Istanbul 2013 – the triumph of tear gas over ideas?

September 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

I am writing this blog 40 years to the day after the military coup that overthrew the Allende government in Chile – for reasons that I hope will become clear, that feels significant.

There have been previous occasions when a business visit overseas has jolted my thinking, and I have resorted to blogging to make some sense of it, but I didn’t see my visit to Istanbul for the European Conference of Educational Research impacting on me in quite the way it has. Maybe it should not have surprised me – but 24 hours after the events I shall recount, I certainly remain affected by them.

On Tuesday 10th September the network of which I am member presented a symposium on Social Justice Leadership: International Perspectives. The symposium presented case studies of school leaders from Turkey, England and Israel. As chair of the session I departed from the programme and imposed on a Turkish colleague to provide an overview of life for Turkish educators, in schools and universities, after the protest events of May this year. He talked briefly about the fear experienced by educators with regard to the democratic discussion of ideas, but also the hope that had been represented by the occupation of Gezi Park. He argued that this was seen as much more than the protection of an open space. The park has high symbolic significance in Turkey and the occupation had represented a visible resistance to what is seen as increasing state control of personal lives. This notion of freedom from state control was an issue felt particularly keenly by educators and scholars.

Moved by my colleague’s comments I decided to use some free time I had before dinner that evening to visit Taksim Square and Gezi Park (about 30 minutes walk away). When I informed Turkish colleagues of this they warned me to stay away. A young man had been killed in a protest the day before, and many believe he had been killed by the police. Trouble was expected. Confident I could avoid trouble I decided to go anyway.

'Democracy Park'

‘Democracy Park’

To get to Gezi Park I had to walk through Macka Park. This is officially referred to as ‘Democracy Park’ – something that proved to be more than ironic. From Macka Park I soon arrived at Gezi, approaching from the side opposite to Taksim Square. As I walked through the park, in beautiful early evening sunshine, I saw several police officers, and large numbers of young men in high visibility jackets. The closer I got to Taksim Square the more their numbers grew

When I arrived into the area where the park abuts Taksim Square it became more obvious what was happening. I realised the park was surrounded by ‘police’. My uncertainty was because these men were not dressed in uniform, but had either high visibility jackets, or grey vests indicating ‘Polis’. They looked more like a militia than a police force. However close to them, were a group of men who were unambiguously police – full uniform and riot gear with helmets and shields.

From the vantage point of the park I stood and observed. I didn’t move for a couple of minutes – just trying to absorb the atmosphere and make sense of what was happening. Riot police juxtaposed with tourists whilst taxis continually drove through the square. However, it was not long before I was abruptly moved on. A man approached me, with no visible sign of authority, and barked at me ‘Go!’ and gestured away from the park. He was one of large numbers of plain clothes police that were there. Sometimes identifiable by their walkie-talkies, but otherwise just identifiable by something undefinable, but very obvious. This particular man was the first of three who was to move me, for the simple reason that I was stood still, and they did not want anybody to stand still in Taksim Square.

Police man at rear with tear gas canisters and gun for firing cartridges.

Police man at rear with tear gas canisters and gun for firing cartridges.

As I wandered around Taksim Square the picture became clearer. The authorities were clearly expecting an occupation of the Park and/or the Square. Key ‘targets’, such as the central monument in the Square, were surrounded, whilst flanking the side of the square were large numbers of riot police with helmets and shields – many carried gas masks. Some carried weapons that I took to be for firing tear gas canisters. Armoured vehicles with water canon were parked in the square.

Throughout all this time the atmosphere was edgy, but odd. The square was occupied by police, but tourists and business people continued to walk through the area. The police were clearly nervy. There was no joking between them and nobody looked relaxed.

For some time I drifted around and watched. The police were clearly expecting trouble (I was told later that a protest at the death of Ahmet Atakan, the man killed the previous day, was discussed widely on social media). However, what was significant was that I saw no sign, at all, of protesters. Nothing.

That changed when I heard chanting from in the middle of a crowd of people. The group of protesters could not have been large, and they were immediately surrounded by press. As the protesters’ song died down the crowd around them began to applaud and the applause fanned out from the centre of the disturbance almost like a mexican wave. The atmosphere was peculiar. Never before had I experienced such a simple act, a group of people hand clapping, evoke such a powerful sense of resistance. It was quiet, and it was calm, but it was extraordinarily powerful. The emotion contained in ghat simple act was palpable.

Police with gas masks alongside armoured vehicle with eater canon.

Police with gas masks alongside armoured vehicle with eater canon.

By now the police were on the move as they mobilised and started to move towards the protesters. Some of it was slow and intended to be menacing, and in other cases police officers were moving quickly to head off the protesters’ escape routes. The protesters soon dispersed, chanting and with fists raised initially, they rapidly dissolved into the crowd and appeared to congregate in a street just off the square. Riot police followed in large numbers, to be followed in turn by the armoured vehicle with its water canon.

For a short while there was clearly a cat and mouse chase, with police movements sporadic and uncertain. At one point police quickly fanned out across the road behind me, with their riot shields forming a continuous wall, and started to move towards the group I was standing in. I was convinced this was a form of ‘kettling’, in which the police contain protesters behind a cordon. I heard the police shouting what sounded very like ‘push up, push up, push up’ (in English) as the wall of riot shields advanced towards us. They may have been shouting something different, in Turkish, but to me it sounded exactly as I have described, and moreover it exactly described what was happening. For a brief moment I wondered where they had got their lessons in ‘crowd control’. Fortunately, we were not being kettled, but rather the police allowed us to exit from their cordon in a single file. I suspect the action was intended to intimidate and force people to move away from the area. I can only speak for myself, but I would vouch for its effectiveness. By now it was getting dark, and it felt dangerous.

Shortly afterwards loud bangs were heard, together with flashes, and what seemed like fireworks could be seen and heard coming from the area where the protesters appeared to be penned in by police.

This was the point at which I decided to leave. I could only see the situation becoming more dangerous and so I left the square, and eventually caught a taxi to join my colleagues for dinner. There were several Turkish colleagues there, and we discussed the background to the issues I had witnessed. As we analysed events from the safety and comfort of an extremely pleasant local restaurant I was acutely aware that nearby there were people involved in a simple protest, for which they were risking their lives. Not for the first time in my academic career, I felt the comfort of academic life to be distinctly uncomfortable.

My reflections on this incident . . . ?

24 hours after the events described above, I remain shocked by what I saw. I have seen major police mobilisations for ‘crowd control’ purposes in the UK and so this was not new. But the scale of the mobilisation was a surprise, as was the speed of the deployment. I don’t know all that happened last night, because I only saw a small part of it (a media report from Al-Jazeera here). I can only speak for what I saw therefore, but what I saw was huge numbers of a militarised police force that had effectively occupied a large public space. At the time I arrived there was no sign at all of a protest. What protest I eventually witnessed was a small group of people chanting – and this immediately brought about a rapid deployment of riot police.

To me it was clear.. There was not going to be any protest in Taksim Square last night. No protest. None. Rather it was obvious that any indication of dissent, in any form, would be met by the mobilisation of a police force armed with riot gear, tear gas and water canon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was shaken by the display of state strength. To see, so close, the way in which dissent was being contained by force was disturbing. Only a few hours before I had been at an academic conference in which the free exchange of ideas was seen as central to the academic project. But at night, and only a mile away, there was no ‘free flow of ideas’ – because ideas were being crushed by riot shields and tear gas.

For these reasons I am left reflecting on the role of academics and intellectuals in societies where academic freedom is clearly restricted. For those working inside Turkey I do not doubt that life is very difficult. But for those of us who might consider we work in more liberal, although far from ‘free’, environments there is an urgent need to question what we do, and how we support our international colleagues. Academics, talking to other academics, in the safety of a conference seminar, is ‘safe’. Safe in the sense that we do not place ourselves in danger, and safe in the sense that our ideas are unlikely to challenge the status quo outside the conference hall. Indeed, not only do we fail to challenge the status quo, but we risk reinforcing it, by legitimating it. Perhaps as academics, when we travel to international conferences, we need to consider how we can more effectively connect our work with local communities and make our research relevant to the real lives of ordinary people. In turn, we need to learn from those we connect with. If we do not we run the risk of being little more than academic tourists.

Meanwhile, those who protest in Turkey are not safe. The state considers their ideas to be dangerous, and that places the protesters themselves in danger. For these reasons any act of dissent in Turkey is an extraordinary act of courage. My thoughts are with those who are willing to risk their personal safety to stand up and speak out. There is always hope, and there must always be the belief that ideas can triumph over tear gas and baton charges. However, that will only happen when ideas and activism combine.


As I wrote this blog, on the 11th September, there was much in the news about the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup, and having witnessed the police in Taksim Square, I could not help but connect what happened in Chile in 1973 with what I was seeing in Turkey in 2013. There are many differences between the two contexts, certainly, but there are similarities too. Appropriate therefore to end this blog with Christy Moore singing a tribute to Victor Jara – murdered by the Pinochet regime on 15th September 1973. A man of protest, and of extraordinary courage.


3 responses to Istanbul 2013 – the triumph of tear gas over ideas?


    Thoughtful & vivid, thank you Howard. Particularly interesting to think about the role/part/place of the ‘visiting’ academic.


    Yes, a thoughtful and vivid description! There is much happening in the so called Western Democracies that is very chilling indeed, the secrecy surrounding .Govs spying on their own people, the Whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden are the Only reason it has gained so much publicity and the public are made aware. The South American dictators and other Nazi regimes would be proud of them!

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  1. International Women’s Day 2014: a guest blog from Turkey « Howard Stevenson - March 8, 2014

    […] and the particular challenges for educators working in Turkish schools and universities.  I have blogged about my own experiences of visiting Istanbul, and seeing first hand how the police were being used to crush peaceful […]

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