I Can Stay Here: Istanbul, On-the-Ground in Protest

I Can Stay Here: Istanbul, On-the-Ground in Protest

Gezi Park Protests. Photo By: Sarah Liz Perrich
Gezi Park Protests. Photo By: Sarah Liz Perrich

Koş means run in Turkish. When you hear it while you're behind a barricade, you do not ask questions, you run. This is the best way to avoid physical harm, whether from a gas cannister intentionally aimed at the head or trampling.

Gas hurts. The best way to protect yourself is with a military gas mask, but few have them. Most Çapulca, (the autonym of the protest movement, adopted after Prime Minister Erdoğan disparaged us by calling us what can be translated into English as, variously: marauder, hooligan, or bum) is some combination of goggles and a scarf  wound round the lower portion of the face, which, by the way, makes your glasses fog up horribly, especially when running.

When you are gassed, as I was several times on June 15th, your face burns, your eyes hurt so bad you physically can't open  them, and all you want to do is sit down and claw your face. If it's very bad, you begin choking so hard you wretch. Several times over the long, horrible night of June 15th, I found myself thus doubled over, hacking and  miserable and blind, only to hear a voice cry “Abla! Abla!” (Turkish term of politeness meaning older sister). This was followed by a gentle hand lifting my chin and a soothing spray of anti-gas solution, (anything from milk and water to a mixture of antacids) on my eyelids, with a stern, “Don't touch.”

On the night of the 15th, after forcing journalists out of the area, police raided Gezi Park, which was filled with thousands of peaceful protesters who were mostly just smoking and singing and sharing books with one another. As there were many families there, many small children and even babies were injured. The protesters took refuge in the many hotels surrounding the popular tourist spot and historically important rallying point. The police responded by gassing hotels and arresting the injured. They used stun grenades and plastic bullets to roust the last of the protesters from the park. They used water cannons as usual, but this time mixed the water with pepper spray, which left protesters with second and third degree burns. By the end of the day on the 16th, the Bar Association could not locate the whereabouts of the arrested protesters, and Amnesty International had officially condemned the Turkish police.

By now, it's easy to find news stories about how a peaceful demonstration against the development of a small park in Istanbul turned into a nationwide protest against autocracy, and, more recently, a nightmare. The narrative I find missing from most foreign coverage is how we got here.

In the nearly three years since I left Baltimore and became an Istanbul ex-pat, I've witnessed first hand the slow gradual erosion of various rights and freedoms. It started small. Sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes has been raised twice. Erdoğan has publicly denounced alcohol as the root of all evil, and anyone who imbibes he's marked an alcoholic. More troublingly, Erdoğan has been slowly turning public schools into state-run religious schools, a trend which if it continues will leave the poor with no secular education option. He's publicly stated that women should stay home and bear at least three children, and that a woman without a headscarf is like a house without curtains, and a house without curtains is always for sale or rent. The week before the protest began, he publicly stated that he wanted to raise a generation of religious youth, while he rushed a bill that would restrict not only the sale but the advertising of alcohol through parliament. (The bill has since been passed by President Gül.) More troublingly still is the recent reports of arrests. In my time here, I've seen a mass arrest of journalists, army generals and Kurdish intellectuals, among the last my friend's father, who is currently in solitary confinement for his part in a hunger strike against his years of detention without proper trial. In past months, there've been troubling accounts of intellectuals and artists being jailed for tweets, under the rather broad law that states one cannot insult the Prophet Muhammed.

We have all had concerns. There have been whisperings among the ex-pat community that soon, perhaps sooner than we think, Istanbul won't be a nice place for us to live at all. This is troubling as we have all built satisfying lives here and love our jobs, our friends, and our communities.

Three weeks ago I was constructing an exit strategy, disgusted at not only the government's encroachment, but on the people's seeming apathy.

June 1st, the day the police finally stopped their reprehensible attack on the peaceful protesters in Gezi and retreated, was revelatory, exhilarating. Nearly a million people, (the number has been routinely underreported by the press) rushed into Taksim. These were not just young people, but whole families and old people; not just socialists, but apolitical people and even ATK supporters. Average Joe Istanbul was finally fed up, and it was glorious to see.

“Yes,” I thought. “I can stay here.”

Over the past two weeks, I've had many experiences I never thought an average girl from Charm City, who likes tacos and the Enoch Pratt Free Library, would ever have. I've celebrated and despaired. I've packed my purse with an eye for chemical warfare. I've marched and sung with my Turkish friends. I've stood by burning barricades and been gassed. I've knocked police cameras askew to protect friends, and escaped police by pretending to be a lost tourist.

The courage of everyone I've come across, from grandmother's picking up cans and cheering us -- to the young dreadlocked hippies -- has changed me forever.

The night of the June 15th was a terrible day for Turkey. As I write this, crackdowns are continuing around the city. Journalists are being beaten and detained. A bill is being introduced that will allow harsh penalties against tweeting anything, essentially, against the party line. I lay awake at night, reflexively refreshing twitter and worrying about my friends who are in the fray. They are surrounded not only by a very dangerous police force, but now also with  an angry mob of young Erdoğan supporters who carry knives.

However, I have seen real courage in the past few weeks, and I do not despair.

Sarah Liz Perrich

Sarah Liz Perrich is a Baltimore girl who currently teaches and writes in Istanbul.

You can follow her normally lighthearted adventures at www.agentlabroad.wordpress.com