istanbul on the first anniversary of the 2013 Taksim Square protests. I only realised this when the manager of my holiday apartment mentioned that we should be careful on Saturday 31 May. By then it was much too late to change our plans, and there weren't any official warnings, so we didn't give it much more thought.

Our apartment was located on the second floor of a nineteenth-century building in the district of Beyo─člu, formerly known as Galata. It is a fashionable neighbourhood of Istanbul, popular with tourists and the more bohemian locals; it's notable for a large number of musical instrument shops. We were about a mile from Taksim Square, and 500 meters from the British Consulate.

Saturday began calmly enough. The streets were full of people as usual, including plenty of locals. Some sort of street repairs were going on, but nothing substantial. We went out for a day of sightseeing and had an enjoyable time visiting the Sulemaniye Mosque and Grand Bazaar.

On the way back, we saw some riot police in side streets, but they were relaxed, standing around with their helmets off, talking and smoking. So we continued up to our apartment to relax before going out for dinner.

About fifteen minutes later, we noticed crowds marching in the street below us and shouting slogans.

To start with, it looked like the kind of boisterous but peaceful protest familiar from Britain. Before long, most of the crowds cleared the street; probably the police had ordered them to disperse. A few of them remained behind, and were confronted by a line of riot cops.

The protesters were throwing fireworks and paving stones; the "street repairs" earlier had been someone loosening cobblestones for this purpose. The police responded with water cannon. The demonstrators set fire to some rubbish bins and pushed them towards the police, which was rather futile since they were immediately doused by more use of water cannon. Then, the police fired tear gas which dispersed the protesters in short order.

A tear gas canister might have fallen in the tenement stairwell of our apartment, or perhaps just outside the front door to the street. Quite a lot of tear gas was coming through, even after we put wet towels under the door. Staying in the main hallway was unpleasant, but in the bedrooms with the doors closed and air conditioning on it was much more bearable.

Everything was quiet for the next few hours. The tear gas drifted away, and we ventured into the kitchen to get ourselves something to eat; needless to say, our plans to go out to a restaurant were abandoned. The electricity and internet stayed on. We ended up watching Argo on local television; it seemed strangely appropriate to be watching a film about the American hostages in Tehran. At about 11 pm, the policemen and vehicles left our street and a few pedestrians were visible below, and we went to bed.

The next day, everything was calm and people were moving around as normal, and things remained quiet for the rest of our holiday. It appears we had been unlucky to catch a whiff of tear gas; rioting had not been very widespread, and the largest clash between police and protesters happened to take place in our street.

Protesters throwing stones, setting fires,
and being met with water cannon.
Credit: Patrick Down

The bigger picture

The events of 2013 started with a protest over plans to redevelop Taksim Square and its park, and grew into a focus for more general dissatisfaction with the Erdogan government. The violent police response was widely criticised, and a number of protesters were killed. I don't know enough about Turkish politics to evaluate the issues in much greater depth. An analysis in the Guardian has some additional background.

I can confirm that parks in Istanbul are rare and valuable. It is a city of 14 million people, very urbanized, and very crowded. If Hyde Park in London was in danger of being built over, I imagine there would be an angry public response; and while London has many other public parks, Istanbul does not.

The BBC has reported on the wider events in Istanbul on the day I watched the riot. The government was ready for any attempt to mark the anniversary of the 2013 protests. It is claimed that 25,000 police were deployed around Taksim Square. It seems they vastly outnumbered the protesters. Any attempted demonstrations, like the one we saw, were rapidly suppressed.

I am a very lucky person

During and after the riot, I was very much aware of how lucky I was.

  • If we had returned twenty minutes later, I would have been in the middle of the street battle instead of watching it from a second floor window. Probably a quick march in the opposite direction would have allowed us to wait it out in some other part of the city, but still, I’m glad I didn’t have to.
  • We had enough food for that night and the next morning in the flat. We wouldn't have starved if we had been stuck there overnight with nothing to eat, but it would have been very unpleasant.
  • All the riot cops used was water cannon and tear gas. All the rioters used were cobblestones, firecrackers and a few flaming rubbish bins. There was no gunfire on either side. I cannot describe how glad this makes me. We were in a 150-year-old building with stone walls, which are fairly resistant to bullets, but even so I wish to remain as far away from gun battles as possible.
  • Neither side in these riots had anything against tourists. If we did have to make a run for it, the fact that we were obviously foreigners would probably have helped rather than hindered us.
  • I have no idea how to survive a serious urban riot other than by running and hiding.
  • For all its many flaws, the Turkish government is reasonably secure, well-organised, and considered legitimate by the public. It is not like the Mubarak government in Egypt at the time of the Arab Spring. It was not at all likely to lose control of its largest city, let alone to have its own existence threatened.

Having said that, governments probably do look secure to outsiders in the days before a revolution, but history shows us that can change very quickly. If things had gone badly wrong and we needed to escape, it would have been seriously frightening.

The obvious thing would be to make a run for the British consulate 500 meters away, which after the bombings of 2003 has been rebuilt as a virtual fortress. Failing that, we could have tried to get to the airport or overland to the Greek or Bulgarian border, speaking no Turkish and carrying a tourist phrasebook which does not have entries for "popular uprising" or "martial law". I am extremely thankful it didn't come to that.

Cut off from information

There was one other interesting consequence of the riots: For the first time, I came face to face with censorship of the Internet.

The BBC News site was blocked altogether. BBC Sport loaded immediately, so it was pretty clear this was official interference and not just a technical problem. The Guardian site appeared to load as normal, but there was no coverage of the riots. In a surreal turn of events, their lead story for Turkey was about storing fruit and vegetables in natural caves. It would seem that the Guardian had negotiated for the Turkish government to censor certain stories, whereas the BBC had refused to do so and been simply cut off.

The Turkish government's general approach to the press is heavy-handed, to say the least. During the same protests, a CNN correspondent was assaulted and detained by Turkish police while he was making a live report on camera. In 2013, Reporters Without Borders listed Turkey as 154th out of 179 countries for freedom of the press, below such countries as Russia and Burma.

Strangely enough, the censors had overlooked the BBC News Android app. I could still view reporting on the riots in Istanbul, at least while it remained one of the top 8 or so stories in the World News section.

All in all, it was a strange experience. We have grown used to having information about any part of the world at our fingertips, at any moment of the day or night. If I want to know what the last public engagement was for the Vice-President of the United States, I can just ask Google. (As it happens, he was attending a statement by the President in the Rose Garden.) Losing this information for the events literally happening on my doorstep was odd. It was not exactly frightening, although I imagine fear might have come later; it was just disorienting.

So, here's one more thing for which I am grateful: Despite its flaws and official interference, the UK has a fairly robust free press. As things stand, it is unlikely in the extreme that the British government would censor news stories in this way. This is a vital component of our freedom, and it needs to be protected.

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