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Tear Gas and Kebabs as Istanbul Water Cannons Hit Protesters

Riot police disperse demonstrators in Istanbul on March 12. Photographer: Sinan Gul/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Riot police disperse demonstrators in Istanbul on March 12. Photographer: Sinan Gul/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At one point last night in downtown Istanbul, while the tear gas stung and the water cannons hissed, protesters, bystanders and riot police stopped to watch a gray-haired man mime taking a shower.

Wearing a cream-colored jacket and a smirk, he stepped up to a water-cannon truck, loaded with as much as 10,000 liters, its computer-controlled nozzle pointing right at him. He started massaging his hair. He scrubbed his legs, rubbed his face and waited for this insult to earn its punishment.

It never came. He walked away, dry and laughing.

His solo act was a rare moment of calm during hours of running street battles, roars from a taunting crowd and the reports of tear gas canisters shot into the air, as hundreds of black-uniformed Istanbul riot police fought to clear thousands of people from Taksim Square.

The crowds had been drawn to the historic city center by the lingering cost of a single tear gas shell among the more than 100,000 fired in last year’s anti-government protests. That canister hit a 15-year-old boy in the head as he was buying bread for his family, put him into a 269-day coma and eventually, on March 11, took his life.

Yesterday’s march was the expression of months of anger against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he dismisses allegations of widespread corruption. They served as a reminder that the frustration over his violent suppression of last year’s protests over the development of Gezi Park hasn’t been forgotten.

Kebab Cooking

The funeral of Berkin Elvan drew grandmothers and mothers to the streets, swelling the crowds beyond the small bands of rioters who were dispersed the night he died. For Erdogan, they were the latest challenge to his authority.

In a city inured to public displays of anger, ordinary life went on last night beside extraordinary scenes. The cook at Ozturkler Kebabs carved meat a dozen feet from the showering man, taxi drivers waited for passengers, policemen removed gas masks to light cigarettes and a tourist dragged a suitcase through the crowd, coughing from the fumes of water spiced with pepper spray.

The day had started calmly. Tens of thousands of people walked with the family of the dead teenager to the Sisli Mosque, and then to the Ferikoy Cemetery, many carrying loaves of bread in memory of his fateful trip to the bakery.

At about 5 p.m., after the boy was buried, the procession turned south, toward Taksim Square. It’s Istanbul’s central transportation and shopping hub, bounded on one end by Gezi Park and the other by Istiklal Avenue, a pedestrian thoroughfare thronged by shopping centers and nightclubs.

36-Pound Boy

The crowds had swelled to thousands by then, as television channels broadcast live and Twitter lit up with images of the march.

The president, Abdullah Gul, who occupies a largely ceremonial office, offered condolence to the teenager’s family when asked about the death during a press conference. Erdogan, who faces local elections in 17 days, didn’t.

“God did not take my son from me, it is Tayyip Erdogan. How can I stand this pain?” Gulsum Elvan, the boy’s mother, told reporters on March 11, after the boy died in an Istanbul hospital. He had wasted away to 36 pounds, according to Amnesty International’s Regional Action Network in Turkey.

‘Sudden Wind’

Speaking in an interview on TV24 last night, Erdogan said of the protests: “This is like a sudden wind, it will come and go,” adding that markets calmed after the Gezi protests and would do so again. Turkey’s Borsa Istanbul 100 Index is down 38 percent in dollar terms since May 31, 2013, when the Gezi protests began, the worst performance of 94 primary indexes tracked by Bloomberg.

The teenager was the eighth person killed during the government’s violent dispersal of protests last year, including one policeman, according to Human Rights Watch, which said then that the Turkish police were using tear gas canisters to injure citizens. Two more people were reported to have died last night, including a policeman in Tunceli in eastern Turkey.

In Taksim Square, the police were ready. They had cordoned off the statue of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, formed a human fence at the entrance to Istiklal Avenue and positioned water cannons at every possible entrance.

Rubber Bullets

Most of the marchers never got that far. Four water cannons positioned more than a mile north pelted the crowd, as tear gas was fired into the air and riot police used paint guns and rubber bullets against stragglers. Some protesters hit back with fireworks, and at least one Molotov cocktail hit a police bus, images broadcast by the BBC showed.

On Istiklal Avenue, the streets were on lockdown. Hundreds of people were stuck inside a shopping mall, and plainclothes police officers chatted into radios as anybody lingering in the square was escorted out. All around were the vestiges of 11 years of economic growth under Erdogan’s watch: a Starbucks, a Burger King and the flickering light from dozens of bank teller machines.

At one point, a Frenchman leaning over a hotel balcony shouted “katiller!” at the police, echoing the Turkish chants of the word meaning “killers.” People nearby urged him to quiet down, mindful of the swiveling water cannons that can be used to spray buildings. He muttered “les assassins,” the same term in French, before heading inside.

As small groups of protesters chanted slogans and blocked police vehicles, riot police broke in to scatter them. After warning the crowds to disperse, jets of high velocity water, laced with pepper spray, were fired into the crowds. The police fired rubber bullets, shot tear gas into the air and, by 10 p.m., had cleared the square.

Street cleaners moved in. At 1 a.m., a karaoke club on Istiklal Avenue opened its doors and the Korean pop hit, Gangnam Style, was blaring out the speakers.

“It’s not over, I promise you,” said Ogun Avci, his face red from coughing and the sting of the laced water cannons, as he listened to the music. “We will be back tomorrow, and the day after, and every day, until we own the square.”

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