Rubber Bullets and Riot Police: Istanbul Pride March, 2015

'Boyle' is the Turkish word for 'queer'.

‘Boyle’ is the Turkish word for ‘queer’.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a riot with your name on it.

There’s a t-shirt doing the rounds here with the slogan, ‘Istanbul: Some call it chaos, we call it home.’ Glorious chaos, I say. Mosques everywhere; women in short sleeves and skirts.

The place is a veritable ad for progressive Islam that bristles with the art and architecture of the Ancient Romans, Mughals, Seljuks, Crusaders, and finally Ottomans that built it. Istanbul is the very definition of rich and strange.

Such a setting demands long days of pounding the pavement. Consequently, after a week of sightseeing, I spent Sunday laying on the couch, dozing and reading silly stories by HP Lovecraft.

Someone told me that the Turkish Gay Pride March was on, so I wandered up to the main street, Istiklal Cadessi, to check it out.

While standing on the footpath, I saw someone carrying a sign with my name on it.

I asked if I could take a photo, and he handed it to me. I had no idea of what it meant; it turns out, however, that my last name, Boyle, is slang for ‘queer’ in Turkish.

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A couple of policemen approached, one of whom spoke loud and fast.

“I can’t understand you,” I said. “I’m Australian.” More Turkish, louder and faster. And then he started to square up.

“Pal, I cannot understand a word you’re saying.”

“You can’t stand here,” said the other policeman.

There were a few things about these police that seemed significant. One, they had helmets, visors, and battle fatigues. Real riot police. Two, they were armed. Water cannons, tear gas launchers and guns – that I later discovered – fired rubber bullets. Three, they were thin, rangy and pimply. They looked like they were in their teens.

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A large police truck with a bulldozer blade over the grille began rolling down the street toward us, flanked by other cops with shields and batons. They drove the crowd forward into a crush.

“Where do you want me to stand?”

“This is our business, not yours!”

“Listen,” I said, “You tell me where you want me to go. Do you want me to go that way,” I asked, indicating up the road, “Or that way?” I pointed behind me, the way I had come.

“That way,” the man said, and pointed behind me.

I didn’t see the tear gas or hear it fired; it descended onto the bitumen, teased out into a cloud by the wind. My eyes stung, my lungs began to convulse. People began to run in all directions.

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I cut it back to my hostel to find the owner, Nathan, a young New Zealander, standing in the street smoking a cigarette.

“Wow,” I said, “That was intense!”

“That’s Istanbul, man,” he replied. “One minute it’s calm, the next minute…”

“So that’s it?”

“It’s cancelled.”

“No floats? No parade?”

There was a surge of people at the other end of the alley, many carrying rainbow flags, others carrying circular signs like mine. By now, many had whistles. Chanting, shouting, slogans, stampeding feet.

It’s all very well to strap on the fairy wings when you’re surrounded by a whole lot of scantily-clad, stunning chicks in Sydney, but tear-gas and rubber bullets in a Muslim country are the true test of your principles.

“I’ll see ya later!” I said to Nathan, and ran after them.

“Don’t go that way, it’s not safe,” came the cry: “There’s cops!”

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The rabble marched up and through the internecine streets, snaking around and around. People in cafes cheered and clapped.

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Some hung out of windows overhead to watch. I had as little idea about the chanted slogans as I did about the geography, so I got a whistle and blew it. Another tear-gas canister landed around the corner; I acquired a rainbow flag.

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When we found our way back to Istiklal, we emerged into a ghostly, silent street. Tear gas hung in translucent clouds. The lesbians in front passed around a bottle of beer.

Another chain of demonstrators emerged from a side-street, then another from an alley further down. Before long, the entire promenade, shore to shore, was once again jammed with chanting demonstrators waving rainbow flags, placards and banners.

The march proceeded down to Firuzada square, where a tranny climbed a monument and planted her rainbow flag. It struck a chord I’ve never heard in person, but has resonated in photographs, history books, and news bulletins.

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After an hour, the gathering stratified. The riot police stood around the outside, leaning on their shields and watching while the protesters roiled around the square, chanting and dancing.

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I learned a few things as a bouncer. One of those things is that if you allow two separate idiots into a room of a thousand people, they will eventually find their way to each other and start a fight. And I’m willing to bet it’s the same with a riot.

Before the tear gas comes, there’s a weird kind of frequency that travels through the air. The idiots are all tuned down to it. For these people, uniforms and authority or flags and slogans are pretexts.

At a basic, primal level, it’s no longer about politics or pride; it’s all about the darker side of instinct. Both sides seethed around the margins like hyenas.

The excitement and jubilation began to decay into a kind of neurotic energy. The demonstration wasn’t doing any further good, and neither was I. I took my flag off its pole, folded it up and put it in my pocket and started back up Istiklal Cadessi.

A number of riot trucks squatted along the street at intervals of three hundred meters or so. I passed a clutch of photographers and a t.v. crew who were interviewing a bridal couple, one of whom wore a white wedding dress and a big, black beard.

‘If you’ve seen one bearded dude in a wedding dress, you’ve seen them all,’ I thought to myself as I continued on my way.

A moment later, I heard something like a hissing explosion and when I turned, one of the trucks had disgorged a bolt of water. The street was black and shiny; the dude in the dress had completely vanished from sight. Water dribbled obscenely from the gun on the top of the truck.

I saw Nathan, the hostel owner, the next day.

“How did you go, man?” he asked.

“Tear gas, riot police, water cannons, bearded guys in dresses, what more could you want on your first trip to Istanbul?”

“Turkey wants to join the EU but the way they’re going, it’s never going to happen. I mean, they’re fucking gay people, for Chrissakes – it’s not like they’re going to be violent. I got shot in the head with a rubber bullet last night.”

“What?”

“Did you make it down to Firuzada?”

“Where the tranny climbed the pole with the flag?”

“Yeah. The cops broke it up at about ten thirty at night. They started firing canisters of tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.”

“Can a rubber bullet blind you?” I asked.

“Fuck, yes. I was lucky I got it in the back of the head.”

“I can’t believe the cops were so heavy-handed.”

“Yeah man,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “There was another protest a couple of years ago when the government was going to rip out the park and build a shopping mall. The cops killed seventeen people. One of them was a little kid. The kid got shot in the head with a smoke grenade.”

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