I used to tell my anxious relatives back in Germany, that in Istanbul, if you try, it’s easy to avoid street warfare and tear gas shelling. It’s still easy – though hampering – to get around the barricades. But I was totally wrong about the tear gas. As a foreigner, I believe to be obligated to not get involved in protest. In the past week, nevertheless, I was gassed twice while sitting in pubs and minding my own business, and today I witnessed a protest being dispersed in daylight attack. The second time I was gassed, yesterday evening, was rather harmless. But last week we had to run up to the highest floor of the pub. Still no idea what exactly happened that day. In this very moment, however, in Taksim and Kadiköy, barricades are being stormed again. Reason enough to write.
At first, to something seemingly off topic: In Turkey, there’s general conscription. Each family has or had offspring in the army. Sons of families living in western Turkey usually are sent to the eastern areas, into the provinces with a high Kurdish population. The Turkish army – that’s everyone’s children. Attacks against them inevitably are interpreted as attacks against all Turks. Like this, the “Kurdish question” is almost everyone’s personal business in Turkey. This is understandable, yet possibly intended. And even though the conflict thankfully has lost momentum as opposed to the 90s, when the PKK went around killing Turkish teachers to stop a perceived “turkification”, the trauma still lies deep. Mind you, though, that not every Kurd is automatically a supporter of the PKK or even independence. Especially actions against teachers have left a generation of Kurds without education, posing not only an economical problem for the region until today.
In western media, Kurdish peshmerga often get away rather well. Underdogs fighting suppression, female fighters without the stigmatic head scarf – that looks good to western eyes. It looks heroic. Heroes and terrorists – you can certainly find both in a population that’s estimated to count between 25 and 30 million individuals.
Obviously, this isn’t even a glimpse of the entire context you have to be aware of when thinking about today’s protests in Istanbul and general curfews in eastern Turkey. Probably, it’s safer to just assume that one knows barely anything. As a matter of fact, I had to ask around a lot to get an idea what was being protested against. Apparently, the protesters demanded more action from the Turkish side against ISIS, especially considering the situation for Kurdish fighters in Kobani. Earlier, protests in Kadiköy had usually been pacifist. Now how does this fit in? I recall that during World War II, the Nazi army was slaughtering Polish insurgents in Warsaw, while the Soviet forced waited only an artillery strike away, having the Nazis do their dirty work by eliminating potentially rebellious young Poles, yet later glorifying themselves as the liberators. Perhaps, Kurds and friends of the Kurdish movement (which includes many left-wing or alternative thinkers) are afraid of a similar scenario? I do not know.
Whatever may or may not be the reason for the protests, even if they would have been focussing around something as trivial as a new burger at McDonalds or something as obviously wrong as poisoning wells out of spite, it didn’t justify the routine reaction of the police force. In the middle of the day, in one of the centres of public life, they tear gassed the entire area to disperse some two or three hundred mainly peaceful protesters. I know they were peaceful because I saw them. First I walked between them to get to my gym, later I was working out and having an excellent view of the scene when the charge began. Anti-riot methods against something that clearly wasn’t a riot. The question is: why?
In case you ever wondered what tear gas smells like; imagine a mixture of rotten eggs, the sensation of suffocation and the genuine insight that your local administration can’t handle tension. But it is good at letting everybody know how it deals with problems without solving them. I looked for empirical research or official statements – Turkish or otherwise – arguing the use of tear gas. I couldn’t find any, even though I still think it would be an interesting read. Either way, in such a statement you wouldn’t find what very certainly is the key reason for the use of tear gas. It’s a form of collective punishment. A few cans are enough to let the entire area know who’s in charge. Ideally, residents will put the blame on the protesters rather than the police force. In either case, no-one will change his or her opinion on the subject in debate based on getting shitloads of toxin into his or her eyes. All tear gas does is dig the trenches deeper. That is not only the trenches between supporters of different ideologies, but also between the young generation and the police. “Us and them” doesn’t work out well for anyone in the long run.
What is worrying me about this is not only that I had to deal with red eyes and a trainer almost vomiting. Naturally, I worry about the health of individuals protesting (like the negotiating lawyer who got a tear gas can thumped against his head in an act of actually individual punishment) or the health of Turkish society. Tear gas also turns into an accepted way of dissolving protests in other parts of the world. Ferguson, Vienna, Hamburg – the use of tear gas isn’t new, but I fear it’s on the rise.
So let’s be very clear about this: Tear gas is a chemical weapon. It’s forbidden in warfare, though strangely allowed in domestic riots. It’s the last thing the police can do before live fire. It doesn’t hit only those with malicious minds, but everyone, peaceful protester and supposedly uninvolved bystander alike. Using tear gas is enforcing state control for the sake of state control. And last but not least, it doesn’t end riots, it postpones them.
As seen, and smelled, again and again in Istanbul.
Update: Meanwhile, protests got more intense all over Turkey, including violence from both sides. Obviously, I don’t support violence from either side, as it just provoces even more violence from the respective other faction(s). The current events show once again the administration being stranded in case of dispute, and also, sadly, exposes the fragility of Turkish-Kurdish relations.