This morning I was one of a weeping hoarde of frantic people who smashed in through the windows of a bank in the centre of Istanbul and took over the premises. The bank staff were powerless to stop us, and appeals for help from the police, although there were hundreds in the street outside, would have fallen on deaf ears, so preoccupied were they in dealing with the mayhem they had created outside.
The reason for this extraordinary occurrence? The World Bank and the IMF are in town for their annual meeting, 13,000 people including central bankers, ministers of finance and development and private sector executives and academics, all here to draw up a new roadmap for capitalism. Needless to say they are not entirely welcome, and hearing that a group called of a group called ‘Resistanbul’ – – was planning a week of protest actions, I decided to join them.
Being in a precarious position at the moment myself regarding the Turkish law, I decided to keep a low profile, not joining in with the chants, but walking along in solidarity with the protestors and enjoying the sound of the drums and whistles as they proceeded unimpeded by a heavy escort of armed police who kept their distance as the march proceeded to Tunnel Square down Istiklal Caddesi (the main street of Istanbul) from Taksim Square one day, and vice-versa the next. I was pleased to see that there were no arrests, and indeed, the protestors were generally good-humoured and well-behaved, handing out leaflets, singing and chanting together in unison.
Today, the opening day of the IMF/World Bank conference, the assembly point for the Resistanbul march was at 10 am in Tunnel Square. This time I decided to be a bit more up front and made some photocopies of my collages about global poverty and held them up as we marched towards Taksim Square. It was a sunny day and spirits were high, but I noticed that several marches were occasionally looking back, some with hostile faces. When I turned to see what they were looking at I saw another group of Anarchist marchers waving red and black flags and banners with the b?g A in a circle following us up the street at a discreet distance. Being of an anarchist persuasion myself, I felt a little uncomfortable, especially when the chants from each group, although of a similar anti-capitalist theme, began to vie with each other. I thought how much better it would be if we were all marching together.
‘Where’s the unity?’ I asked a fellow protestor next to me.
‘Here,’ he said, and offered me some water.
Half-way up Istiklal Caddessi the Anarchist contingent suddenly quickened their pace and overtook the disconcerted Resistanbullites, waving their banners in triumph as they took the lead. It made me smile. Then there was a pause just before we were about to enter Taksim Square. I left the group and went forward to investigate.
The square was packed with protestors, all from different groups,unions, parties and persuasions and all carrying flags and banners of different hues and colors. Although they were all there to protest against the IMF and the World Bank and the evils of the capitalist system, they were still divided by chosen ideologies, like religions or football teams.
‘Where’s the unity?’ I thought again. Suddenly, frighteningly and horribly, in a mass panic attack there was unity.
The crowd of a thousand or so protestors in the square, angry though they were at the IMF conference being held in their city, were disciplined and polite, giving each other room and listening to the speakers who ranted from the microphones on the raised parapet. All of a sudden I noticed a line of police advance from the perimeter and heard a ‘Pat!’ ‘Pat!’ – the sound of firing.
‘They’re shooting,’ I thought, and suddenly the people nearest the police line were running away in panic. White smoke surrounded us and it was as though I was breathing fire. I ran with the crowd, my eyes streaming, fighting for breath. Gulping air with my mouth made it even worse. Burning, suffocating, I stumbled across the road in the mass of people likewise afflicted, coughing, crying and screaming towards the Taksim Hotel. Hardly able to see, I joined a crowd jamming through a doorway. I tripped and fell over someone who had fallen inside, and suddenly thought that I would be crushed by others, but quickly managed to gain my feet and entered through the broken glass door that someone had smashed, into the confines of the Garanti Bank, where the staff could do nothing but stand amazed as the vestibule filled up with stricken gasping people with streaming eyes, some lying on the ground. I slumped into a chair usually reserved for bank customers.
‘No water! No water’’ warned a woman as I swigged from a bottle, and she was right. It only made the burning worse. She went around offering paper tissues and I took one to mop my tears. Another man came round and poured out vinegar onto the tissues. Sniffing it did a lot to assuage the horrible burning sensation in my lungs.
After a while people began to leave and I joined them, intent on heading for my hotel at the other end of Istiklal Caddessi. Taksim Square, full of protestors before, was now empty. Down one of the main streets I saw burning barricades and a crowd kicking and beating someone savagely. Was it a policeman?
‘They’re killing him,’ I thought. Suddenly a couple of young men with their lower faces covered with scarves ran up the street and flung bottles filled with petrol, molotov cocktails, at a line of cars parked near the entrance to Taksim. They broke in smithereens and spread sheets of flame. Cops quickly appeared and began firing the pepper smoke bombs after the scarpering incendiarists. I fled in the same direction, noticing the body of the unconscious beaten man being lugged into a doorway and dumped there.
I made my way back to my hotel and out of danger, the sound of sirens and gunfire echoing in the air. The ordinary unprotesting pedestrians I passed in the street wiped their eyes and coughed, so pervasive was the toxic smoke spread by the police. If the streets of ?stanbul are now in chaos, it is they who are to blame.
MICHAEL DICKINSON can be contacted at email@example.com