Istanbul Police Tear-Gassed a Memorial March This Weekend

By George Henton

Following a week of relative calm, violent clashes returned to the streets of Istanbul this Saturday as the Turkish government continued with their notion that heavy-handed police crackdowns can soothe civil discontent.

The Taksim Solidarity Platform—an organization representing those who've been protesting in Gezi Park since the May 28—organized a memorial to pay tribute to the three protesters and one police officer who have so far lost their lives in the civil unrest. Tens of thousands of people attended under the watchful eye of the police, marching up the main shopping street, Istiklal, and back into Taksim Square. As their numbers swelled, loud speakers warned the crowds to disperse. Police donned riot gear and the assembled media scrambled for their helmets and gas masks. It quickly became clear that the temporary détente was coming to an end. 

Shortly after the announcements, the police moved in. Descending from their perch in front of Gezi Park, they began firing their water cannons into the massed ranks of protesters in an attempt to move them back down Istiklal. Hours of running battles followed, clashes taking place up and down Istiklal and its warren of side streets and alleys long into the night. The police's first attempt to clear the square failed miserably, as groups of young men and women merely looped back via the side streets. At this stage the police felt they had little choice but to fight their way back, using batons and spraying rubber bullets.

With the police temporarily away from Istiklal, the remaining protesters chose to construct a large barricade, raiding a construction site nearby for plywood, metal bars, and the all-important blue netting. For good measure, they also set up a bonfire and danced around it while chanting and banging on metal posts. The barricade took almost an hour to create. It took the police a minute or two to remove it.

Once cleared, the police broke out the tear gas, firing it down side streets as they moved the crowds back down Istiklal, ensuring protesters were less inclined to use them to double back on the cops and reclaim Taksim Square. Startled tourists and locals, eating in the outdoor restaurants dotted around the area, were forced to flee for cover as the gas clouds started to choke the night air.

Once the main street was clear, packs of police, including plain clothes officers, started to maraud through the side streets, firing even more tear gas and challenging anyone they suspected of being a protester (i.e. everyone). I attached myself to one of these groups of police (with the belief that being behind them was the safest place to be) as they moved from street to street. When they came across individuals they didn’t like, they pushed them against walls and kicked and used their batons against them until the individual they'd pounced upon managed to break free. As a short-term deterrent, it was certainly effective.

By the early hours of the morning, the police saw fit to withdraw, leaving behind only a few hardcore protesters and groups of revellers spilling out of the local nightclubs. 

What happens now is anyone’s guess. The passive resistance seen in the "Standing Man" phenomena—in which protesters arrive alone and stand stock still for hours on end, staring straight ahead—returned to Taksim a day later and the mass assemblies are restarting in parks around the city, where they've taken place for the past few weeks. For now, neither side shows any sign of backing down. The violence is likely to have done little but strengthen the resolve of both those opposed to Turkey’s current social and political status quo and those who are fighting to preserve it.

Follow George on Twitter: @georgehenton. See more of his work here.

More from Turkey's social uprising:

Istanbul Rising  

Occupiers Faced Down Cops in Istanbul's Taksim Square  

The Battle for the Heart of Istanbul Rages On  

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