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July 2, 2013
Much has been said & written about the role played by football fans in the protests that have taken place on Taksim square in Istanbul. As I was in the city for the two days of the Sport&EU 2013 conference. I decided to go and have a first-hand look at the situation on Taksim and the FREE blog is the ideal place to report.
Saturday 29 june, 4.30pm: I arrive on Taksim square. Fascinating: I have absolutely nothing to report. There are tourists and passers by, construction work is happening on one side of the square but there is strictly no sign of any organised form of protest. Many Turks I have met since arriving in Istanbul have indeed warned me: protests have died and nothing is happening on Taksim anymore. I try to remain discreet but I start to look more closely at the few people who seem to stay in the same place (there is not much to see or admire on Taksim, so people tend to walk through it, it seems). Most of them are street sellers. There are perhaps 4 or 5 men who do not seem to be engaging on any commercial activity. Despite my best efforts to spy with my little eye, I do not remain unnoticed. A relatively young man (perhaps in his early 30s?) walks up to me and starts talking in what English people would readily call ‘foreign’. After informing the man that I do not speak Turkish, he tells me that I look Turkish & says ‘Welcome to Istanbul’. The same has happened to me already 4 times in 3 days in Istanbul… Usually the people who did that had something to sell. Instead, this time, the young man warns me that protests will start at 5.30pm and I’d better be gone because he does not want me to watch fights or get into trouble. I immediately decide I should be there at 5.30pm when the action starts.
I pretend to leave, walk around Taksim, look at the streets off the square, check where they lead and whether they would provide a good way to escape (just in case I have to). I even make mental notes of a few places where it would be easy to hide from water cannons &c. You never know!
5.30pm. I come back to Taksim after having drunk Turkish coffee & eaten quite a few oriental pastries in a nearby street café. I am ready to see the events unfold. The place looks very different. A great number of policemen (perhaps up to 2 000) are now lining up in various parts of the square & mostly preventing access to the two areas where large crowds can gather: by the pink monument on the South side; on the large flat empty space next to the garden, which access is blocked (as it was earlier in the day). Some sort of armoured vehicle with cctv and radars on top sits there too. Taksim has become more crowded too. Tourists take pictures of themselves in front of the policemen or, amusingly of the pigeons in front of the policemen. Has the revolution become a tourist attraction, I wonder? Most importantly, the number of people who are standing and staying in the same place has increased. There are not many identifiable football supporters among them. I can spot very few jerseys from Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaş, and handful from other more unlikely clubs (Celtic Glasgow, Manchester United).
6pm. The place becomes more crowded by the minute. Though very peaceful, the crowd that has accumulated is now clearly here for a reason. Some of the crowd (I would say 65-70% men) try to talk to the policemen. It is unclear to me whether they get a proper answer (I still do not speak Turkish). When they walk back, large sections of the crowd applaud them. Sometimes clapping happens for no identifiable reason. Though still very moderate, the tension has increased. I secure my camera to my hand and ensure my bag would stay firmly across my shoulder if I have to run away.
6.30. Some people from the crowd have been using water pistols to ‘fight’ each other. They attract quite some applause & cameras from journalists and tourists alike too… An informant confirms my suspicions: the water-fighters are mocking the police and their use of water cannons in previous occasions. Quite a number of people have assembled on the terraces of an American fast-food chain and on the balconies of restaurants and cafés. It strikes me suddenly that all the non-Turks seem to have taken refuge up there and very few can be found on the square itself now. Most of the pictures you may see from the evening are likely to come from these locations: overlooking the action but at a distance that may seem safe (until you have to run away from tear gases, I think, when these places would become traps…). I observe a few people, presumably journalists, are actually carrying gas masks, some of the assembled people have brought swimming goggles or construction site masks. Some even wear or carry hard hats. Even the revolution is commercialised nowadays: I discover very quickly there are actually street sellers offering these items.
More importantly, the number of football jerseys, or tee shirts from supporters groups (which I guess from the look are ultra groups) is on the increase. More discreet ‘football’ signs are used too: for example, scarves that are folded so that the colours of a club are visible but the writing (presumably identifying a club, a team, an event, a suporters group, is not legible). I find here again, the ambiguity of signs used in protests I have witnessed in Paris, Bali & Djakarta: they need to be obvious enough for sympathisers to spot, but discreet enough in order to avoid attracted unwanted attention from the opponents. I realise I may have missed some of these signs in my earlier observations. It is impossible to draw any conclusion at this stage on the actual degree of involvement from football supporters. There are some but they are not a majority, perhaps not even a sizeable proportion of the crowd.
7pm. An organised demo, thousands of protesters, arrive to Taksim from the main street, Istiklal Caddesi. Some of the street sellers leave the square, and one motions me to go too. He shakes his head in disbelief when I show my firm intention to stay. I actually decide to walk down Istiklal against the flow of protesters to gauge them. It is easier than expected. There is a bit more tension in the air, but since none of the European of American food chains have closed their outlets, I believe acts of violence or destruction are unlikely to happen right now.
7.30pm, after tweeting and foursquaring a picture or two, I walk back with the protesters to Taksim. A very large group of protesters carry identical banners: a Turkish flag on which a black and white photograph face of Mustafa Kemal has been printed. I wonder whether this is a distinctive, organised group who prepared everything in advance, only to realise after a few seconds that a street seller walks among them and offers these very flags. The crowd is standing wherever they can and may on Taksim, and is now singing at times, clapping at others. Clearly this is not a riot, just a peaceful demonstration but, due to the huge presence of police forces, the difficulty to read the emotions on protesters’ faces, the atmosphere seems tense. A TV journalist from a Malaysian network is reporting live from the scene a few meters away from me and looks quite nonchalant too. He even asks two or three of the protesters to take pictures of him presenting live from Taksim with his cameraman… I am dumbfounded: since this guy is or will be on a national network watched by hundreds of thousands of TV viewers, why does he need that? Protesters also take pictures of each other. Even a protest has now become a social event that needs to be relayed on social networks.
I spot three rainbow flags of six coloured with the red on top held high by protesters. Since there are already a few ‘peace’ flags (which have an extra colour: a light blue or ‘indigo’ and on which the colours run in the reverse order, with purple on top), I decide to ask the man holding one what this is. He confirms my suspicions: this is an LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Trans) flag. I am also informed that this is Pride week and Gay Pride is taking place the next day at 5pm on Taksim [a day after Paris & London]. The LGBT crowd is distinctive, some men are dressed like women, some of the women would be described as very butch by queer theorists. The LGBT crowd also sings its own songs (sometimes sung again by other groups afterwards), holds different pictures, but it does not seem to attract any hostility from the other people on the square, apart from one man who talks vehemently to the leader (a woman) but ends up fraternising with them very rapidly. In many occasion, portions of the crowd even applauds the LGBT people.
I walk around the square and realise there is no sign of imminent confrontation anywhere so I become bold enough to get as close as an inch or two away from the police and their guns, literally an inch or two away. This is when I receive a splash of something yellowish that looks and smells very foul. I suspect that the police is trying to disperse the crowd using some sort of stink bomb. Closer inspection reveals a bird actually shat on me. Being a revolutionary can be really dangerous to the Lacoste, Missoni & Dior combo that I should probably not be wearing in this kind of occasion. Nevermind.
After taking a much-needed five-minutes break to clean up as extensively as chain-store toilets would allow, I come back to the square. It is now obvious that there are many more people displaying football symbols, & I have become better at spotting them too… The crowd remains relatively diverse, as it still includes people of nearly all ages, men as well as women, but I believe the majority are male (70%?) and between 15-60 (90%?). The ‘football’ people are almost exclusively male in their late teens and early twenties. Many of these ‘football’ people wear small scarves adjusted so they can be used to cover their faces in a second.
8pm. I notice the small portions of the square that the police are not forbidding access to are packed. I also notice somehow nervously that it would really be difficult to escape the square now if I had to run. I realise my plan to watch the revolution then have dinner on an island with friends is never going to work. However, within a few minutes, the crowd becomes much thinner. One by one, silently, quietly, many of the protesters leave the place.
8.25pm: probably no more than half the protesters are still there. However the composition of the crowd has changed: most of those who are staying now display football signs and seem to be standing closer to the police lines than they used to. Among the people with still and video cameras, only those with mask gas and hard hats remain. I guess these are the hardcore journalists and reporters.
At 8.30 even more of the crowd disperses. It is clear now that only the most committed are staying. Having previously worked on fringes of supporters (including at Paris Saint-Germain) that are known for being particularly rebellious, it appears very blatantly to me that only hardcore fans remain, the ones who are very defiant of any authority, have turbulent relations with the police and are used to fighting them whenever they feel is ‘needed’. Moreover, all the conditions needed for violence to erupt are starting to be met: the police is no longer at risk of being overwhelmed by the number of protesters who, on average, seem much more radical in their outlook that even 10 minutes ago. I decide it is time to follow a peaceful-looking group leaving the square in order to see what they are up to. I walk down Istiklal where all the shops are still open. People sit on café terraces and no-one seems particularly nervous. I take a coffee too, try to discuss with a few people and get information on what happened. The language barrier is an issue and I get very loose, unsatisfactory, answers along the lines of ‘they were singing songs against the government’.
When I try to get back to the square at a time I forget to write down (!) but probably near 9.30pm, I realise I no longer can. Even though 50m away from the entrance, life goes on as usual, entry to Taksim is now impossible. Fights are happening, I am told by those who discourage me or physically prevent me from getting any closer.
Does this (I know) *very limited* participant observation vindicate the claim that football supporters/ultra groups are at the core of the riots? Not necessarily, but tonight’s demonstration is very calm and peaceful compared to what happened even a week or two ago, so it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusion. The protests are clearly about far more than a few football fans/supporters defying the authorities: there were people of all ages and even sexual persuasions at the demonstration. Nevertheless, it seems that these supporters are the only groups able and willing to stay until the end, no matter how bitter, and that this might largely be due to their habit of fighting armed forces.