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


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jmchugh said...

When will the world focus on this outrage?