Pots, pans and the mundane terror at Taksim

Riot police use tear gas to disperse the crowd during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central İstanbul on May 31, 2013. (Photo: Reuters, Osman Orsal)

Riot police use tear gas to disperse the crowd during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central İstanbul on May 31, 2013. (Photo: Reuters, Osman Orsal)

On Friday I picked up my Turkish residence permit, breathed a sigh of relief, then came home to Taksim and was promptly tear gassed.

I hadn’t joined the Gezi clashes, nor was I up close trying to get some citizen journalist footage. I was just walking home, a bit sick with the flu and ready to make some tea and go to bed. Neither of these simple things would happen that night.

I fled up a side street trailing a tour group of elderly Japanese people being shepherded by their guide away from the police. They showed little emotion, but I recognized that blank look of adrenaline-displaced trauma. One man, on a cane, struggled not to fall behind. The effect on tourists of these moments cannot be understated: Whatever fear I’ve felt in the last few days is nothing compared to what one feels in a truly foreign place, with little context for understanding the actions of protesters or the police (I wrote about that here).

I saw that look again many times that afternoon and into the night. My eye was often drawn to the remarkable courage of a protester standing strong against a fusillade of tear gas cannisters or a pummeling spray of water. But then it would wander to those stumbling by in that half-run you do through a restive crowd, a scarf or handkerchief held over their mouths and noses, their eyes showing that same look of displaced, deferred fear. They were people just trying to get home in a neighborhood that’s been turned into a combat zone, average Taksim residents trying not to engage: something that would soon change.

The foreign press has, of course, focused on the central, spectacular action of the Gezi protests. This is what they do, and they are telling the usual narrative of protesters vs. police. I’m not sure they understand that apart from a strip of hotels, street-level businesses and the square itself, the Taksim district is a residential area. People live everywhere. On my little street neighbors greet each other, simit vendors mosey by with carts, children emerge daily from an adjacent school, laughing and ebullient, often skipping with delight to see their parents. This is my street, a place where people know and look out for each other. And last night we were invaded.

Excessive force has been a theme of the Taksim clamp-down, usually spoken of in reference to violence meted out on protesters. But another aspect of that excess is simply the spread of police action to every corner of the district — in the form of the sounds of explosions, the forced retreat of residents to their homes, and — most notably — the tear gas, which our seasonal Lodos wind has democratically dispersed across much of central İstanbul. Police attempts to target protesters have reached into the most intimate spheres of our lives, from our homes to our bodies, from our ability to walk to our ability to breathe.

These are the mundane terrors visited upon Taksim right now. They happen quietly, alongside the acute acts of violence. They happen with psychological consequences rather than bruises and blood.

Late last night I entertained myself by playing a thunder-and-lightning game of guessing the distance of the police by counting out the frequency of explosions. Explosion: one, two, three, another explosion — they’re not far! After hours my exclamation marks were gone, and it became they’re not far. My little game had naturalized the police presence. This is perhaps the ugliest mundane evil of the ongoing police action in Taksim: We’ve grown used to it.

As I write this loud explosions are punctuating the call to prayer outside my window. People are shouting and screaming down the way. Our everyday soundtrack. I walk out onto the balcony. There are riot police all over the street. Then the old lady in the building next to me starts banging a pot, grinning. The police peer up at her. Then another pot is banged in the building across, then another. A young mother, high up, leans out her kitchen window. Then a young, smiling man leans from his. Another old woman. Bang, bang, bang. Soon it seems the noise is from everywhere, surrounding the officers like their noxious miasma has surrounded us for days. The message is clear: We live here. We are trying to live.

The officers retreat awkwardly from our little street and back to the battleground of a larger one. Our minor exchange didn’t involve casualties or the sadly photogenic cruelty that has characterized the celebrated photos of Occupy Gezi. Our losses, our moments of fear, our sleepless nights will not make headlines. But they are a massive part of the injustice that has been visited upon Taksim for four days now.

I watch the young mother across from my balcony lean out into the tear gas-filled air and defiantly bang a pot, letting the toxic weapon of the police float into her kitchen, and I think, while the courage of the protesters rightly makes headlines, the mundane intrusions and repulsions happening across the district are the groundswell of the revolution.


Categories: International, Police Brutality, Statements, Turkey, Workers Struggle

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