Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part post. The first part can be found at “Reading the Writing on the Wall at #OccupyGezi, Part 1“
ISTANBUL — ‘Look at all the things a few trees can do!’ reads this graffitti near Tünel on Istiklal Boulevard. Erdoğan infamously dismissed the protests in a speech where he said ‘This is all too much for a few little trees.’ Of course, the trees were symbols of the general policy of the AKP government of sellling public land to private corporations without public consent. The government is flooding Hasankeyf, one of the oldest cities in the world, with a dam that has seen protests (ignored) from all sectors of society. A bill is currently before parliament to open up national parks to private, corporate development — protests have delayed but not stopped its approval. Finally, a third bridge was started on May 29th that will most likely devastate the last forests of the Istanbul region in a city whose resources are already overtaxed beyond repair. And just to rub salt in the wound — Erdoğan has decided to name the bridge after Sultan Yavuz the Grim who famously murdered 20,000 members of Turkey’s Alevi minority — a minority targeted many times in the last decades for massacres and murder.
‘Chemical Tayyip,’ a reference of course to Chemical Ali, the Iraqi Defense Minister who massacred thousands of Kurds with gas in the town of Halabja. The comparison is not entirely hyperbole. The anti-government Turkish daily Sözcü reported on Monday that between 2000 and 2012, Turkey imported 62 tons of tear gas from the US and Brazil. BBC Persia correspondent, Jiyar Gol, said that in all his years covering protests in the Middle East and around the world, he had never seen so much gas used by police. And they often target people with the canisters.
The main gas I have seen used (judging from the empty cannisters filling the streets) is CS gas — a cyanocarbon that the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine says can be lethal in high concentrations. And what concentrations are present right now? Well, I saw towering white clouds billowing down Istiklal right before I was doused with it myself. Thunderheads of the stuff have been streaming from the Beşiktaş neighborhood for days, and the ground around Gezi Park stinks of the stuff despite a week having passed. Studies connect the gas to miscarriages — and friends who have been doused with it have headaches, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. It is made by an American company called Nonlethal Technologies located in Homer, Pennsylvania. One of our 11-year-old students asked to go the school nurse a few days ago because his eyes were stinging from being gassed the day before. The 6th graders at my school can now name all the gases the police use. “They use OC, CS, and DM gases,” one little girl informed me today. “Very good,” I said. “Now can you name the effects?” And she can.
Though the police are leaving Gezi Park’s protestors alone, they continue to attack people in cities throughout Turkey. In Ankara, a video shows police breaking the window of a private home and shooting gas inside.
But gas is nothing new to Turkey. I was at a protest last year at a public park for Kurdish political leaders hunger striking in Turkish prisons. A group of elderly men and women had started breaking out their tea — this before the busload of younger people had arrived — when police rained down gas containers right into the middle of them. I have never been so angry — I remember watching one old woman trying to hobble away from a gas canister spewing chemicals all over her. I tried to help her but was too choked on the gas myself. Then the police charged us with TOMA tanks and billy clubs and I understood for the first time why someone might pick up a rock and hurl it at them. Later in the papers, this attack on old people was dubbed ‘clashes with security forces’ by the newspapers — just like the Gezi Park protests. I tell you now, I have seen very few clashes, but lots of aggressive police attacks on civilians.
‘Isn’t it enough?’ reads this graffitti next to a high-end lingerie store on Istiklal Boulevard.
‘Rise up!’ says this window. High end stores were targeted with all sorts of graffiti — they represent the mall mentality that seems to obsess the AKP. Malls are springing up all over the city. Old neighborhoods are even torn down to accomodate them.
‘The AKP will answer to the youth.’ This man is playing an instrument called a zurna on Istiklal Boulevard. Many artists from around the country have flocked to Gezi Park to show their support. Comedian Cem Yilmaz, famous for having a Twitter account he never uses, tweeted for the first time in his life to show solidarity for the protesters. The entire cast of the popular comedy Yalan Dünya (The World of Lies) marched on the park during the height of police attacks after a Friday filming. Cast members helped gas victims taking refuge in the Marmara Hotel. Now that the police have left, there are concerts, poetry recitals, and impromptu theater performances.
Police attacks continue to rage on in Izmir, Ankara, Antalya, Hatay and in dozens of other cities across Turkey. In Izmir, 38 people have been arrested for content on their Twitter accounts, perhaps at Erdoğan’s bidding (He called social media a ‘curse’ in his June 1st speech). In Hatay, a young university student Abdullah Comert was beaten to death by unknown assailants-people say that it was undercover cops. Another boy, Ali Ismail Korkmaz in Eskişehir suffered the same fate just this morning, again the culprits are thought to be plain clothes cops. In a country where hundreds were disappeared in the 1990s by these same police, that is no idle rumor. Many in Ankara have lost eyes to plastic bullets. A girl was crushed when a tank ran over her. Istanbul and Ankara’s hospitals are reportedly overflowing with volunteer doctors being called in. Erdoğan’s answer to all this brutality? A grand rally of adoring supporters on Tuesday where banners of his face hung from the stands, followed by a trip to North Africa and another threat, ‘I have millions of followers that I can barely restrain waiting in their homes.’
At the end of Istiklal, right before the street spills into the neighborhood of Galata stood this man. His sign says, ‘The poplars of Izmir have shed their leaves, but the branches have been left also to you, Tayyip.’ And then, at the bottom corner in an afterthought, ‘Come on, Tayyip, the unbelievers are here, too!’
The word he uses for non-believer is ‘gavur’, an old Ottoman term for non-Muslim, a word for the ones who don’t fit in. What citizens of Turkey want is actually quite specific despite all the nonsense to the contrary — an end to the ‘dictatorship of the masses’ mentality, and democracy for all its people, including the new gavur.