Baton-Charged: A report of the attack on Istanbul’s pride parade (Part 3/3)

I have this credo: Judge the institution, not the individual. We are children of our environment, slaves to circumstance. The young policemen had humanity drilled out of them to a large extent. Even before that, they might have been subjected to a black-and-white narrative in which power is law by definition, activists are always foreign agents, Kurds are traitors and so on. Never having learned to think critically doesn’t liberate from personal responsibility, nor is it an excuse to become the henchmen of power mongers. It is, however, a reason to become exactly that.

Turkey isn’t exactly the best place to learn self-reflection. The education system is problematic to say the least and media in general don’t even try to be objective. If I were born into another crib, who knows what kind of fanatic I would have become. Besides, declaring the institution your enemy rather than the individual opens up much more ground for communication.

We were almost at the bend in the centre of the Istiklal, in front of Galatasaray Lisesi, when suddenly and out of the blue for the thin column of pride walkers, there was another attack. My memory of the next couple of seconds is somewhat blurry. For instance, I’m not sure how the initial attack from behind us, along the Istiklal, occurred. It could have been tear gas, or it could have been policemen going rampage. Either way, there was panic, there was running. I told to myself not to panic and not to run, but when everybody around you does, your brain switches off for a second. We fled into Meşrutiyet street, the one with the new Hard Rock Café, which was when the actual attack happened. I held back a woman in front of me whom I thought to have pushed and didn’t want to fall, as the people running before us screamed. I specifically remember a policeman, charging towards us from the direction of the English embassy, hitting out with his bat to random civilians. The crowd panicked more, turned around and took to their heels. I recalled what I had told myself seconds before and reduced my speed, which resulted in being followed up by a policeman. His baton hit me on the knee. I was lucky. These things can break your bones, but I merely got a blue mark. Maybe he didn’t hit hard, maybe I dodged. Thanks to all the hormones boiling up in my body, I didn’t even feel it the first two hours.

At this point in time, I no-longer smiled or made jokes as I had before. One woman tripped in the middle of Istiklal. From what I could see, most of the others had gathered down the Yeni Çarşı street, in the direction of the Goethe Institute. Another woman was shouting angrily at the police for obviously luring us into a trap, and I had lost Ayla.

It was a pretty terrible situation. The last thing you remember is being attacked by shouting, berserking policemen. These guys are trained to switch from happy mood to relentless assault instantly, and then kind of sink back into indifference. Then you stand in the middle of Istiklal. There are people, but they creep along the sides of the streets. You shout a friend’s name. The tear gas is getting thicker every second.

I’m not sure if it actually turned foggy or if my vision was impaired thanks to heavy loads of adrenaline. Either way, the woman who had tripped was carried into the entrance of Galatasaray Lisesi (by civilians, obviously). I remained on the street, shouting and holding up my poster until the tear gas got my eye lids flickering and I felt I could no longer breathe. Tear gas has this way to eradicate any rational from your mind and get you running.

I asked another pedestrian for his phone, called Ayla and discovered she was safe. I couldn’t find the shop she hid in, so I met the testosterone-driven decision to walk to the Tünel by myself. I was angry. I was alone, too. Just me and my poster, walking on the tracks in the middle of the Istiklal. Random people and, given from their equipment, freelance journalists made pictures and filmed me. One guy with an awesome camera walked a few metres in front of me, backwards and at my pace, attempting the perfect shot. I played along, and despite the sincerity of the situation, I hope it was a cool picture.

After returning to Kadiköy. The poster was barely in one piece. It's going to be framed up and hang on Ayla's wall from now on.

After returning to Kadiköy. The poster was barely in one piece. It’s going to be framed up and hang on Ayla’s wall from now on.

There was another police barricade, but I got around it through a shopping mall. Eventually, I did reach the end of the Istiklal. It took me two hours and twenty minutes. There were other pride walkers, there was as much police, and this time, there actually was an announcement made via microphone from an armored vehicle that we were to disperse and this was an illegal gathering. I lifted up my poster a few times, partially so that people I know could find me. Inevitably, the police was bound to attack here sooner or later, too. I figured things finally dripped into Gezi revival enough for me to leave, and so I did.

While aimlessly walking through Cihangir, I came back to Firüzağa mosque, were hours before people had taken pictures with me and my worn poster. By now, only a bunch of activists walked around, obviously in the same nervous party mood as before. From a café, I got something to drink and WiFi, made sure everyone was save, then headed home. In Moda, I talked to a boy selling Dürüm who had heard about Communist terrorists provoking the police. I was amazed how fast excuses would be out. I didn’t see a single red flag and the police was the obvious aggressor, but a lie does fine without investigations.

That day was bad. It was – or should be – an embarrassment for a force that barley has a right to call itself police in my eyes. It was the executive seeking revenge for political circumstances. But also, it was not nearly as bad as what could happen any other day in Turkey, be it Kurds demonstrating for their acceptance, students for their freedom or anyone for having different ideas.

The memory of the gay pride week that remains for me is not even from the attack on Sunday’s walk. It is an image from a few days earlier, at a smaller but similar event in Moda. In a narrow street, flanked by grafiti of Socialist symbols and Gezi martyrs, a few hundred participants of the LGBT street party sang Kurdish songs together. If you stand shoulder to shoulder to the police, run from their tanks and help yourself up to escape a cloud of tear gas, you are bound to become allies at some point.

There are societies in Turkey that seek power by glorifying a common, exclusive, ultimately constructed identity. They try to play the citizens of Turkey out against each other. They instill fear and hatred for Kurds to gain votes, feed and harness wide-spread antisemitism, present alternating concepts of partnership as aggressive perversions. The AKP and MHP, but also the PKK, draw power from ignorance. As of now, it works. But I know Istanbul’s educated youth and I met many outstanding specimen of Turkish citizens. They learn that unity doesn’t mean forced conformity.

The police will get more brutal, the propaganda more vicious, the legal battles unfairer. In my eyes, these are the signs of those in charge losing ground.

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Baton-Charged: A report of the attack on Istanbul’s pride parade (Part 2/3)

Withstanding mild clouds of tear gas, we made our way through Istanbul’s canyon roads. Eventually, I followed a crowd drifting off from Sıraselviler to the left, into a side road, in the opposite direction the Tünel would have been. A loose band of young folks, safe from the police for now, happy but nervous, some dry, some soaked. We all looked to the right, seeking a way back to the scattered remnants of the march and eventually to the Istiklal.

No-one talked, but it was obvious things weren’t over. So far, the police had been provoking, using the tear gas to induce some level of panic. If I would have been absolutely true to my principles, I should have left. I believe that as a foreigner, capable of only the basics of a country’s language, I have no right to participate in protests against inner-political phenomena. I have an opinion, yes, and I feel obliged to share my observations in this very text you are reading, but I may not actively engage. What happened on the 28th of June started off as a walk for LGBT acceptance, an issue of global interest, but as the police began their random tear gas party, the crowd starting chanting Gezi songs. Within limits, a Gezi revival was bound to occur.

Two of my friends with their respective posters. Shot on Taksim, while we were gathering.

Two of my friends with their respective posters. Shot on Taksim, while we were gathering. The left poster reads “From Bavaria to Turkey, from woman to woman, with love”

But while I at least theoretically thought about subtracting myself from events that were perhaps no longer my direct business, Istanbul’s police force practiced the opposite. Tear gas, even in low concentration, doesn’t just affect a single street. It quickly sips through windows and doors, into cafés and living rooms. They let all of the “hipster quarter” Cihangir suffer for the pride walk, punished all of the LGBT-community for their perceived disloyalty. I already wrote a piece about tear gas being used as a means of collective punishment rather than crowd control. Today, we saw a schoolbook application of this.

Around Firüzağa mosque, lots of pride walk participants gathered. It’s a nice corner, with restaurants, terraces and, given that it’s Istanbul, rather many trees. The atmosphere was somewhere between panic and party with pieces of both. The majority of those present had lived through similar days before. I was holding my poster up high, looking for my friends, but couldn’t find anyone at first. Time enough to ponder the situation.

From the perspective of traditional police work, the Istanbul police force failed miserably. We don’t need to discuss attacking unarmed and peaceful civilians. They failed at riot control, too, as they couldn’t contain the riot they started themselves. Obviously, traditional police work wasn’t their task in the first place. The police, in the wake of the purges following the 2013th corruption probes, is broadly thought to be in the hands of the leading AKP now more than ever. I later learned that the official reason to prohibit the gathering in last-minute (without telling anyone on Taksim) was the Ramazan, the current month of fasting. That excuse is obvious bullshit, partially because the pride walk already occurred during Ramazan last year. But also, instead of two hours of singing limited to the Istiklal and Taksim, there were three or more hours of tear gas, panicking masses, noise and violence in big parts of Cihangir, Taksim and Tarlabaşı. Looking at the experience Turkish police has with protests, this was either what they intended (and what would be terrorism on some scale), or the responsible decision makers live in a world far, far away from reality.

Eventually I fond a portion of my friends in some sun-lit side road. It have no idea where that was, but the street was going steep, with many small groups of people wielding posters rainbow flags walking heading uphill, presumably towards a bigger mass of people. I had no internet connection on my phone, so I didn’t know that my friends, people who partially never met before, were having active conversations via social media and chat programs in order to locate and potentially rescue me. Alas when I found some of them, before I could try to give an account of what happened through a local WiFi, there was tear gas up in the streets and all the folks who just climbed the hill came running down again. It was a bright day, one of the kind good for relaxing in a café or at the promenade, by we were hunted through the streets by an invisible enemy.

We retreated back to Firüzağa mosque, where Ayla found me. Ayla had been late, but she had heard about the police aggression and my temporary disappearance. Being told that she better should return to Kadiköy, after hearing that I was gone, she was even more eager to join the pride walk to find me. Her story is one that would be worth to tell by itself, including cunning, stealth, police blockades and TOMA attacks.

Soon after Aylas arrival, the crowd went moving. From what I heard later, there have been other crowds trying to get through. I have heard about fights in Tarlabaşı and dolmuş-transports having gas grenades fired into them. But when we started walking from Firüzağa, I had no idea if we were all that was left or just a small party sliding through the streets around the actual action.

We passed through many smaller streets clearly not meant for protest marches, which I can tell by the fact that there was traffic. In case of tear gas, there would have been nowhere to run and for the people in the cars nowhere to drive. Also, due to the limited space and the different speed levels of the participants, Ayla and me soon lost track of the others in our group. I had no idea who was leading our column, but we did eventually start dripping onto the Istiklal. People cheered at us and made photos. Surprisingly, there was a police line. They smiled at leaned on their riot shields. I remember saying to Ayla that they looked relieved, potentially because now that it seemed the day would come to an end, they could also go home soon.

Little did I know that they set up a trap for us.

Baton-Charged: A report of the attack on Istanbul’s pride parade (Part 1/3)

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.

Me and my picture before the water guns. I would like to hear other people's interpretations before I write my thoughts. What do you think about it? Picture by Delizia Flaccavento.

Me and my poster before the water guns. I would like to hear other people’s interpretations before I write my thoughts. What do you think about it? – Picture by Delizia Flaccavento.

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.

So. Yeah. Sex. And Turkey.

Foreign girls moving to Turkey all share a very common problem. They sign up in one or more of the dozens of facebook groups for international students and as soon as they’re accepted as new members of „Erasmus Istanbul“, „Foreign Students in Istanbul“ or „Drinking and Fucking for World Peace“ (Erasmus’ inofficial name, sadly doesn’t exist as a real group, though), they’re being spammed with friend requests and messages from strange Turkish men. These messages are generally suggestions to hang out together, to show the receiver around, or say little more than „Hi“. It doesn’t need a Charles Xavier to figure that the majority – if not all – of the composers of such messages want to get laid. The Erasmus program has a certain reputation, Western girls are known to be more liberal than Turkish girls etc. But to the random young student longing to enjoy her stay in a foreign country, the bulk and omnipresence of attention received by Turkish men soon turns from nuisance to threat.

Marriage proposals in cafés are among the more obscure incidents. Shady followers in dark streets, being hit on by strangers almost every night out and being masturbated to in public are, however, to many a traveller what remains of their memory of Istanbul. This is a shame. Turkey has a so much more to offer than sexual harassment. It’s a country full of incredibly hospitable people, friendly folks who really just want to help you in dire situations or have an honest interest in your native country’s culture and language. However, one chav grabbing your butt can make a hundred reasonable guys standing at the counter go unnoticed.

More than once I had to venture out at night to pick up female friends from the illuminated cones below street lights, surrounded by daunting darkness. Eventually, I’ve earned the title „knight in the golden taxi“ in such a rescue mission.

I remember going through the nightly streets of Dili, Timor Leste, without fearing to be attacked. I walked home alone numerous times after parties in Russia and in Europe, often drunk and lost. Never was I afraid of strangers. My protection, the invisible halo surrounding me and making me impervious to perverts, is my penis. More precisely, the assumption by other men that I have a penis.

In Turkey, this protection is apparently more valuable than in other parts of the world. As a female friend of mine once put it, Turkey was the first country she’s been in she’d have prefered visiting as a guy, solemnly so she could retain the freedoms she has at home. Freedoms such as going anywhere by herself, not being dependant on the help of men, wearing what she wants, choosing her profile picture on social media etc., without being reduced to a potential sex object.

There are two very important gender related phenomena I have noticed ever since my teenage years and which help to understand why Turkey is different in this aspect to, say, Stockholm. They don’t sound revolutionary at first, neither are they complete, but they’re out there.

First of all, men are expected to go for girls.

People say it’s biology, but genes can’t be held responsible for the differences in gender expectations among societies.

Some examples; we men have to explain ourselves why we don’t hit on a given fine chick on a party. Not being sexually active is regarded as a problem, if not as a personal deficit. I, for instance, have numerous highly attractive female friends, but my unwillingness in trying to have sex with them is continuously interpreted as shyness, stupidity, cowardice, indecisiveness, or as being „friendzoned“. On the other hand, each time someone pats me on the back and congratulates me on a succesful hunt, I feel that it’s a very tiny cogwheel in a gigantic machination. It’s a machination of a social pressure existing in different extents all around the globe. Even talking about expectancies in terms of them being a problem is, however, unusual for a straight male. Presumably, many of my readers will ponder whether I have issues with my sexuality, too. Because, you know, only black people can speak out for black rights.

Secondly, if people challenge the patterns we’ve been taught, they often face unreasonable amounts of hostility. In fact, you might feel offended right now after reading the paragraph above.

Violence against LGBT people is the obvious example, but not the only one. Just mention in a group of people that you consider yourself asexual. Never did it, but unless you’re with a bunch of hippies, you’ll certainly face ridicule or even aggression. No, I correct myself on that. Hippies have a tendency to regard boundless sexual activity as the ultimate symbol of freedom and individualism. Ironically, being completely asexual out of disinterest might be interpreted as suppressing your inner self. I could name more examples, from women who have no interest to ever have kids nor long for traditional relationships, men who don’t want to attend strip shows with their mates, boys playing with dolls etc., all facing disbelief, mockery, eventually anger and even hatred.

Also have issues with sexuality: everybody.

Also having issues with sexuality: everybody.

Long have I been wondering; why is that so? Why do people feel personally attacked by other people’s private matters? Here’s my answer, and I’m sure it’s only one of many aspects.

The first concept we learn to differentiate between humans is the concept of gender. Ever since the first moments of our lives, we learn that we have a mother and a father, brothers and sisters, that we’re either boy or girl. At the same time, we learn the necessary tools to distinguish between the two. These are not the kinds of chromosomes we have, nor the different genitalia, not even the ability to give birth. We learn about these biological features long after we fully internalised that there’s a difference between man and woman.

Our methods to distinguish male from female are much more symbolic as a child. Names, colours, clothing, toys picked for us by adults and specifically designed for one or the other gender. We don’t choose if we get the car or the doll toy as two years olds, yet we learn to identify through these objects.

Identification is the key word. Not coincidentally do we base a significant portion of our identity on our gender for the rest of our lives. Nationality, race, religion…those concepts come much, much later in life. At first, we’re either boy or girl. For most of our lives, we will feel offended by being called the other.

Soon, physical toys and clothes are replaced by more abstract means of gender identification. One has to be brave and decisive, the other empathic and caring, and so on.

How little surprising is the hatred those face who dare challenge the rolls assigned to us from early childhood on. Whatever is different is a threat to the glassy construct of the two-opposing-genders-concept. A young girl being the first to have her hair „boyishly“ short in a conservative society is in no way a physical danger, nor is she a danger to what most people assume to be their traditional values, yet she will have to deal with scorn and isolation. Liberal societies, being more open to new ideas, have a lower bar, yet I was often laughed at for wearing my hair long when I was younger, too.

While as kids, we do little more than laugh at the boy who likes dolls, as adults, the presence of homosexuals makes many of us, even those who deem themselves tolerant, nervous or angry. Even worse when it comes to transgender issues. The thought of a man who wants to be a woman makes people confused or outraged. Essentially, though it’s a private matter, breaking the glass walls is actually a personal threat. If even the first assumption we have ever made about humans is relativised, doesn’t that also question everything we ever learned about others and about ourselves?

Turkey is a highly patriarchical society. Being a man’s man is important to many, more so than in most other places I’ve seen. The pressure to fulfil the unspoken expectations is subtle, but omnipresent. It’s exerted via peer groups, thoughtless jokes and banter, stereotypes in the media, last but not least by politicians’ remarks about the natural order of women and men. Apparently, what was good for a hunter-and-gatherer-society is inevitably good for modern societies, too.

Sexuality is nothing bad. Few things match the joys of sex. But imposing artificial rules for sexuality on us is, how I learned, ultimately a problem for everybody. In the end, there is always suppression.