by Jeff Vandervennet
Early every Sunday morning the riot police arrived to Istiklal Avenue, the sprawling thoroughfare that connects Istanbul’s Taksim Square with the hip Beyoğlu district. Sundays saw the street occupied by political organizers, representing different groups each week, for a march down the famous street spotted with kebab stands, high-end fashion stores, embassies, museums, churches, mosques, and even a Shake Shack, and the number of riot police would rise and fall depending on the basic level of government tolerance toward that week’s group.
I would pass by in the morning on my route to pick up supplies for the hostel where I worked near Beyoğlu. Curving behind a government palace, the Beyoğlu Municipal Palace, you enter the Istiklal going uphill under bright multicolored flags, the cobblestone hard on your feet. On a regular day you’re confronted by organizers for political parties, laborers, teachers, marginalized or forgotten communities, refugees, who inform you of the coming events and ask for donations. Often they’ll approach you, the obvious tourist, speaking a gentle English. As a hobbyist of politics and dissident movements, these weekly events, which began an hour or so after my shift ended at the hostel, were an effective case study to learn about the varied political movements in Turkey. After my first week in Istanbul the marches became one of my rituals.
Parliamentary ballots were cast the week after I arrived in Istanbul in June of 2015. Elections are often encircled by emotional rhetoric of change, but this time people were voting to enact fundamental change in the civic operations of the 90-year-old Turkish Republic. The Turkish government has traditionally included a relatively benign or powerless head of state, the President, and a more powerful head of government, the Prime Minister. Upon election to the presidency in 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to grant the authority he enjoyed as Prime Minister to the presidency through a constitutional addendum. In order to do this, he needed a supermajority in parliament. Sensing opposition from the liberal side of society, Erdoğan played to his social conservative base to secure the necessary support for his plans. However, in the June 2015 elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) received slightly less than 50% of the votes, falling short of single-party rule for the first time in 13 years. This was a tremendous setback to Erdoğan’s plans to change the constitution to grant himself greater Executive authority.
The aftermath of the election saw a surge in liberals’ optimism. An opposition party, The People’s Democratic Party (HDP), supporting Kurdish rights, attracted enough support to attain parliamentary representation for the first time, and the country rejected Erdoğans attempt to solidify a single-party authoritarian rule. Small, incremental change, but in the right direction.
Instead of accepting the democratic voice of the populace, Erdoğan opted not to form a coalition government, in effect forcing another election. He used the power at his disposal to change the conditions of the country in a way that would shift electoral sentiment to the party which favors national identity and security. Coming from an Islamist party, though in power through a period of Turkish secularization and economic growth, he succumbed to the cozy womb of identity politics, focusing his campaign on existential threats to lifestyle and security. Before he had relied on broad support, which included liberals who were impressed by the rapid growth and modernization and commitment to secularism, but now those liberals stood firmly in opposition to his desires to grant an authoritarian style presidency. So he unearthed new threats to the Turkish national identity, one of which was LGBTQ culture.
Early into my brief tenure in Istanbul I began going to events where locals would show expats and travelers some of the sights of the city. Many of the people I met, as we drank tea and smoked hookah in shops woven into cemeteries and minarets, were political types. The anarchists, leftists, artists, globalists, educators, vagabonds, and journalists who occupy the fringe of social tolerance in the country. Some of them were directly involved with the annual LGBTQ pride parade, which was set to take place during my third week in the city.
Though marketed as a parade, the atmosphere surrounding the June 28th event more closely resembled a protest. A parade connotes joy, a celebration, a place to take your family and revel in excess. This was not that. I view a protest as the legitimate expression of grievance in a system that deems other forms illegitimate. Righteous defiance of an oppressive authority. The riot police were there hours before anyone showed up, and tried to force the organizers to abandon the event.
Though discrimination is not codified into law, neither is protection for LGBTQ individuals. In a country where the vast majority disapprove of same-sex lifestyles, legal protection is a necessary buffer against abuse. When the arbitrary application of “public morality” legalese serves to deny basic rights to a group of the population, that population and its allies protest, they do not parade. Simply put, in Istanbul the social conditions are closer to 1970 Stonewall than 2016 San Francisco.
The event is famously known as the largest LGBTQ parade in the Muslim world. The week before there was a transgender rights march which occurred without incident. But this prior tolerance occurred in a different political climate. The parades were praised by the EU, to which Turkey was trying to ascend, so the authorities tolerated the event and let it pass without trouble.
Active discrimination isn’t rampant in Istanbul, where people are relatively tolerant. But LGBTQ people are expected to be silent about it, and not “corrupt” other people, so the pride parade has special meaning to people who feel unable to express their true selves the rest of the year. As a young, conservative leaning friend, a new father who grew up in a very conservative household, told me, almost mournfully: “I have nothing against gay people. They are who they are. But I don’t really want to see it.” I spoke with many conservative-leaning citizens during my time in Istanbul, and the prevailing sentiment towards homosexuality was discomfort.
Soon the participants began to funnel in. Thousands of people of all ages, races, nationalities, though definitely skewing young, dressed as outlandishly as possible, finding their voice in attire and solidarity. Rainbow flags painted the sky and the march began. Smiling marchers, cheering spectators, flags flying, political flyers being passed around, even some drinking and nudity; it was the standard fare, if slightly quelled. It was joyous. For a few brief moments, it felt like a parade.
I’ve been to many protests in my life. It’s a hobby of mine. Some as an advocate, some as a reporter, and some stumbled upon as a perplexed observer. Most are orderly affairs planned in advance by an efficient leadership and advertised to maximize participation. Some were spontaneous avowals delivered by friends. Some were the passionate displays of anger and misfortune in awestruck tones, by groups I passionately defended and by those I vociferously oppose with all fibers of my moral conscience, and some delivered in languages I don’t understand. None have disintegrated so quickly into chaos.
I placed myself in a divot between a cream-colored pillar and the doorway of a bank and took out a brand new pocket-sized moleskin. I had lost my phone, which was also my camera and notebook, the week before. From the rafters the revelry carried on, a man, maybe 20, dragged his spiky-haired partner by the hand for a kiss, and they were stopped as the riot police emerged from the labyrinthine ancient side streets and alleys that slither into the Istiklal like a river into the ocean, accompanied by armored vehicles auspiciously emerging from Taksim Square. I watched the police assume their role as soldiers. They stood stoically, the front ones shielded, the second line armed with clubs and dispersal weaponry. The Istanbul police force consists of mostly kids. Maybe 25 years old. Behind the front infantry rumbled the artillery, with water cannons on top, and they began targeting the crowd. The protestors didn’t panic. They pushed forward. Those who weren’t knocked aside were targeted individually. Behind the shielded front line, police loaded and prepared the rubber bullet rifles and tear gas canisters. And they marched against the current. Showering protestors with gas and rain. I remained in my divot, watching the chaos. Chaos bred by the obsessive desire for control.
On June 28,th 2015, Turkey made the choice to violently quash the peaceful pursuit of justice and development. Again.
As soon as I saw an opening, after the first rubber bullets were fired and tear gas dispensed, I slipped into an open alley way. I sought refuge in an Irish bar I frequented that was always empty except for the occasional British expat. I sat in the corner with a view of an alley that led to the Istiklal. Many stayed. The fight was theirs. The crowd began to disperse as the armored trucks came in. People were running, retreating to a spot where they could coalesce and prepare a counter attack. But some stood in the way, bearing beatings by police clubs. I saw a couple climb atop a statue, molding their bodies into one, grimacing from their refuge. At one point two naked women began dancing through the water cannon residue, the steps deliberate, defiant. The express rejection of the city’s reaction to justice. Elsewhere the march continued, small pockets of people finding each other amidst the chaos and continuing the fight. But the last I saw of it were the naked women dancing in the fascist rain. I sipped my Efes alone at the bar. The bartenders paid no attention to the chaos outside.
Amidst threats from newly empowered nationalist political groups, the 2016 pride parade was cancelled. On December 11, 2016, the AKP submitted their bill to abolish the post of Prime Minister and grant extended powers to the President.
Jeff Vandervennet is a political journalist and constant traveler currently, but most likely temporarily, based in Brooklyn. He writes under the twitter handle @HoorayitsJeff.