I Am Afraid We Have Awakened a Sleeping Turkey

Posted on June 7, 2013


A sleeping giant

Young Turkish men standing on a destroyed municipality vehicle

At a bus stop in Istanbul, Turkey, 12 college students with bandanas around their necks are waiting. Their blood types are written ontheir arms. They are holding supplies: toilet paper, fruit, cakes, sandwiches, sanitary napkins, etc.

People pass by and chat with them. A lady slips them a 20 TL bill. An old man kisses each one of them on the forehead. Anointed.

Everyone knows where they are going and what they are prepared to do, and to have done to them. They are college students. They are UN peacekeepers, battlefield doctors, soldiers, Çapulcular, rioters, victims. But this isn’t eastern Anatolia. These are aren’t the oppressed Kurds. These aren’t guerrilla warriors from mountain villages.

—(Adapted from a Facebook status update by Maureen Jones. Thank you.)

This is rush hour in Istanbul. These people have been on the sunny side of life until now. These are apathetic, politically disinterested Turkish youth…who are doing things they could never have imagined two weeks ago.

If you are on this blog, I’m assuming you are aware of the mass uprising happening in Turkey and the brutal crackdown of the police. I hope you have seen — at least — the pictures of blood on the streets and the billowing endless cloud of gas engulfing neighborhoods.

For me, it began with a facebook status update. It was the early morning hours at the office when you sip coffee and check email. Then an office conversation. I watched a slow rising river of tweets and pictures of police brutality. Video. The phrase “I’m headed
down to the park” began popping up on every social media outlet. When Satuday morning came, the images and video came tweeting and updating and sharing all over my computer. At that moment, I knew I had to go down to Gezi Park.

A friend and I boarded the ferry on the Asian side. It was so crowded we had to jump from the dock to the boat and climb over the rails. People were frenetic. They couldn’t keep still. We passed a ferry coming from Beşiktaş. They waved their flags. We cheered back. The ship erupted into song. “Ciao bella, ciao bella, ciao, ciao ciao!” “Tayyıp resign! Tayyıp resign! Government resign! Government resign!”

We arrived in Europe at the Karakoy ferry port. We found a place to buy lemons. I felt a little silly. I felt almost as if I were buying garlic to ward off vampires. I would soon find out that it was not a joke. It was very serious.

We walked up the hill to Istiklal street, normally a half mile long temple to consumerism, now a warzone. We made it though the crowd pretty easily. I passed out apples and bananas to a child and some older gentlemen who looked pretty weary from the fight.

And when we got to the front lines, I realized that it was just that — a fight. There was an endless barrage of water-cannons and tear gas. It felt relentless. Then it stopped. The crowd wearily marches forward. Suddenly, once we have come within range, the police fire a round at the front lines. But, then they also fire directly into the crowd of protesters. This completely traps people. You have to wonder what the strategy is here. If you want people to back up, why shoot directly into the middle of them. They can’t go forward, and now they can’t go back. The only answer is they want to hurt as many people as possible.

That was my first gassing. After you are tear gassed, you are immediately filled with rage. I wouldn’t wish tear gas on my worst enemy.

We stampeded down a side street. Out come the lemons. You pass them around. A teenage girl in agony as as a friend squeezes lemon in her eyes. She could be one of my students. There is a man puking his guts out. Out of nowhere there are people with spray bottles. They grab my hand and spray something in my face. And it works.

One step forwards and one step back. The protest slogs on like this forever. Is it even a protest? It feels like a war.

seeking refuge in a church

Protesters seeking refuge in a church

Men charge forward with objects like a battering ram. Somehow they construct a barricade. This is everything. If they didn’t do this, I am convinced the world would not be talking about Turkey right now. Then they hurl rocks at the police.

building the barracades

We retreat again down a side street. Then there is the sickening realization that the front-line of the protesters has receded past our street. The police are just around the corner. A wild young man runs up to the street, throws a rock and retreats. A  gas canister ricochets off the wall and down the side street. The recovery begins again.

A few minutes pass. Is it safe? My friend inches forward. Suddenly, a storm trooper pivots around the blind corner and fires chest level right at my friend. It missed him by inches. You should know that tear gas is not supposed to be used like this. When fired directly at people, the impact can be fatal.

Seconds before a tear gas canister nearly hit my friend

We decided things had got too dangerous, and we began to head back to Asia. At that moment, we recieved a text. “Some protesters had made it to the square.” Timidly we walked back to Istiklal. When we rounded the corner, we found ourselves in an ocean of people. We sang. People began hanging out of windows above. It wasn’t a protest anymore. It was a parade. I felt like Yogi Berra. I felt like the Yankees. I felt like we had won the World Series.

We made it to Taksim Square. Throngs of people were pouring in from every avenue. Then I saw the tanks. Three of them. But they were running. They were retreating under a hail of bricks. They were running for their lives. We had taken the square. We reclaimed the park. For a brief shinning moment, it was Tahrir Square.

After he poisened his cities, shot tear gas into homes, beat down men and women, and even killed his own people, I wonder if it ever crossed his mind? Did he realize this was his greatest miscalculation amongst all of his ham-fisted responses to this crises? Does  he understand that he took a largely apathetic generation of people and woke them up? I feel that could be his greatest mistake yet.