It kinda started with no-one being prepared for tear gas.
On the 28th of June, the day of the long anticipated LGBT pride march, I met my first friends in Kadiköy, Asian side. We took a bus over the first bridge to Şişli and met some more fellows, arrived at Taksim by metro and quickly stumbled upon larger flocks of people one or the other of us had wanted to find. We loosely knew each other via friends of friends.
Not nearly all participants of the pride walk had arrived yet, though half of Taksim and Sıraselviler street were already full of people, many wielding rainbow colours, some costumes or some, like me, a poster or a banner. The other half of Taksim square was full of police busses, and police also blocked obvious pride walk participants from the Istiklal, where the walk was supposed to happen.
We were scheduled to leave at five p.m., walk from Taksim to the Tünel in Galata, which is at the other end of the Istiklal. Istanbul’s main shopping street, which translates to “freedom”, is about two kilometres long. On a normal day, passing it takes me twenty minutes. Galata was the target, both for my liquid group and thousands of other activists. At this time, there were no announcements made by the police, no electronic voices telling the masses to disperse or declaring the event illegal. But that’s when the police, after years of peaceful annual gay pride walks, let tear gas speak for them.
Actually, that’s not how it started. It started, for me, with ballot boxes and an invitation to my favourite café weeks earlier. It was the day of general elections and I was hanging out, like almost every day off, in Akademi Kitabevi, which is both café and library, owned by Turkish human rights activist and publisher Özcan Sapan. I didn’t know where to watch the election results before and gladly accepted the invitation to stay, even brought some German friends. Little did we know that we were in the beating heart of Istanbul’s HDP community.
The general elections of 2015 were special for two reasons.
The first was the public vigilance. All elections I had heard of prior to this one were infamous for alleged fraud – disappearing ballot boxes, bribe, votes being counted without control during suspiciously coincidental blackouts and so on – and subsequently for the AKP politicians crude explanations for these. This time, however, it was different. A vast number of people signed up as independent observers for different organisations, most famously “Öy ve Ötesi”. Already during election day, numerous websites popped up recording every oh-so-little anomaly. To be honest, this election, happening one month before I left Istanbul for good, had a big impact on my perception of Turkey. It became obvious in these days that there is a huge drive among many Turks to protect their battered democracy from usurpation. The arrogance and increasingly obvious hunger of the ruling AKP sparked a defiance among those who had smelled the scent of a better Turkey.
The second aspect, famous beyond Turkey’s borders, was the emergence of the HDP into the Turkish parliament. With the Kurdish peace process advancing, and the path of war being ever more obviously a dead-end in the bid for autonomy and acceptance of the omnipresent Kurdish community in Turkey, the pro-Kurdish, leftist and liberal HDP poses as a new hope for many disillusioned Turkish voters. Among these voters one can find many Gezi veterans, feminists, socialists and LGBTs. The HDP played along and attempted to make clear that they are more than a party for Kurds. Selahattin Demirtas, their co-chair, claimed in a TV interview to know songs from every region of Turkey – and played on his guitar a song from the moderator’s home to prove his point. Public relations at its best. On the night of the elections, every single 0.1% gained by HDP in the newest estimations was awarded with applause by the crowd at Akademi. When HDP politician Sırrı Süreyya Önder in the party’s first comment on their success at some point during the night thanked the crew of Akademi live on national TV, I figured that for many, this was a late first victory of the Gezi movement, and perhaps the beginning of better times for marginalised groups.
I, however, was sceptical. The AKP had gained lots of prestige abroad due to the Kurdish peace process. Inside Turkey, many Kurds had voted for the AKP since they figured it would be their best choice, rather than the Kemalist CHP (nationalists turning social democrats) and the MHP (basically a racist mafia). Now, however, that there was a Kurdish party Kurdish voters could cling to – which use would a peace process have for the AKP?
It might sound irrational to those who were raised in stable democracies. If voter group A no longer sticks to party B because there is another party for their needs, wouldn’t that mean party B would try to adjust their politics to remain a good option for voter group A? I believe this is not how the AKP works. The AKP ego – of their leadership but also their collective self – is instead bound to feel personally attacked by the in their minds treacherous voters. I reckon that huge numbers of the people who have something to say in Turkish politics have a very limited understanding of democracy, compromise, empathy or the sole idea that their views are in fact not objectively and eternally true no matter what.
So, I figured, the emergence of the HDP would prompt the AKP to drop certain voter groups – which is exactly what happened on the 28th to the gay pride walk.
The police didn’t clear the square at once. They shot a few gas cans to get the crowd running around five o’clock, but remained inconsistent. We first ran, then walked into the dark and narrow Sıraselviler street. I thought the police just wanted us to get going so that they could all be home for iftar, but as the crowd came closer to the German hospital, they shot tear gas again, this time at the front of the column, sending us back to Taksim square.
All of my friends were surprised. I wasn’t. For twelve years, the pride walks had been growing in size and remained relatively unbothered by the police. Even during 2013, when police literally waged war against unsuspecting protesters, the pride walk remained untouched. It is believed that the government used the annually peaceful event to illustrate their tolerance and goodwill. But with relations to the European Union deteriorating anyways and the majority of pro-LGBT now supporting the HDP – who are the only party to have an outwardly gay-friendly program and featured one gay electee – there was simply no more need to hold back the hounds of war.
Back on Taksim square, we tried to find each other again. Being send running from tear gas twice, my group had scattered a little, but I managed to find most of my friends in the relatively limited space. I was laughing at that time and making jokes. It was exciting after all. I figured the harassment wouldn’t stop, but I also couldn’t imagine any real danger. As opposed to the friend whom I was with, wo lived through Gezi and now struggled to locate his boyfriend via smart phone.
Still, people were pouring into Taksim and joined what was supposed to be a march. However, the police line drew closer and closer, until the TOMAs were used. TOMAs are armored vehicles, usually equipped with water guns and a rail guard, the latter luckily not being used on that day. The sole existence of those things are the epitaph to the idea of a civil police force, really. I know that everything that happened on the day of the pride walk was a minor riot in comparison to the events associated with Gezi park, but if your police deploys siege-rams against guys wearing skirts, you know something is wrong.
Anyways, by now, TOMAs are a common sight in most central quarters of Istanbul (“Hey, let’s meet where the TOMA usually stands, okay?”) and today, one was shooting at us. You might have seen the pictures of when the rainbow appeared in the air, due to the high moisture created by the TOMAs payload.
We ran back into Sıraselviler street. I was rather immobile due to the size of my sign, which obviously got splattered by water a lot, the colours starting to run. Ultimately, I found myself at the part of the column closest to the TOMA driving us through the narrow gaps. People were hiding in the entrances of shops – most of which closed their doors. At first, I got stuck with a bunch of folks who looked rather battle-hardened. I didn’t want to get into an uneven fight with policemen, so I joined the crowd steadily retreating from the TOMA, which was following us slightly above walking speed. It was still sending squalls of water on the rear of the column, who seemed to rather enjoy it. Some guys found abandoned shopping cards in the streets and used them as an improvised barricade. I passed by objects being more fitful to try to stop a TOMA and decided to walk a bit quicker, directly into an evening of police arbitrariness and civil defiance.