Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Far Too Interesting Afternoon

I inhaled pepper gas for the first time in my life this afternoon. I can't say it's something I ever want to experience again.

I was sitting in a café near Şişli Mosque with a student, Başor, having a conversation lesson. We had seen some riot police outside before we entered the café and while we were sitting there several police came in to use the restrooms, carrying large guns and gas masks. A while later we heard the sounds a demonstration outside and Başor told me it was the communist party, from what he could hear.

Suddenly, the staff were closing and locking the doors. We got up to get a closer look and could see a lot of white smoke outside and a knot of police with their plastic shields above their heads being pelted from farther down the street.

A young woman holding a camera and desperately wiping her reddened eyes knocked on the door and was let in. We retreated to the back of the café while about 8-10 police rushed into the café after the girl. Only a few were wearing their gas masks. They started splashing each other, and the girl, in the face with water.

Two men were crouching near the doors with what looked like cameras and had left one of the doors open. Colourless gas suddenly filled the air and my eyes started stinging. It smelled like sparklers after they burn out, only much stronger. I tried to cover my face but, misunderstanding what I was doing, a policeman told me not to touch my eyes. He and Başor guided me to the back balcony of the café and began splashing my face with water, telling me not to touch my eyes and to keep them open as much as I could. Başor's eyes were also red, but didn't seem to be troubling him too much.

Soon the uniformed police left, but seconds after they did several plain-clothed cops pushed a man through the open café door, tackling him to the ground and securing his hands behind his back with a plastic cable tie. All we could do was sit and wait for the atmosphere outside to clear then make a dash for the door and the language school office, about 25m away.

A short time later, the crowd and gas had dispersed and there was only a knot of police and press outside. Traffic had also started moving again. We paid the bill and walked back to the office, where we tried to find information about the riot online but to little avail. Even Twitter only had a couple of tweets (in Turkish) about it. I did find a couple of photos on yfrog thanks to @DemirokFatos.

After Başor left the office, I made my way to my next lesson in Beyoğlu. The journey would take me past home and through Taksim Square. I caught a bus, but traffic was bad (not unusual for Istanbul) and the bus came to a complete stop just short of the Hilton Hotel. I, along with several other passengers, decided to get out and walk the rest of the way; I would probably just make it to my next class if I hoofed it. A lot of people had got off other buses stuck in the traffic and the sidewalk was packed.

Up ahead, near the corner of Gezi Park, I saw a road block of police vehicles and another group of riot police. About 50 metres in front of them, a large group of people was gathering. Suddenly from a somewhere out of my sight came the loud chant of demonstrators.

"Hell no, not again," I thought to myself.

I called my student to cancel the lesson as I doubled back up Cumhuriyet Caddesi and turned onto a side street to avoid the large number of people who were now racing towards the crowd. Fortunately, I was only four blocks from the safety of home.

As I look out the window up to Cumhuriyet Caddesi 90 minutes later, traffic is flowing normally. I probably would've been fine if I'd kept on walking to Taksim and down Istiklal to my next lesson, but who wants to breathe in pepper gas at all, let alone twice in one day?

UPDATE: Just found this article from Today's Zaman which might explain a few things.

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