An Hour on Istiklal Ave, Istanbul

This is the 1st of a series of posts this week about the non-violent protests in Turkey, most of which will focus on Istanbul.  If you are willing to translate one or more of the posts into your language, please send it to me (info at the bottom of the post), and I will repost the translation.  If you learn something here, please feel free to share (i.e., reblog, tweet, post to FB, etc.).

Around 1 am Mon morning a restaurateur on Mis, a side street off of Istiklal, three blocks from Taksim Square in Istanbul, that the protest would start that night at 9 pm.   So at about 7:45 tonight I began the 45 minute walk from where I am staying in the Fatih district of Istanbul to Istaklal, a long pedestrian and tram boulevard where tourists shop, dine, and party, that ends, at its top, at Taksim Square.  I acquired neither a mask nor goggles as they signal one is there to protest, and I figure my best play, should I land in the hands of authorities, is to be a clueless tourist who unwittingly walked into a situation.  So I had my backpack, a bottle of water, and my map of Istanbul.

Taksim has been the focus of Istanbul’s non-violent, anti-government protests that have been taking place throughout Turkey for the past several weeks.  I spent a considerable portion of both Saturday and Sunday hoping to get in the fray, but on Saturday wandered from Taksim in the early afternoon when nothing was afoot, and then returned too late to breach the police perimeter that effectively cut off the approach to Taksim from every direction except  that from Istiklal, which was a long walk to get to from where I was.  On Sunday the protesters were all on the Asian side of the Bosphorous, attending the first annual Gasman Festival, a multi-band concert event celebrating the protests, and Taksim and Istiklal were quiet, so I spent the evening eating and drinking with a friend.  And very late I got my tip, which was quite useful.

Gasman Festival Poster

Gasman Festival Poster

Gezi park, which is in the middle of Taksim Square and had been closed for weeks, was reopened earlier today, and though I chose not to venture far enough to assess the situation myself, Al Jazeera reports that the police evacuated it hours after reopening it.  I was less interested in the status of the park and more interested in how the protester–police interaction was working around Taksim.  The series of posts I put up this week will address what I have learned, but this first one is simply a chronicle of the hour I spent earlier this evening (basically 8:45 to 9:45) on Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian boulevard that leads to one edge of Taksim Square, and which has become a major location for the cat-and-mouse game protesters play with the police.  Most of the photos below are my own (my apologies for the blurry shots), though where I use someone else’s I note that it is not mine.


Istanbul has several hills, and since I had to walk across the Galata Bridge from the old city, and Taksim is on top of a hill, that meant I had a climb.

Foreground: Galata Bridge Background: The Old City, Istanbul

Foreground: Galata Bridge
Background: The Old City, Istanbul

Istaklal begins a few hundred yards from the bridge, and the first 20% of it is a recently steep climb (e.g., stair instead of a flat sidewalk).  Loads of people were coming down, including a few with hard hats and proper gas masks, and I wondered whether I would encounter a police line blocking the road.  I did not.

Around the intersection of Isitklal and Nuri-Ziya I first encountered both a water canon vehicle and one of those smaller, quicker ones that has a cop with  tear gas gun in a turret on top (there is a long-shot of that vehicle further down the post).  The driver door of the smaller vehicle was open, and I soon realized that it was unoccupied, its driver 10 or more feet away, arguing with someone I assume was a protester.  A handful of cops looked on, enjoying the show, as those two exchanged words next to the water canon truck.  People were free to move up or down Isitklal and dozens of folks were strolling along in both directions.

A block later I encountered two clusters of cops, one on each side of the street (see pics below), and a second water canon truck (not in the photos).  They were very relaxed, with many smoking, some bantering among one another, and the rest bored, staring off at nothing in particular, or jabbing their fingers at their cell phones.  Just a bit up the street from the cops I encountered my first cluster of photographers, each of whom had a proper, full face gas mask, a camera and camera bag(s).  That told me I had entered the area where the cat-and-mouse game would unfold.  Unlike Saturday, I had made it inside.

Bored cops waiting

Bored cops waiting

Foreground: Bored photogs waiting Background: More board cops waiting

Foreground: Bored photogs waiting
Background: More board cops waiting

My sense of the crowd at that moment was that it was at least half shoppers, and almost half people waiting about for the evenings festivities to begin.  I saw one young teen boy, who was by himself, pull a bandanna from pocket, quickly tie it to his face and then break off at a jog to run up Istiklal.  He fairly bounced when he broke into that jog, and was clearly fired up for fun.  I confess, I envied him.  Though the cops and photogs were bored, there was something of a festive air among the peeps who had scarves, those paper filter masks, and goggles dangling around their necks.  Even the shoppers were in good spirits.  There was no sense of danger or concern that I could sense, and to the extent that people were expressing any emotions they were positive.  In any case, I sure as hell would have had fun as a 12 or 13 year old zipping about during this.  I made a mental note to make sure to do the opposite of whatever I saw him, and kids like him, doing.

About that time I heard someone shout “Maski!  Maski!” and turned to see this guy, hawking paper filter masks and swim goggles.  Istiklal really had the feel of the warm-up period prior to a sporting match, complete with vendors hawking their wares.

Entrepreneur selling masks and swim goggles

Entrepreneur selling masks and swim goggles (apologies fro the blurry pic)

Tastes Like Spicy Chicken

I had not yet eaten dinner, so a few blocks later I decided to stop at Potatos, the Bufe shop pictured below.

Potatos Bufe on Taksim

Potatos Bufe on Istiklal

I ordered up some chicken, fries and a bottle of water, and no sooner did the guy with the knife in his hand (below) get to work than there was a roar from up Isitklal (toward Taksim), followed by people suddenly scrambling outside in all directions, but mostly heading down Istiklal (toward Galata Bridge).   The chicken cutter stopped what he was doing, and as I began to wander into the street to see what was happening, he pulled me back inside and lowered the metal security door (the security door is to his right in the photo below).  Then he returned to preparing my meal and his co-worker rang me up.

Chicken and fries behind the security door

Chicken and fries behind the security door

At Potatos I learned my first valuable lesson about protest at Taksim: the (vast majority of) shops not only stay open through the protests, they actively protect anyone who wants shelter from the tear gas and water canons.  I took a seat at a table next to a window that overlooks the side street, and moments later heard a series of rat-a-tat-tats (plastic bullets), and saw half a dozen people run at full speed down the side street, away from Isitklal.  A few minutes later I got my first whif of the gas, and moved to the open window to look outside.  I couldn’t see any clouds, and there were only a few cops standing about up on Isitklal.  I got a bit a sting in my eyes, and decided to shut the windows.  When I returned to my meal, I noticed that the chicken was a bit spicy.  Who knew: tear gas produces a pleasant zip on food (yes, I ate the rest of my meal: I like spicy food).

Over the course of the next 10 plus minutes the security door to Potatos opened and closed several times, and each time it closed, a new crew of folks rushed in, then came back to where I was to peer out the windows.  Part way through I saw the two guys working there get out towels to wear around their nose and mouth and took note (see blurry pic, below).

The Poptaos guys break out their gear.

The Potaos guys break out their gas gear.

Once I finished eating I stopped at the loo, and then headed back out onto Isitklal.  This is the view up Isitklal, toward the bend at Yeni Carsi.

Up toward Taksim from Potatos

Up toward Taksim from Potatos

Monkey in the Middle

When I was a kid we used to play a game called monkey in the middle in which two groups of kids would toss a ball back and forth between them, and the kid who was “the monkey” had to steal the ball (thus sending the person who had made the errant toss to the middle to be “the monkey”).  What I observed over the next 15 to 20 minutes as I walked up Isitklal toward Taksim reminded me of that game.  Basically you had a cluster of protesters who would gather up Isitklal from a cluster of cops and their vehicles, and eventually one among the crowd would begin a chant, and folks would join in, often with clapping involved.  It reminded me of the type of cheering one sees on Saturdays in the US outside (and inside) of college football stadiums.

Down the street from that same cluster of cops and their vehicles another groups of protesters would gather, and they too would chant and clap, taunting the police.  Later I would realize that this was actually layered at several levels, when a group of cops and vehicles cam down Istiklal (from Taksim) at us while the crowd I was in was focused further down the street, and those cops moved up the street to pin the group of protesters between them.  I had already picked out my refuge when that happened: a shop across from where I was standing that is called MAC.  Here is a brief video clip of the crowd taunting the co.s

Shelter in a Makeup Shop

I don’t like to shop, and I don’t like makeup, but I sure was happy to spend time in MAC, a makeup shop on Istiklal and Balo.

MAC Provided Me Refuge

I took the photo above after exiting the shop, but I got in it when a couple of the smaller police vehicles  came up Istiklal at us (with a water canon behind them) and a water canon vehicle and several police in riot gear came at us down Istiklal at the same time.  People scattered, and I ran to the front door of MAC as they began to lower the security door, and the owner (who is wearing the black shirt and standing on the step in the photo above) waved me in saying “Come in, come in”  (I have come far enough east that people who speak English tend to begin with me in English).  About six of us ended up inside, and the water canon ominously roared up and then came to a stop right out in front of the shop.  The woman to the left in the photo below works there, and she got water for everyone.  They also had a bottle of milk out on the counter in case anyone needed it to try to wash tear gas from their eyes and lips.  It wasn’t long before we heard the “pop” of tea gas canisters being fired outside the door, and though it was not bad at all, you could soon whiff the gas in the air.

Inside MAC, looking toward the street

Inside MAC, looking toward the street

While we were inside there was a pop outside, followed almost immediately by an incredibly loud bang on the black metal security door covering the front of the shop.  It was a gas canister hitting the door, and the sound was so visceral you could feel, and almost see, it as it echoed in the shop.  All six of us jumped, and I felt a spike of adrenaline rush from my heart as my stomach leapt into my throat.  Then we exhaled, and there was some   and good natured laughter among the Turkish chatter that followed (I speak only English, so could not partake).  I was reminded of the rush one gets on roller coasters, where one knows one is safe, but there is this momentary doubt.

The owner of the shop kept the two security doors on the shop’s two side windows up just a bit so that we could monitor goings on outside.  I do not have a photo, but this photo shows the front security door up a bit, with two folks peeking out, and while the front security door was generally lowered to the floor, the side ones were kept at that level, or even higher.

Peeking out the bottom of the side window at MAC

Peeking out the bottom of the front window at MAC

With apologies for my blurry pic, I took this from the shop’s left window just a minute or two before these cops decided that the protesters down that side street (Yeni Carsi Ave) needed a bit of gas and a beating.

Istanbul Police outside of MAC

Istanbul Police outside of MAC

I don’t have a photo of the cops shooting two canisters of gas down Yeni Carsi Ave, but I did find a very similar shot someone else posted on Twitter tonight.  This is someone else’s photo of a different cop, but is much the same thing that I saw outside the shop window.

Istanbul Cop Fires Teargas (Credit: @kurtizz01)

Istanbul Cop Fires Teargas (Credit: @kurtizz01)

With further apologies for the lousy pic, here are the cops that are standing about above, giving chase after the two canisters were fired down the street.  You can’t see it terribly well, but their batons are drawn, not sheathed.  I’ll have a post on this specific topic later in the week, but I did not see anybody who looked remotely Black Bloc, which is to say, prepared for and interested in engaging the police in hand to hand combat.   If the goal was to arrest people who succumbed to the gas and were unable to flee, then gas masks and zip-cuffs, not gas masks, riot shields and drawn batons, are the most appropriate gear.

Cops chase, following tear gas volley

Cops chase, following tear gas volley

A few minutes later MAC’s owner opened the shop and we exited onto the street.

As a sidebar, tear gas canisters do serious damage when  they strike a human being (and that sound against the security door was very consistent with that), and police are trained not to aim that at people.  Below is a gory image of a man allegedly wounded this afternoon during the protest by a tear gas canister shot at his head (not seen by me, nor my photo).

Alleged victim of canister to the head today

Alleged victim of canister to the head today (Credit: @SKYP_Esbaskani)

Exiting the Fray

Upon exiting MAC I figured I had pretty well accomplished what I had set out to learn, and decided to head back down Isitklal Ave and back to my room.  It took a bit over a minute for the tear gas, which I didn’t really notice at first, to do its work on my eyes.  Sadly, I had not yet figured out how to use my new phone to shoot a selfie, and it turns out that learning to do that goes poorly when your eyes slowly lose their ability to function.  I had a couple of nostril burns, so switched to my mouth, and only two breathes really delivered a sting to my throat.  But over the course of two blocks my damn eyes went from blinking, stinging and teary, to more or less closed, with brief openings to catch a blurry glimpse through the tears and check to see whether I was about to run into someone.  It occurs to me that I have allergy eye drops in my backpack, but as an aspie, I tend to not make such obvious connections (tools have a single purpose, right?  They aren’t tear gas drops, after all…).   A couple of times I paused to turn my head and force my eyes open long enough to take in the postures and behavior of folks around me, lest I get a proper blast of tear gas, and find myself groveling in pain on the ground as the police show up to beat me and haul me away.  But everything was copacetic during the two minutes or so that my eyes went from fine, to more or less useless, and then began working their way back to equilibrium.

While my eyes were making their decline I paused for a moment to take this photo, which shows what a side street somewhere between Potatos and MAC looked like (and attempt to distract myself from my eye situation).  Protests are really, really scary, and dangerous, right?  Understand: I am standing on Isitklal and not using a zoom setting.  Life goes on completely as normal (except for the masks and goggles, and alertness for trouble) along Isitklal, until the cops fire the gas, then everyone runs, and the shops lower their security doors, wait for the cops to move and gas to disperse a bit, and then raise their security doors and rock on as if nothing unusual was happening.  It is pretty frigging awesome.  Yes, you can scroll back up this post and see the image of the man bleeding from his head wound (and note that the light of that photo suggests that it is earlier in the day than this pic), but as you can see, there are thousands of Turks from all walks of life (as far as I, a foreigner with less than one week’s experience in Istanbul, can discern) who won’t be deterred, and an overwhelming majority of shop owners.

Side Street Scene, off of Istaklal

Side Street Scene, off of Istaklal

That’s just a taste.  Later this week I will have a post about what I have learned about who is in the protest, as well as what the government claims.  Suffice it to say that what I saw (not only tonight, but especially tonight) is dramatically at odds with the government’s claim.  But I do want to share with you one photo of a family of four getting either sweets or ice cream about 5 blocks down Isitklal (away from Taksim) from where I took the pregame photos above.

Ice cream run on Istaklal Ave

Ice cream run on Istaklal Ave

Right after I took the pic of that family, I turned to continue my descent toward Galata Bridge, and was greeted by this group of roughly 40 or so folks dressed up for cat-and-mouse with the Istanbul police (my photo doesn’t really capture it, but virtually everyone you can see down the street was in their 20s, had either a scarf, mask and or goggles, and walked and spoke with a jaunty air like kids on their way to a party or sporting match.

As I descend, reinforcements make their way up

As I descended, reinforcements made their way up


Please send me your translation of this post at: will [dot] moore [at] buffaloes [dot] com, and be sure to tell me what language it is.  😉

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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3 Responses to An Hour on Istiklal Ave, Istanbul

  1. Pingback: Weekly Links | Political Violence @ a Glance

  2. Pingback: Policing Protest, Istanbul Stylee | Will Opines

  3. Pingback: Nonviolent Protest, Istanbul Stylee | Will Opines

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