Tear Gas Reaches Our Istanbul Street

galataGas                                                                                                                                                               The idea that our Istanbul vacation wouldn’t be touched by the current uprising was an absurd one. No matter what one did, or tried to do, the will of the people rose up.

A simple cruise up the Bosphorus River, a normal Sunday afternoon excursion here, turned into a political event as more than a dozen fishing boats rode by in formation, attired in Turkish flags, protest banners, pictures of the historical hero Attaturk. Turkish riders waved arms or clapped in support.

Spontaneous marches to Gezi Park, brutally shut down and cleared by police the night before, may have been stopped. But there was no way to stop the free expression on the waterway and the effect was exhilarating.

Then came more boats, bigger yachts whose own red Turkish flags were accompanied by the orange and white of the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Huge banners with his pictures also flew. The men aboard chanted and waved, some from the boat waved back. There could be more government supporters among Turkish people than I figured; or they could have been tourists like us who also didn’t know exactly what was going on, what the chants meant, or the degrees of political feeling.

A TV inside our boat showed reporting of a big Erdogan rally somewhere, more waving of orange and white flags among the red. No mention of the people’s flotilla. Even without translation, it was clear just one side of the story was being broadcast, that there was no question all Turkish people supported Erdogan’s park sweep.

Back on lstanbul’s docks late in the afternoon, it was clear things had changed. The gas masks we thought were being sold for novelty Saturday were clearly being snapped up for practical use. Also: Swim goggles and hard hats. The closer we climbed the hill to the landmark Galata Tower where we were staying, the more people we saw with gas masks around their necks.

It’s not unusual to have throngs of people at the plaza where the tower rises, but this one was largely young people who looked to be in construction crews at a toxic site. Chants went up, then claps and nobody quite knew what was going on.

I just barely missed a bucket of water thrown down by a man on the third floor not happy with the gathering.

And there was that acrid smell. You feel the burn first at the bottom of your lungs. My eyes had been watering but I thought it was because it was hot and my sunscreen had melted. Maybe I’d need a mask too.

Back at the apartment, those who had stayed back to see a dervish performance were caught in a different kind of swirl: There was no way they were getting into the museum to see it. They couldn’t get up the blocked street to see it.

Back upstairs, the windows had to be shut to keep the tear gas out. There was some question whether we’d get out at all for dinner.

The doorbell rang: A couple of Turkish women, through broken English, were collecting bandages for those on the streets. Amazing they had climbed the four flights. We didn’t really have anything but paper products.

It still felt that we were in the middle of things.

Went back down to check out the scene. Large, unending throngs in their masks and helmets, marching up the street to the main commercial thoroughfare near here, that had been the scene of protests and gassing last night. Crews worked for hours hosing down the streets this morning. The tram was closed until further notice.

streetBut now there was a much deeper level of civic unruliness. No smashing of windows as such, but teams carefully uprooted a street sign that they used to clip one of the many, many overhead closed circuit cameras pointed on the streets. It got you realizing just how many of these things had been erected to keep track of every movement.

An even more ambitious group of men removed the cobblestones and then one of those Severe Tire Damage strips from a street. Had those been used for crowd control as well? Were they just taxi drivers who had been burned by them in the past? A cheer went up when they pried it from the ground.

Crowds paused at the top of the hill at the plaza where the street turned. Heads craned to see what was happening down the street. We never did see a line of police, but every so often there was one of those even scarier things at such events: A sudden rush of people running full gallop toward you, away from some perceived damage. Only a raise of hands from cooler heads down the hill prevented a few full fledged stampedes.

Back in the apartment, we heard occasional chants and claps, the amassing of people on a corner and then a moving on. But at one point a bunch of people ran down a hill and explosions were heard.

Here on this peaceful touristy street of shops and bistros was a tear gas canister on fire quickly filling the narrow block with billowing smoke, the famous tower on the top of the street becoming obscured.

What the heck? What next? How is anybody supposed to respond to this anti-human behavior? When will we ever see the dervishes we paid to see? Or will Turkey soon become known for something else? We’re all waiting to see.

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