The protests began last week in opposition to plans to develop Istanbul's central Gezi Park into a shopping mall, but have ballooned into a larger protest against Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and the pro-development policies of his government.
One journalist described the atmosphere as like a "pop festival", and it definitely had the same languid-yet-energized vibe of an outdoor music fest (although it may have just been the tear gas and flares in the air, but I didn't catch that familiar whiff of weed...). The key difference being, there was no act -- protesters entertained themselves, singing, dancing, chanting, talking, eating, or lounging, and though one organization or another marched here or there, the whole place had a spontaneous, unorganized, communal feel.
Street vendors selling beer (in violation of Erdogan's restrictive new liquor law), patriotic headgear, and street food made a killing in sales, while the air was filled with mingled smoke from celebratory flares, kofte grills, and the odd whiff of old tear gas.
Police appeared inactive yesterday in Istanbul, with the majority of clashes occurring elsewhere in the country. In my pursuit of getting pepper sprayed, I went down to the Dolmabahce neighbourhood (where Erdogan has an office), clambering over barricades made of paving stones and passing teenagers suiting up as if for some urban revolution.
There I witnessed the Besiktas JK football club's fanatical "Çarşı" fans rile up a crowd for a march on the palace. According to the Guardian, however, they've arranged a truce with police who have gassed them for the past five days.
Back in Gezi Park, I thought I had escaped the Çarşı Army only to be accidentally stuck at the front of their march through Gezi Park. These guys know how to control a crowd -- two teams of strongmen with whistles cleared a path and helped move food carts and banners so there was room for the procession to pass.
I never did get gassed, but at least no one else did either. There's a lot of news today, not just from Turkey, but also some depressing developments in Syria and Canada:
- Deputy PM Bulent Arinc has agreed to meet with the original protesters and (bizarrely) animal rights activists today at 11 AM, according to Hurriyet. That said, Hurriyet has just today pulled that story and replaced it with one about Ankara's continued battle to "contain" the "wildfire" of protests. Arinc will be meeting with the same organization that published the list of demands, Taksim Solidarity or "Taksim Platform", making, in my mind, any negotiation unlikely.
- 27 have been detained on charges of disseminating propaganda and "inciting riots" using Twitter, Hurriyet reports. Police are currently searching for 14 more suspects. Twitter is a menace indeed...
- Turkey's Alevi minority have joined the protest in the eastern town of Tunceli. Their particular grievance is over the controversial third bridge over the Bosphorus, which in addition to eradicating acres of forested land, will also be named for Sultan Selim, "historically known for slaughtering Alevis."
- The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, has snubbed Turkish PM Erdogan in his four-day tour of North Africa. Erdogan's arrival was met with solidarity protests.
- Canada, the US, and Britain have all issued warnings to travelers to avoid demonstration areas. The Canadian consulate said that I "should remain vigilant at all times, avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor local media." That last point may be a bit pointless, given that local media is now engaged in a vast, narcissistic project to evaluate their own inadequacy in reporting the events of the past week, instead of reporting the events of, for example, today.
- John Kerry has asked for an investigation into police brutality and "restraint on all sides" -- my Turkish friend suggested that he may have used a form email given his particular lack of imagination.
- One of Turkey's largest trade unions (KESK) is joining the protest in a two-day strike starting today, accusing Erdogan of "state terrorism". They will bring 240,000 public sector employees to the protest.
- The mayor of Antalya has denied the use of the municipal water supply to TOMA crowd control tanks and water cannons. Antalya is controlled by the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which has supported the protests since it was evident that they could be used to attack Erdogan and his ruling AK party.
- Bianet is reporting that police gassed an "infirmary" in Ankara that was helping helping injured protesters. There have been rumours on Twitter about this sort of thing for a while, but this is the first such instance confirmed by local media
- In Syrian news today, the French government has allegedly confirmed the use of sarin gas "by the regime and its accomplices" using blood and urine samples smuggled out of Damascus by the French newspaper Le Monde. This has understandably ratcheted up the hawkishness in French government circles, but the US is pushing for more evidence -- rightly so, given this follows close on the heels of the joint Anglo-French decision to pressure the EU into lifting an embargo on arms transfers to Syrian rebels.
- In equally depressing news, the Syrian town of Qusayr, for a long time held by rebel forces, has been captured by the Syrian army. Qusayr is an important target for Assad's government, the Daily Star points out, as it connects the capital of Damascus with the remaining pro-regime Alawite strongholds.
- Your Middle East has a great piece from Lisa Barrington about continuing protests by women against the government of Bahrain. Worth checking out, and comparing to the relatively simple life of the Istanbul protester.
- In depressing Canadian news, my long-held pessimistic suspicion that the Rob Ford crack video scandal would somehow blow over and nothing at all would change has apparently proven correct. Gawker has lost the video purportedly showing Ford smoking crack and is now furiously blaming everyone but themselves, who were the first to break the story.