I was gassed five times today during my sunny afternoon in Taksim Square, and also got a really bad sunburn. I can't decide which is worse.
Taksim degenerated to an all-out war between protester-ultras, the hardcore angry youths with covered faces and Besiktas JK jerseys, and armies of police -- locally called "robocops". What was a quiet morning of molotov cocktails and TOMA tanks relaxed into a comfortable game of capture the flag -- by the time I left, burnt to a crisp and thoroughly gassed, it was only the pepper spray, rocks, and water cannons causing all the havoc.
As of now, VICE has a live stream up of Taksim Square and Gezi Park. If you look in the corner, you can see Recep Pasa Avenue, the sight of the worst of the battle today. There teenaged protesters burned vehicles and construction materials to create a thick smoke screen while the built and rebuilt broken barricades.
When police tried to open another front, supporters rushed to the street to beat back police and toss back tear gas canisters, to the sound of war drums from up on Gezi Park's western escarpment.
In times like this, Gezi Park operates like a well-oiled machine. When I made the mistake of coughing after taking the choice shot at the top of this article, I almost immediately fell over in pain and blindness. But some nearby voices called me over and poured a lemony milk mixture, sacred to the protesters here, gave me some water and patted me on the back. Around me, dozens of other gas-mask-wearing officials did the same -- a free service in an anti-capitalist world.
When the gassing got worse, men in full hazmat suits with weed sprayers full of the stuff doused entire crowds of rock-throwing ultras on the escarpment as police let loose dozens and dozens of canisters on the protest.
Despite earlier claiming that Gezi Park was off limits, the actions of the ultras -- who, though still representative of a small number of Gezi's more than 10,000 occupants, showed their full force today (I counted more than 200 on the escarpment alone, another 150 on Recep Pasa at least) -- forced police to gas their way in just a little bit, before quickly withdrawing.
When clashes first broke out early on, Taksim was a complete chaos of young men armed with slingshots and fireworks against water cannons and battalions of police with tear gas. I saw one police officer get badly injured, and counted at least six wounded protesters (Hurriyet, talking to medical staff, put the number from today in the "hundreds", with five critical).
The operation began ostensibly as one to remove banners on Taksim's Ataturk Culture Centre (AKM) and monument to Kemal Ataturk. Besides these being public property, why this (and not the thousands of protesters illegally camping all around the place) would be a priority isn't clear.
To me the operation was a win-win situation for a hardline government, especially one that wants to end the days of barricades and push protesters out of the way of business and into a controllable and concentrated area, in Gezi Park. In the unlikely event that protesters don't resist, political radicals and opposition parties don't get to brand the most popular resistance in Turkish history with their own (albeit ineffectual) brand.
In the much more likely event that they do resist, Taksim gets a show of the jackboot and a whiff of tear gas that has been sorely missed during Erdogan's four-day trip to North Africa. Protesters end up boxed in in a park that can easily be cleared in another full-day operation, though it would likely require even more excessive brutality.
Erdogan maintained a hard line in statements today and yesterday, asking protesters to clear the streets, and protesters used molotov cocktails on police and the violence of today will do little to help the protest's cause. The actions of what the government is calling "marginal groups" makes it much easier to treat the whole protest with violence.
For my part, I was absolutely knackered and gassed half to death, so I came home with some souvenir empty gas canisters and my sunburn. But Taksim still rages on, and the "tug-of-war" between rock-throwers and gas-throwers continues. Governor Mutlu of Istanbul has just said that the operations are to continue "day and night" until the square is cleared...
At least those pesky banners are gone, though, right?
Links and news for today:
- More than 50 lawyers have been arrested for protesting against the government. Lawyers protesting lawyers being arrested have also been arrested. In the words of my girlfriend, lawyers everywhere are asking for the right to speak to themselves.
- Your Middle East has a good primer on the protests, diffusing some all-to-easy lines of attack against Erdogan. You may think he is a right old bastard, but he is a democratically elected one -- that means this is no Tahrir Square.
- Erdogan is continuing his bizarre assault on foreign banks, threatening to "choke" the leaders of the broad interest rate conspiracy he believes is seeking to destroy the Turkish economy to oust him from power. This line of attack began when the CEO of one of Turkey's biggest foreign-owned banks called himself a "marauder" or capulcu (pron. cha-PULL-choo) -- the unofficial name for protesters, stolen from one of Erdogan's speeches. The Guardian certainly thinks he has an idea -- they think the falling Lira may do more damage to Erdogan than the protests have.
- The AKP "vice chairman of media and public relations responsible for social media" has said that he thinks Twitter is more deadly than car bombs and is a vehicle for lies and conspiracy intended to topple the government. There are rumours now emerging of new legislation to censor Twitter, following on the now two year-old censorship of internet pornography.
- Copy editors afraid of typos have largely ignored protests in not-at-all-nearby-Gezi Gazi, a district of faraway Sultanbey in Asian Istanbul. The working class Alevi neighbourhood has had fiery clashes with police over the past week. Erdogan was widely criticized for naming a controversial third bridge project for a sultan who murdered thousands of Alevis.
- President Abdullah Gul has approved a controversial new liquor law that restricts sales to between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M. and forbids new licenses within 100 metres of a school or mosque, ruling out much of urban Istanbul.
- Germany may be taking on 10,000 Syrian refugees following a deal with the U.N. Refugees from Syria are becoming a real problem and are only increasing in number now that the government is turning the tide of the war. In nearby Lebanon, their presence is one contributing factor to tensions that may possibly result in civil war; in Turkey, Syrian refugees are the object of much hate and are poorly treated in refugee camps, which can be so bad that refugees actually return to Syria. (They are also periodically tear gassed.)
There's more but I'm tired!