Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Letter Home OR My First Whiff of Tear Gas--the November 17 Solidarity Hunger Strike

Dear Defense Technologies,

The sexy and sleek, Spede Heat CS
Today I tasted some of your gas—probably from a long range Spede Heat CS cannister , the preferred model of the Turkish police, but I can’t be sure because there wasn’t a lot of time to stop and check the exact model.  
No I am not a soldier or an agitator or a regular attender of protests.  I am a middle school English teacher living in Istanbul. We have something in common because the contact page on your website lists you as headquartering in Jacksonville, Florida and I was born and raised in Florida. In fact, my father lived in Jacksonville for a long time when he first moved down from his small farm community in Georgia. My mother is your proverbial ‘country girl’ from West Virginia—she likes Michelob Lite, can ride a horse, and worked for years as a P.E. teacher. She lives in tiny Pinson, Alabama now along with the rest of my family. They attend a Baptist church. My sister works with handicapped kids. My brother’s a fireman. My nephew works in disaster clean-up.

Today, my wife and I went to a demonstration on a public fairground on the outskirts of Istanbul to support thousands of political prisoners who were hunger striking in Turkey’s prisons—most of them Kurdish.  64 of the strikers had not eaten for 67 days and were literally on death’s door—the pictures of them that came out of the prison reminded me of concentration camp victims—gaunt, hollow eyed. Several thousand who had joined later were well on their way to the same end—including my wife’s 60-year-old father, a retired elementary school teacher and a diabetic. Family members on the outside felt it was the least we could do to come together and conduct a two day hunger strike of our own to show that we had not forgotten them.

We arrived at the fair grounds to a small gathering of mostly old men and women. A good eighty percent of the crowd was over fifty. I may sound like I am exaggerating for effect, but the busses carrying the younger people from the center of the city, an hour away, had not yet arrived. There were only about six or seven young men in a crowd of not quite a hundred people. It was cold—a gathering of chubby  grandmas sat huddled together on make-shift stools and a group of old men talked over cigarettes.

Gendarmes with riot shields took position on the sidewalk. Three alleys across the street were shoulder to shoulder with police and ten police busses filled the parking lot of the city hall. Two police tanks and several armored cars were parked along the side of the road. I laughed at first because, honestly, what in the world did this small army think was coming from this crowd of shivering retirees?

Winter rain clouds turned the sky an ashen gray—we chatted with a friend of my father-in-law’s, Zekiye. She is sixty years old and has long, cotton-white hair with dark expressive eyes that, despite her not being able to read or write, shine with intelligence.  We’ve brought tea and sugar—she seems pleased.

The first volley of water cannons--no one's all that convinced yet

I notice a man standing on the side walk with a megaphone. He is middle-aged, pale, with thinning blond hair and thick glasses. He is dressed in a powder-blue jacket and slacks.  ‘We are asking you to disperse,’ he says in a quiet voice. ‘Who is this guy?’ an old man asks. ‘Disperse for who?’  Then in quick succession, the man with the megaphone issues 3 warnings, as required by Turkish law, ‘We will not permit this, we will intervene.’ The old ladies on the stools looked puzzled—then stood and started gathering their things. That’s when the tank moved in, firing water from the cannon on the top. It struck the smokers first who were slow to react. They behaved like cats chased away from a meal, grumbling and flinging their cigarettes down in frustration. Then the tear gas cannisters began to fly—I’ll never forget those trails of yellowish smoke streaking across the grey sky--and we fled.

I have never breathed in tear gas before—it hurts, but then I am fairly young and can run. The hobbling old women in layers of skirts and the limping old men, on the other hand, though a whole lot spryer than I gave them credit for, were far slower than I, and had a hard time getting away.

Those first few moments were strange. I remember wondering if the police could possibly be serious. I stopped and ran backward. My wife was running toward me, covering her mouth with her scarf. Her sister came next, tossing me an extra handkerchief so I could cover mine. I didn’t at first—just watched in a kind of stunned disbelief as the tank advanced on us and more tear gas cannisters rained down. A young man fell in the mud and couldn’t get up. Another came behind and tried to lift him. ‘What’s wrong with him?’ my wife cried. Then a tear gas cannister fell near me and my lungs began to burn, though thank God it was far enough a way that my eyes were only slightly affected.  One woman took a direct hit and had to be rushed to the hospital. I covered my face with the handkerchief, but my glasses immediately fogged up so I had to give it up. If I choked, I choked. We ran toward the line of apartment buildings at the opposite end of the fairgrounds—and then ducked down a side street.  All the neighbors poked their heads out the window to find out what was going on and then quickly ducked back in once they understood.

We stopped in front of a small convenience store and frantically discussed what to do. ‘Let’s go back,’ someone said. I was in tears from the frustration and rage—looking at all these ordinary people around me wiping at the burning eyes and clutching their throats. One young woman was shouting ‘What do we do?’ and as if in answer some of the young men started scrounging the street for rocks. The old folks in the crowd were trying to stop them.  One man waved his arms and cried, ‘Don’t hurt anyone! This is our neighborhood! These are our people!’  Thanks to him, no one broke any shop windows, but they all rushed back the way we had come for a go at the tanks, and soon they came running back toward us, this time with armored cars following.

The subsequent chase through the backstreets and alleyways was terrifying. The armored cars left the rock-throwers behind and came after all of us. I dashed down an alley with an old man in a beret and very fat woman who couldn’t really run at all but only waddle quickly in front of me, clutching the wall as she went for support, and panting as if she were about to have a heart attack. The three of us tried to leap a brick wall and climb over a wood pile—to my astonishment the woman didn’t need any help--but a group of our people from the other street were coming from the opposite direction, fleeing from armored car on that side, and we realized we were trapped. We ran back to where we came from. On that street, one of the armored cars was speeding down the road swerving left and right after anyone it saw in the street as if it were trying to run them down.

I grabbed my wife’s hand, or she grabbed mine, and together we ran out onto the main highway and fell into a crowd of ordinary pedestrians. By now, the police were wandering the streets in plain clothes making arrests, so we all dispersed and tried to look like tourists seeing the sights.

I find it difficult to articulate all the things I felt during this attack. There was anger—watching all those old people flee in terror from what amounted to a small army. And for what?  I could certainly understand why those men threw the rocks. Why so many police against so innocuous a crowd? Why attack the demonstration in the first place? It was infuriating that they could make you feel like such a criminal, so immediately on the defensive. As soon as I saw those men pick up the rocks, I knew how this would be portrayed in the Turkish papers—‘Police had to intervene when protesters turned violent,’ and I started framing a defense in my head though anyone who was there would not require it.  This was the undeserved humiliation they imposed--at the end, we were skulking through the streets as if we had just committed a crime.  I wonder, is this the kind of society our country wants to support—where ordinary people have to live in fear of the very people who protect them?

During the whole ordeal, I had so much adrenaline pumping through me that I didn’t have time to feel afraid—at least not until we were cornered between the houses. I was worried for those closest to me--my wife for one—though of course to be honest I have the general impression that should she so desire she could, Wonder Woman like, pick up one of those tanks and hurl it through that line of riot police. Watching her younger sister run was more surreal—Zelal never leaves the house without going through a three-hour salon treatment. How odd to see this pain-stakingly made-up woman in a leather jacket, designer jeans, and chic boots fleeing from a rain of tear gas and tanks.

Later on, we all gathered together in the headquarters of the Kurdish political party. I met a young man there from Diyarbakır, an eighteen-year-old jazz percussionist. He told me his mother had warned him that if he joined this protest today, she would never cook for him again. He laughed.

‘She said ‘That will teach you to hunger strike!’ She’s scared for me, of course. The police used to harass us all the time. I remember one night my dad was coming home from playing cards and some gendarmes stopped him in the street. They poked him in the belly with the rifle and said ‘Why are you strutting so slowly down the street?’ ‘No reason,’ he answered. ‘Then walk faster!’ they told him. So he did and one of them stopped him again, and again poked him in the belly with the barrel of the gun. ‘What are you running from? What did you do?’ This was every day life for us. We lived in the Bağlar neighborhood of Diyarbakır when I was a kid—a very active neighborhood. That’s where I went to elementary school. We breathed tear gas every day on the way home from school! It was just a part of normal life. One day, when I was in first grade, me and a friend decided to join one of the protests.  I was about 7 and he was about 12. We had both started school when we were older. My friend got caught throwing rocks at the police and a group of them knocked him down and beat him with billy clubs. They killed him.’

He says it so quickly, it doesn’t quite register.

‘They what?’

‘They killed him.  Oh, that happened to a lot of guys.’

During the course of the night, I hear stories from others. One woman’s little sister was tortured so badly in prison that she now cannot walk. ‘I came today for her,’ she tells the crowd. ‘Because I can do nothing else for her.’

This is the government you are selling your tear gas to.

I have no doubt that the millions of dollars worth of tear gas cannisters you produce have their place—a non-lethal and usually harmless method of dispersing mobs who have gone out of control, but this is not how the Republic of Turkey uses your product. The police break up every manner of gathering in a similar way that they did ours—whether it is a group of secular nationalist on Indepence Day, a gathering of Kurdish mothers in a tent, townspeople protesting the building of a dam or students objecting to tuition hikes. They attack teachers, church goers (a sizeable Christian community lives in Istanbul), democrats, rock musicians, children and housewives.  And the gas cannisters are certainly not always harmless—a Google image search on ‘tear gas cannisters’ is enough to yield some pictures of injuries from these things that turns your stomach. There are rumors sometimes that the police are deliberately targeting people.

I am writing to ask you to be more judicial in who you select as your customers, to not sell your product who regularly use it to attack their own people. As men and women of morals and good conscience, I am sure you don’t want the name of your company and those who work for it connected to such primitive brutality.

Thank you for your time,
Jeff Gibbs

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Where does it all come from?

Ambitious title: we are now embroiled in the struggles of the prison hunger strike. According to the BDP there are 10,000 people now on strike--a number difficult to confirm. In any case, my father in law is now one of them. We are proud, worried, and distraught at the increasingly militant stance of the government. I have been meaning to write something all week about it--time is running out--but I can't seem to gather the thoughts. They are a mess of emotion, fear, excitement, desperation, nerves. We have faced down police tanks at demonstrations--others in the East and farther from the eyes of the press were attacked by them. In any case, I took a textbook from our high school. It's used to teach the mandatory class of 'National Security Science' which everyone in Turkey is required to take. Here is a section from this 170 page book that I think neatly encapsulates that what hunger strikers and indeed, anyone who wants to live in a just society are facing. A people trained to delude themselves into thinking a militarist, paranoid dictatorship is actually the true meaning of democracy. The parenthesis and italics are mine.

Distributed by the Ministry of Education
Published in 2010


Those termed 'destructive actions', in general, have the aim of destroying the existing regime (The secular-democratic system) through force of arms and setting up a system governed by their own ideology. Actions designed to destroy the country from the inside arrive at their goals through four phases (preparation, organization, action, and civil war). First and foremost, these activities are financed through human and narcotic trafficking. At the same time, these organizations profit from donation campaigns, the sale of illegal magazines and newspapers, the collection of monthy fees and concerts.

Our country stands confronted with constant attacks designed to spread ideology and remains the target of destructive activities aimed at obliterating the rapidly developing social and cultural integrity that goes hand in hand with a developing economy taking its place in the world of international and geopolitical politics.

In this arena, the 1980s saw the development of organizations designed with the sole aim of destroying the Constitution of the Turkish Republic and setting up their own views in its place.



Splittist threats directed at our country with great constancy go back 200 years. Throughout the process of history, threats have appeared that are extensions of the Imperialist Powers efforts to profit from the Middle East region. Today, too, movements, and demonstrations have surfaced with their own internal conditions and alliances with outsiders.

As for today, splittist activities among elements of our fatherland claiming to be separate races or nations and carrying the quality of a threat were begun by outside powers in the days of the rise of the Ottoman empire. European states, during the 19th century, not only exerted efforts to foment rebellion but at the same time played an effective role in the creation of splittist-ethnic organizations.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, westerners in various disguises as archaeologist, historians, theologians and geographers at every opportunity sowed the seeds of dissent among eastern tribes as part of their missionary work. These actions opened the road to the weakening of state power through various rebellions and uprisings at different periods.

One of the most important of these rebellions supported by foreign powers was the Sheik Sait uprising, the results of which, forced The Turkish Republic, with the Lozan Peace Treaty, to give up its right to the Musul-Kirkuk region that lay well within its borders.

The PKK, with which the Turkish Republic has struggled since the last quarter of the 20th century, was founded on November 27th, 1978 with the support of foreign countries. It began operations with the raids on Eruh and Şemdinli in 1984. The final and true aim of this terrorist organization has been to split off lands starting with Turkey, and spreading to Iraq, Iran and Syria; lands that have been theirs since their foundations, to have the Kurdish identity recognized in the constitution (this makes saying the word Kurd a terrorist act essentially) and to form an autonomous or federal Kurdistan region which later will become the United Democratic Greater Kurdistan.

                This terrorist organization, with these aims, has endeavored to implement the following struggles.

·         The murders of 30,000 people charged with the duty of securing the state without regard for the elderly, women, or children

·         To destroy the vehicles of service to our citizens and hinder the development of the Southeast region


Since February 16th, 1999, with the capture of the head of this organization, they understood that they had lost on the battlefield and changed their tactics to attacks on the political field. (Thus nonviolent political struggle is also terrorism). With this aim, they took advantage of our citizens living in the East and Southeast who for various reasons were not able to find educational opportunities. This terrorist organization:

·         Forced young people without regard to gender to take up arms during their education years and turned them against the state.

·         Tried to break the national unity spirit of the Turkish people by fomenting divisiveness and splittism.

·         Profitted from the civil services for years and used them in actions against the state to incite the loyal people at every opportunity against the state.

·         Forced our children still at a tender age when they are still playing with toys to join protests and instilling in their vulnerable minds violence and disobedience against the state.

·         The above activities have been propagated side by side with armed actions and with the support of foreign powers.

This terror organization, after the terrorist attack of 9/11, in order not to draw the ire of the world have struggled to disassociate themselves from the word ‘terror’ but several countries and foundations have put these new names on their terrorist lists.

Let them change their name as often as they want, every foundation that takes aim at human life is a terrorist organization (which qualifies all the militaries of every country as terrorist) and they are responsible for all damage done to the state and every murder they’ve ever committed.

The desire and wish for humans to live in peace and security grows all the faster as the regional services and investments by the state and the passionate endeavors by the state for the people are lost through terrorist influence in the region.

THE DUTIES THAT FALL TO CITIZENS WHO ARE AGAINST THESE THREATS TO THE STATE (Though all sections of this chapter have been underlined by the student who used this book, this one is double underlined)

·         To take responsibility for the development and enrichment of a nation and people reliant on the principles of secularism, democracy, and modernity.

·         To know Turkish history and draw lessons from the past

·         As Turkish Youth (not my capitalization) to work diligently to raise Turkey to a high level of strength, wealth, and prosperity.

·         To learn the ideas of Atatürk and use them in our daily lives.

·         To know the aims of cadres of threat and propaganda from both internal and external sources who aim to impede Turkey’s progress.

·         To learn the Turkish language, tongue, culture and literature and bring it to life through the example of their own lives.

·         To know and defend the principles of Atatürk regarding the People and Nation in terms of national unity and togetherness.

·         To see clearly the truths and falsehoods of the publications of media press organizations both outside and inside the country and support ones that benefit the country and reject those that don’t.

·         To live knowing that knowledge is the guide toward the truest path and knowing the need for work and production.



Friday, November 9, 2012


I want to get away from writing political stuff--but we are up to our necks in it,and the water is rising. Delal's dad entered the hunger strike last week, along with about 10,000 others. To say we are freaked out is an understatement--he is diabetic, his cell mates have heart disease, kidney disease. I'd say it is a mark of their desperation. In any case, it worries us to death. Their demands were basically agreed to on Tuesday by Bulent Arınç (the vice Prime Minister), and we waited all week for some sort of concession. Nothing changed and so the hunger strikers continue--this is a letter from one of them released by gitamerica. I am reprinting it here. A transcription is at the bottom if you can't read it.
Gulan Kılıçoğlu was a 4th year student at Ankara University, Faculty of Political Science when she was arrested under the pretext of the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK) operations and have been on a indefinite and un-alternated hunger strike since September 12, 2012. She was arrested on April 1, 2012 and sentenced to 6 years and 3 months for being a member of an illegal organization. Judge decided that it is against the course of the life for her to go to the Hewler and conduct a research at Selahaddin University as a student in her sentencing.
See a video of Gulan singing in this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qd1UnK9REc
I have been in the Siirt Prison in Turkey since 2010. There are thousands of people in the prison now. Many of the prisoners are Kurds. I am a political prisoner. All of us wanted live in equality. In this way we can change the political choice that makes us free and free. We just want the freedom of choice, the freedom of language, the freedom of rights, the freedom of history which contains us the Kurdish people!
Now there are about 750 people on hunger strike, so am I. I have been on Hunger Strike since October 12. Our demands areabout the rights of human beings.
The government of Turkey isolates Mr. Abdullah Ocalan from his society. Abdullah Ocalan is an important person. His warfare is about the equality of Kurds and most of Kurds have a faith in him. But now he is in the prison of Imrali and no one can learn about his situation. There is an international isolation, political isolation,
You know isolation is a crime so;
1-     Want government to change the conditions of Mr. Ocalan in a good way.
2-     We want to speak our language – mother language- We are Kurds and we have been learning the Kurdish since our families but after the age of 7 we have to go to the school and the educational language is in Turkish. This is coercive for us. We want to speak our language in our schools.
We can’t do anything free from Kurdish from Mr. Ocalan.
We are on a hunger strike since October 12, and our health is getting worse and worse. We want you to do something….
Gulan Kilicoglu

Sunday, November 4, 2012

54th Day--Hunger Strike

                Tonight was unusually warm for November—humid, everyone in short sleeves. I was coming from a friend’s house where we were doing some filming for an improv theater we are starting up on the Asian side. I went down to the wharf to fill up my Akbil (the card you use for busses, trains, and ferries) when I noticed a group gathering next to bus station. About a hundred people sat in front of a line of candles illuminating signs that read, ‘We are here on the 54th day to support the hunger strikers’ and ‘Ölüm değil, çözüm için’ (not for death, but for a solution) They chanted slogans—‘The murderers will have to answer for this crime!’  From the dark beneath Kadikoy’s Haldun Taner theater came another group marching with red flags. They called to each other across the newspaper sellers and sausage stands who started to notice. ‘What the hell are they shouting about?’ one asked. A crowd started to gather. Police began to notice.

I stopped in front of the candle flames like a moth. I don’t know what it was exactly—but the graveness of the situation seemed to flicker in that candle light. In Turkey, hunger strikes have always meant death. The prime minister denied their existence. ‘We have no hunger strikers!’ Or else called them terrorists. ‘The state will never bow its head to the pressure of terrorists’ or else said it was all a show. Every day there’s something else he says that is more crass. Some of the newspapers are saying that not much interest is being garnered by the hunger strikers—but here is this gathering crowd at the Kadikoy wharf. In Denizli 91 students from Pamukkale Univeristy were arrested for marching in support of the hunger strikers. Galatasaray students and others from universities all over the country have started sympathy strikes.

While we were filming tonight, a friend asked me if my father-in-law was striking. ‘Not yet,’ I said. There’s been an announcement tonight that all the prisoners will start striking—(some estimates put that at over 10,000 people, though it is still unclear just how many people have been arrested in the KCK case. The arrests continue—yesterday 21 people more people were arrested in Mersin.) This will include my wife’s dad, of course. And means…means what? There’s a storm coming. Shadows. I am proud of him. I want to help him somehow. But the government seems so ruthless, so indifferent. It throws as much propaganda as it can at the strikers. But I have felt how frustrating it is to be among these people and face the power of the Turkish state.

And I have seen a hunger strike before. In 1998, six Tibetans in New Delhi stopped eating to protest Chinese occupation. It ended when the Indian police stormed the tents and Thupten Ngodup, a 60 year old man set himself on fire. It changed nothing of course. For the past few months, people all over Tibet have been doing the same--self immolations, deaths, self-murder as the only weapon against the all-powerful State.
Those candles at the wharf tonight reminded me of the candles in front of the Tibetan strikers tents. And there’s this dread that spread over with the wind coming off the water, that the flames are rising again.