Sunday, June 16, 2013

Istanbul uprising: Beyoğlu after a grim night

When police cleared Istanbul's Gezi Park last night and pushed back demonstrators in surrounding streets with the toughest force seen in the last two weeks of protests, I was an hour outside of the city center, watching on TV and the Internet as my neighborhood burned with tear gas, fury, and, in some cases, actual flames.

Friends and colleagues at Reuters, The New York Times, and other news outlets braved the melee until late into the night to bring to light the latest developments in a country where much of the local media has been cowed into silence. Police water cannons chased fleeing protesters into the courtyard of the German Hospital in Cihangir and fired tear gas after them into the Divan Hotel, which has been widely praised for keeping its doors open to gassed and wounded demonstrators.

I returned this morning to eerie quiet. With special buses and boats being put into service to ferry people to a large pro-government rally in the Kazlıçeşme area of Zeytinburnu, metro service has been suspended three stops out from the Taksim Square area, which has been an epicenter of Istanbul unrest. Other transport services have also been stopped to keep protesters from succeeding in their plans to march on Taksim once again at 4 p.m. local time today. Yesterday, Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bağış said anyone who enters the Taksim area -- one of the city's main commercial and tourism hubs -- will be considered a "supporter or member of a terror organization."

Reports are flying of doctors being detained for treated wounded protesters, homes of demonstrators being raided, and investigations underway of people who used protest-related hashtags on Twitter to spread news. Last week, some 50 lawyers were detained for protesting the treatment of demonstrators, prompting thousands of their colleagues to walk out of court the next day in support. Accredited foreign journalists are being kept out of the Taksim Square/Gezi Park area and Amnesty International has called for the whereabouts of people detained in last night's unrest to be released.

It's hard to believe that three weeks ago none of this had happened yet, and that just a week ago, Gezi Park was still "occupied" by peaceful protesters of an incredibly wide range of political and social stripes -- Turkish nationalists, Kurdish groups, environmentalists, artists, teachers, women's rights and LGBT activists, students, leftists, anti-capitalist Muslims, supporters of Istanbul's typically warring football teams, and many, many more. Despite the massive throngs every night during the week-plus when the park and Taksim Square had been abandoned by police forces, the area had never felt safer -- far more welcoming than on a typical Saturday night when it was often throbbing with macho aggression.

On the stroke of 3 p.m., as protesters gather in adjacent neighborhoods to attempt to return to Taksim Square, my neighborhood has erupted its the pots-and-pans-banging symphony of support heard throughout Istanbul at least once a day since widespread demonstrations began May 31. The city will not remain quiet for long.

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