(infoshop.org) Tear gas is a very good place to start trying to understand what is happening in Turkey. The main purpose of tear gas is to terrorise and thus break up large crowds of people. In Istanbul over the last weeks huge quantities have been used over and over to prevent large anti-government demonstrations developing. This wasn’t about ‘riot control’ – generally there was no riot to control. In this piece I’m going to put the Gezi park revolt in the context of the cycle of struggles that began in 2010 and of the specific economic, politcal and historical situation of the Turkish republic to try and draw out the lessons for all of us fighting global capitalism.
The first time I was gassed I was taking a photo of four American tourists in Taksim square, they in turn were snapping a self portrait using an iPad 2.
A tranquil scene with the other people in view chatting and holding hands. From where I was standing near the Ataturk monument you couldn’t see a single cop. Yet without warning tear gas canisters suddenly came raining down on every part of the huge square, a use designed to create a panicked stampede. On Mayday 1977 42 people had died in Taksim square and hundreds were injured after snipers created a panicked stampede by firing into that year’s Mayday demonstration. Perhaps because of that history – which would be as familiar as Bloody Sunday in Ireland or Kent State in the USA – the reaction of the crowd to that massive tear gas attack was very disciplined, people retreated slowly.
The clouds of gas choking entire streets along with yet more dangerous blasts of water canon is what you have seen online and on the TV. But those clouds also tell you something essential about the nature of Turkish ‘democracy’. And that is even if the prime minister Erdogan is properly elected there is little room for dissent and protest. There are always differences between the expectation of a ‘right to ‘protest’ and reality. Occupy Wall Street also saw the use of tear gases on protesters. But in Turkey that disconnect is particularly severe due to the way gas is used. An article in the English language daily Hurriyet revealed that 130,000 canisters of tear gas had been used by police in the first 20 days of the protests.
Many of those tear gas canisters were fired horizontally at close range at protesters resulting in a huge number of head injuries, a dozen people losing eyes and along with other causes, including one death from live ammunition, at least four deaths. At all the entrances to Taksim square street traders had replaced their normal goods with piles of construction hats, goggles and dust masks. I generally reached Taksim by walking the length of Istiklal, the long shopping street familiar from photos because of the strings of decorative lights overhead. As you neared Taksim you would see more and more people with bandaged forearms, heads and eyes. Even the BBC journalist Paul Mason got hit in the head (he was wearing a helmet) during the weekend he spent reporting from Istanbul.
Sunday 16th June,the day after the huge police assault that have cleared Gezi Park served as an illustration of Erdogan’s democracy. On the one hand thousands of free buses and ferries had been used to bring people to an enormous pro-government rally on the outskirts of Istanbul. As many as 300,000 people were gathered there to listen to a two hour tirade from the Erdogan during which he laid down his paranoid fantasies about Gezi park being part of the international conspiracy against Turkey.
Meanwhile in the rest of Istanbul squads of police equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets spent the entire day swooping on any attempt by protesters to meet up, even in small numbers. They were backed up by water cannon and armoured personnel carriers that appeared whenever a larger crowd appeared. All the while, secret police snatch squads in plain clothes waited up the side streets to scoop up unwary protesters who had become isolated. Later in the day Amnesty International had released a statement demanding to know what had become of those detained- an estimated 400+ people. After Erdogan’s rally ended there were multiple reports of youth members of his AKP party carrying sticks and knives accompanying police patrols.