Riots in Turkey: A First-Hand Account

By MacKenzie Smith


Three days before I was scheduled to travel to Istanbul for a post-college graduation trip with a couple of friends, I woke up to my phone buzzing. I found three messages from one of my future traveling companions:

“Front page of the NY Times”


“I say we still go.”


I immediately opened my laptop to investigate and found a picture of a masked figure triumphantly clutching a Turkish flag as he stood before fellow protesters, a burning pile of wood scraps, and a makeshift barricade. “Police Retreat as Protests Expand Through Turkey,” read the June 1st headline. About fifty phone calls- to acquaintances in the State Department and the other travelers’ mothers- and two days later, the situations was not looking good in our parents’ eyes. Meanwhile, I was in contact with several friends from school who are from Istanbul who could not have been more casual about the events taking place, explaining that unless we ventured to Taksim Square, we would barely notice that riots and major clashes with the police were taking place. We decided to postpone the trip a few days to see how things unfolded; my inbox is still full of Google Alerts regarding “Turkey unrest.” When we did finally depart for Istanbul, several contingency plans were in place in case things got worse.

Upon arrival, we realized that our Turkish friends had been right. Even the public worker strike did not seem to faze anyone around us. We arrived at our accommodations, a beautiful three-bedroom apartment in Bebek, a beautiful, upper class area of Istanbul right on the yacht lined Bosporus. We explored the area for the rest of the day as if nothing was wrong. We went to a popular night spot and found that it was empty even though all of the restaurants were bustling with activity. The next morning, we ran into several English-speaking residents at the local coffee shop before we ventured to Sultanahmet to see the usual tourist attractions. We asked them if it was safe for us to go downtown and one lady, pointing to a yoga mat inside of her bag, assured us that everything was fine, adding that she was headed to Taksim Square to lead a yoga class and encouraged us to join her. During our cab ride to the Grand Bizarre, we saw a couple of armored vehicles splattered with paint and several sidewalks stripped of cobblestones; the cab driver explained that protesters were using the stones to build barricades in order to keep the police out of the square.

After a day of sightseeing, our friend Lara — who’s from Istanbul — took us to her favorite restaurant, a swanky lounge spot filled with attractive men and women of all ages enjoying cocktails and the view of the river. The scene was a far cry from the countless reports of violence, the use of tear gas, and police brutality that I had been reading over the past few days. At 9 pm on the dot, everyone made toasts and began to lightly clink their glasses with silverware. Lara explained that they were protesting the government’s actions, and we joined them. She also explained that the owner of Angelique, the popular nightspot we had visited the night before, was pro-government, so it had been boycotted for the past week. Several other clubs and lounges were still functioning in full-force, we later discovered.

After four amazing and incident-free days in Istanbul, we traveled to Çeşme, where another friend from school had a beach house. When asked about their opinion of the government and its response to the protests, her parents — who were in the restaurant and construction business — shrugged and explained that it did not affect them much, but they did believe the police had overstepped their boundaries. The local reporters and general population seemed to be more interested in the Turkish National Football Team’s goalie who was vacationing in Çeşme than in the fate of the government and protesters.

On our way out several days later, we stopped at one of their restaurants in Izmir before heading to the airport. Two of her older brothers were just getting in from Istanbul, where they had participated in the protests. As CNN Turk played on mute on the several TVs around the restaurant, they told us stories about small orchestras that had popped up, the peaceful singing and the camaraderie that had taken hold of Taksim Square. They also recounted the police’s behavior with disgust.

“You know they aren’t just fulfilling their duties as police officers when they fire tear gas grenades directly at the protesters’ heads,” they said. “They enjoy it, they are abusing their power.”

A little while later, a waiter approached our table and asked if he could turn on the TV volume. An anxious Turkish voice blared from the TV as live footage, which previously had not been shown by demand of the Prime Minister, of police forces breaking through barricades, shooting tear gas at unsuspecting victims, and unleashing the water cannon on fleeing crowds. It was a brutal scene, and everyone in the restaurant shook their heads as their eyes stayed glued to the screen.

Within ten minutes, a crowd of about two hundred protesters holding a myriad of flags gathered on the waterfront sidewalk right in front of the restaurant. Elderly couples, entire families with young children, and countless twenty-somethings assembled in a line, singing and chanting as they waved their gay rights and political party flags. They began to march slowly, different parts of the lines singing different songs depending on their affiliation.

Our entire table stood up — first to take pictures of the scene unfolding — but we quickly joined the ranks. As I clapped along with the crowd, a little boy and his father turned to look at me, an awkward American trying to join in on the chants. They smiled and gave me the peace sign. We all continued our march.

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