Saturday, 22 June 2013

Ankara in Protest- Water, Gas and elemental threats

Protesters gather on Ankara's Kennedy street just before being charged by two police water cannon trucks.

Whereas Tuesday's protest in Ankara ground on until the small hours, the police response shocked everyone in the days after. Up to a thousand protesters were gathered on Ankara's downtown Kennedy street where I headed after an evening witnessing the sit-ins and standing man protests at the city's Kugulu park. The park gatherings, with groups having lectures or discussions, are themselves a nod towards Istanbul's Gezi park protest camp. On Kennedy street which nightly sees standoffs between police and protesters the atmosphere is more noisy. Horns and banners, chants and small knots of usually young men daring each other to go forward close to police lines. 

Protestesters try to gather further up the road but are chased down side  streets.

Suddenly around midnight a police water cannon truck charged the crowd, firing its jet at the few who didn't scatter like startled pigeons. Into the clumps of stripped tree bark, smashed branches, debris and water sped two vehicles with tear gas firing turrets atop them. The water cannon truck itself sprayed tear gas from its sides if any demonstrators approached too close. Those that had been gathered in demonstration now scattered down side streets, chased by the vehicles. A few dozen riot police held back, letting the vehicles do the work. The gas firing riot cars made numerous rounds of these streets. The water cannon operators inside seemed frustrated, even blasting my cameraman and me as we were reporting. I do not believe they didn't see that we were media. There are also accusations by protesters that police are mixing something, tear gas or some other irritant, into the water cannon water. Whatever it is the water they were firing was coloured red.

A used gas canister lays next to a gutter. By the night's end the streets were running red, not with blood, but with the irritant protesters claim is added to the water cannons' streams.

This all seemed rather at odds with what what I was told by one of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK party spokespeople earlier. The world from up there in Turkey's parliament on its hill can look rather different. Flocks of politicians and their aides whisk about the large, cool corridors. Turkish parliamentary journalists chat with them on garden sofas under the shade of trees while sipping tea and nibbling on cherries and apricots. It is a permissive, thoughtful atmosphere mixed with the rapid deal making of politics. That is expected, perhaps even reassuring. But is doesn't stop it seeming strange compared to what you see at the sharp end of civil politics on the street. This government spokesman maintained that there were a hardcore of real troublemakers within the protesters' ranks and that apart from a few isolated incidents the police were a model of restraint. Such is the gulf of opinion dividing the two sides in this civil unrest. If there was a reason why the police vehicles charged protesters then I could not see if from where I was. There was certainly no obvious hardcore of hooligans among this particular crowd. Politicians I spoke to from the two main opposition parties criticised the government's way of ruling and police overreaction but weren't as overt in their support of protesters as one might think. They're politicians. They deal in dialogue and that's what they were calling for more of.
Ersin Ertas, after being hit in the face by a gas canister  fired by police in Ankara's Kizilay square.

I also met Ersin Ertas in Ankara's Kizilay square, another focal point for protests, and violent ones in the early days of the unrest. Ersin was demonstrating here among many thousands of the protesters when the police started firing the volleys of tear gas they have been so heavily criticised for. 'A rain of them' Ersin described it as. As the crowd fell back he found himself trapped and scrambled behind a wooden board, his only protection in the exposed street. According to Ersin the police then turned their launchers on the his small group. One slammed into the wood hitting him the face. His nose was broken and splinters lodged in his left eye. He had to run through the hail of gas missiles, nose streaming blood, in order to reach medical help. He was luckier than some. One man, Ethem Sarisuluk, was killed in the same square by a metal fragment, probably a bullet according to initial autopsy.

A protester shouts at a water cannon truck.

All of this gives a sense of public alienation. Many of the demonstrators camped out in parks or gathering on the streets do not lend passionate support to any of the main parties. There is little doubt that the real target of their anger is up on parliament's hill. There has been no attempt as yet to demonstrate closer to the Turkish parliament. Goodness knows what the government's response would be if they did. When I put it to my government spokesman that Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc's threat to use the army to quash protests smacks of scare tactics he seemed to want to claim that that was a misinterpretation whilst also reinforcing Arinc's message. He said that the statement was merely 'reminding the people of our legal right to use all measures deemed necessary.' This sounds like the thinly veiled strong man message that Erdogan's government has become so disliked for by many. It must also be said that Erdogan is supported by a significant proportion of Turks. But the more people hear that uncompromising message in his politicians' words, or feel it in the tear gas or water cannon, the more sour the atmosphere around Erdogan and his AK Party is likely to become. 

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