Saturday night saw Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests reignited after three weeks of relative calm in the city. The trigger was bland and bureaucratic: a judicial annulment of the government’s decision to redevelop the park. But it prompted Turkey’s protesters—veterans now, though novices just a month ago—back onto the streets around Taksim to demand that Gezi Park be given back to the people, as the law now states it should be. Since they were evicted from the park on June 15 it has been occupied in a very different way: by policemen who prevent anyone from entering and lounge on the deckchairs in their downtime.
I knew that the protests were happening, but did not suspect what they would turn into. Other demonstrations this week in Istanbul had gone off peacefully, and I naively assumed that this one would turn out to be peaceful, too. So I planned to meet a friend for dinner in Taksim; I was walking through the sparse groups of demonstrators on Istiklal when the first round of tear gas was fired. A stampede preceded it. In one instant, everyone started running back towards me, crowding into alleyways and shops and, sensing that something bad was about to happen, I joined them. A few seconds later came the boom, and then came the gas.
I was stuck in the worst of situations: down a dead-end alley dressed in chiffon and sandals and with no protection from the gas as the police trucks it was being fired from rolled past just 15 meters away. My eyes started streaming first and I cursed my mascara. Then the gas hit my lungs and I started to cough uncontrollably.
There were four other people next to me, strangers trapped together in the strangest of situations. We didn’t speak, but all of us did the same—kept our backs pressed against the wall and our heads down below the cart to avoid the attention of the policemen inside the trucks. All of us knew that we were vulnerable and had chosen the wrong place to run to, because through a high fence we could see dozens of others escaping down a parallel alleyway to a main road behind. But we could not join them, because to do so we would have to go back out into Istiklal and the direct line of fire of the tear gas.
For ten minutes, we hid behind the bread cart and watched as the police truck rolled back up the street and aimed down the alleyway next to us. It was still packed with protesters as the police opened the water cannon into it. I was most scared of what might happen if they spotted us and fired a tear gas canister into our enclosed space.
When the trucks had rolled back far enough, we ran out and around through the other alleyway and into the street behind. The paved ground was soaked and slippery, and as I tried to run without falling the police fired another tear gas canister directly down it. Blinded by tears and make up and still coughing painfully, I found my way out onto the street at the end of the alleyway and sat on a step to let the tear gas wear off. And it was here that I met Mehmet (not his real name) who poured milk into my hands and told me to rub it over my face. A minute later, the burning and the coughing subsided.
Mehmet told me that he is a computer engineer. Six weeks ago he had never protested in his life, but on the third night of the Gezi Park protests he decided he had to join in. “Erdoğan made a speech on television saying that the redevelopment was going ahead, no matter what,” he said. “And it made me so angry I felt I had to go and join. And when I got to Taksim, I found thousands of other people who were just like me.”
Now Mehmet is an expert on how to deal with tear gas, the best ways to cut through the backstreets behind Istiklal to get back to the frontline of the protest, and the tactics that the police will use to push the protesters back. “It’s harmless, just a sound bomb,” he said as a massive bang broke the night air.
In this calmer street, I looked around at the protesters. There were lots of young people well equipped with goggles and gas masks. They cheered good humouredly as terrified looking tourists pulled up in taxis outside the Marmara Hotel and ran inside with their suitcases faster than the protesters had retreated from the tear gas. But there were older people, too—dozens of them. And not once in the two hours I spent at the protest did I see anyone attacking the police.
Mehmet dug around in his rucksack handed me a mask and goggles, and together we picked our way through the back alleys behind Istiklal to get to the frontline of the protests. When we found it, we saw that the demonstrators had erected a low barricade and were standing defiant behind it. But again the tear gas came, driving them and us back into the side alleys. Mehmet had had enough, and so had I. “This is the point where it gets dangerous,” he said. “When the crowd starts to thin out you become vulnerable.”
I never had a chance to reach Taksim or to meet my friend. I was not the only one: alongside the protesters, I saw dozens of people who had clearly set off on a night out and ended up becoming embroiled in the chaos. Last week, it seemed as though the Gezi Park protests were over and the police had learned from their mistakes there. But on Saturday night, it felt as though they had learned nothing at all.