How Tear Gas Became the Turkish Government’s Weapon of Choice

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 4 2013 12:17 PM

Turkish Tears

How tear gas united Turkey’s opposition against an increasingly authoritarian government.

A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas as people protest against the destruction of trees in a park brought about by a pedestrian project, in Taksim Square in central Istanbul.
A Turkish riot police officer sprays tear gas as people protest the destruction of trees in Taksim Square in central Istanbul, May 28.

Photo by Osman Orsal/Reuters

Turks have many reasons to take to the streets, and the anger and resentment that is fueling the country’s ongoing protests has many sources. Secularists are speaking out against Islamists. Leftists are bucking conservatives. Middle-class Turks are rallying against the relentless development of central Istanbul. Many young people simply want to save the trees in Gezi Park, the small green space where the protests began last week. And the majority of protesters are just happy to be raising their voice against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party.

But there is one thing that unites all these groups, people, and interests together: Tear gas. The painful but nonlethal white gas has become the symbol of everything Turks are rising up against, especially the Turkish government’s slide toward authoritarianism. It has become nearly ubiquitous at any gathering or public expression of dissent against Erdoğan’s government long before this outbreak of protests. Turkish police officers don’t rely on the noxious stuff as a crowd-control measure of last resort; they arrive with their fingers on the triggers. Tear-gassing a crowd is the Erdoğan regime’s initial, knee-jerk response to public political dissent. So when photos of police spraying the faces of the young people who had occupied Gezi Park hit the Internet—especially the incredible image of the “the lady in red”—they resonated with a Turkish public already saturated with tear gas.

Turkish authorities’ fondness for the chemically-laced vapor goes back several years. Indeed, the prime minister earned the nickname “Chemical Tayyip” as far back as 2008 because of the amount of pepper spray the police used on May Day protesters that year. Nor do they reserve it only for major demonstrations. This past April police used gas and pressurized water to break up a rally to save a historic cinema from demolition.

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The most prominent example of excessive tear-gas use came on this past May 1 when thousands of Turks took to the streets for a May Day celebration that turned into a daylong battle with police. The point of contention was access to Taksim Square, which officially reopened to May Day protesters in 2010 after being closed for three decades. This year the square was again shuttered because of a large construction project. Regardless, many labor groups marched towards the square, clashing with police forces as they went. That day, police used 14 tons of water mixed with tear gas. Thousands of canisters littered the streets. At least 16 people were hospitalized for treatment related to exposure to the gas, including the deputy leader of the main opposition party.

Since then, news of groups being tear-gassed have cropped up again and again. In early May, police used tear gas and batons to break up an argument between a referee and 14-year-old soccer players. On May 11, Istanbul law enforcement fired tear-gas canisters to break up a crowd of Besiktas soccer fans gathering before the last game in a soon-to-be-demolished stadium. And shortly after the double bombing in Reyhanli killed 51 people, police used familiar tactics to break up several dozen students gathered in Istanbul to protest Turkey’s policy toward the Syrian crisis.

Of course, protesters are not the only ones affected by the gas. Residents of central Istanbul have learned to seal their windows as soon as protests start to keep the gas from seeping in. (In the past week, with police firing so many canisters, it’s been impossible for people living near the epicenter of the protests to keep the fumes from entering their apartments.) Passers-by pull their shirts up over their mouths when their eyes start to sting. Turks, young and old, have become expert in dodging plumes of white gas in the streets.

Even with so much experience, sometimes panic takes hold. Late on Friday, protesters in the Besiktas district alerted Twitter that police had begun using something other than tear gas. It was not long before the description of “portakal gaz,” literally “orange gas,” turned into a rumor that the police were using Agent Orange on protesters. A CNN iReport allegedly confirmed the claims, and Turkish protesters on social media were taken by sincere fears for their well-being. The rumors proved false. Still, it takes a big leap to believe that your democratically-elected government would use something like Agent Orange against you. Then again, Erdoğan’s heavy reliance on asphyxiants, even against entirely peaceful protests, made it an easier jump for many to make.

Last Thursday, after police pepper-sprayed the protesters in Gezi Park for the second morning in a row, a deputy of one of the opposition parties introduced a bill to ban the use of tear gas. “This government does not love people, but has love for tear gas,” Umut Oran said in a written statement. “The prime minister’s name from now on is ‘Gazman.’ ”

That label will likely stick, long after the fog has lifted.

Elizabeth Hewitt is a journalist based in Istanbul  and Vermont.

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