Chaos at the Istanbul Pride March

By Philip Host on July 3, 2015

Image via Philip Host

My flatmate’s voice sounded worried as he prepared to leave for the Istanbul LGBT Pride Parade. It was a little after two and the parade would not begin until five, but he told me that he was leaving early; the police had deployed armored water-cannon vehicles known as TOMA around Taksim square, where the parade was supposed to begin.

Preparations for Pride Week had kept him extremely busy in the preceding days and today he had an air of resolve, or perhaps resignation to whatever the coming hours might bring. As he walked out the door I half-jokingly reassured him that there would be a lot more of us than them and he responded with something between a smile and a grimace.

I arrived at Taksim Square a little before five o’clock. The atmosphere was jovial, but confused. Police had formed a barrier across Istiklal Caddesi, a huge pedestrian street down which the parade was supposed to proceed. As I pondered the situation a nasty itch grew in my lungs and I began to cough. Soon I noticed that the people around me were coughing too. I realized that the burning was tear gas and as I saw the panic in the eyes of nearby protesters a proportional fear began to swell in me. We surged away from its source and it quickly dissipated, leaving us to wonder why they had deployed so little gas so early. Later I would be thankful for that small introductory dose.

The parade started off at 5:00 p.m. as scheduled, but instead of heading down Istiklal it wound its way through the smaller streets of the surrounding neighborhood. I did not know at the time that the parade had been banned only minutes earlier by the Istanbul governor’s office, but it was clear from the start that the parade would not end without incident.

Police separated the parade into segments, shouting at some protesters to move back and driving others forwards. This did nothing to quell the noise or excitement. At many points the parade’s progress stalled, but its energy continued to boil. Colorful signs—mostly in Turkish but frequently in Kurdish, Arabic, or Armenian—and rainbow banners waved and billowed, or were thrust into the air and held steadily and proudly; the streets were packed and the chants, cheers, and whistles could be deafening. Shopkeepers stood in their doorways and the windows up above were speckled with onlookers. My standards may be low, but their lack of visible disgust was frankly moving; here, together, gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people could walk down the street and, as the name implies, feel a rare sense of pride and belonging, even approval from the people around them.

We marched on for some time; the police mostly looked on as gay and lesbian couples kissed atop cars that drove along with the parade and rainbow flags were launched into trees. Then, as we mounted one of Istanbul’s many hills, a panicked mass of protesters came rushing back to meet us. There was a long moment of confusion–the necessity to act coupled with an electrifying sense of anticipation–and then thick white gas was billowing ahead and behind, and people were knocking one another out of the way as they tried to scatter into one of the many side-alleys.

My eyes burned and ran and I hopelessly tried to cough out the fiery gas; I was grateful when a door opened and allowed us to stream in. I found myself in bar newly packed with coughing and gasping protesters. I made my way upstairs and realized that I was lucky to have been on the fringe of the gas; one girl, who may have had asthma, was holding a wet cloth to her throat and struggling to breathe.

But the coughs changed to bursts of coughing laughter, grins, and sudden camaraderie. Somebody switched on the news; we cheered as we watched an opposition parliament member mount a TOMA in protest to the crackdown, and we collectively drew a sharp breath when a water cannon blasted one protester off of his feet. The bar did great business that day and despite a good deal of head-shaking a wild, almost manic elation filled the room. One of my professors later described it as “the thrill of overcoming your initial fear” and to that I can only add a certain fatalistic elation in knowing that the police brutality only further validated the LGBT cause.

When it comes to politics in Turkey, everyone is a conspiracy theorist to some degree and as we sat in that bar we began to discuss all the possible motives for banning and then attacking the parade. The official reason for the ban was that it took place during the holy month of Ramadan. But due to close ties between the police and Turkey’s leading party, the conservative Justice and Development Party (acronym AKP), many suspected that the latter group played a large role in the crackdown. (Paranoia is justified surprisingly often in Turkish politics, and connections between parties and sections of government are not altogether uncommon; the Turkish military, for example, is widely known to be secularist and much more closely aligned with Turkey’s main opposition party, the CHP, to the point where there is perennial discussion as to what level of AKP overreach might provoke a military coup.)

Indeed, the pride parade did not consist solely of LGBT people, or even LGBT supporters—many were there simply to protest the AKP; one Kurdish man confided to me that he did not particularly care for LGBT people but that as long as they supported Kurds, he would support them. No doubt the AKP had a vested interest in dispersing this coalition of its enemies.

But later many people, including a professor of mine, ascribed a cleverer motive to the party. A recent election substantially reduced the AKP’s power and made a coalition government necessary. Coalitions are notoriously unstable, and many opponents of the AKP suspect that the AKP are deliberately fueling chaos in order to sell the benefits of a strong, central leadership—naturally led by the AKP themselves.

Of course few if any protesters would deny that simple homophobia played a large role. Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, but it is taboo. Nevertheless, pride parades have been occurring annually, without incident, since 2003.

Back in the bar, a woman at the door gave us an all-clear and I left with two Kurdish students whom I had been chatting with for some time. The street was littered with abandoned signs and banners. I picked up a rainbow flag which was almost immediately confiscated by a group of officers. But when we got to Istiklal it was clear that the parade had only been fragmented, not stopped altogether; bands of rainbow-clad protesters cheered and whistled their way up and down the street, drawing cheers—and occasional detraction—from lookers-on. The parade gradually transformed into a number of street parties, all of which were eventually dispersed by gas or water cannon. Then the partiers would regroup; they would dance, cheer and sing till gas set them to panicked flight.

I went home late and was still giddy and excited as I began to draw up this article. My flatmate came home much later and I happily asked him how he had enjoyed the parade. One look at his face brought me back down to earth. Where I had seen defiance, camaraderie, and reckless, laughing abandon in the name of human rights he had seen oppression and degradation, an attempt to drive LGBT people into the shadows, a societal disgust that the LGBT community should have the audacity to assert their existence. He did not go to work the next day. Instead, he went with friends to help them file claims for physical and psychological injuries inflicted by police attacks.

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