The people of Istanbul took to the streets late Friday, answering the call of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to show support for his government against an attempted military coup. They rallied in Taksim Square, the center of Istanbul, where they were caught up in the chaotic, treacherous intersection of Turkey’s politics, religion and military. Protesters climbed the monuments to Turkey’s political leaders, raised Turkish flags and clashed with police.
This is my account of the events as I experienced them.
Just after midnight, protesters — shouting, honking horns, watched by police on the ground and in helicopters overhead — marched to Taksim Square. They were chanting slogans in support of Erdogan — “God is great” and “Soldiers out” — but the police had surrounded the square in the face of this unpredictable demonstration. At around 1:45 a.m., a group tried to push through the barricades around the square, and shots were fired into the crowd.
People scattered and the injured lay on the ground while medics rushed to assist them, and the protesters around them continued their chants.
I went to Taksim Square with my camera to document the protests and quickly realized I was going to stand out as one of the few women, and an American, in a crowd of overwhelmingly male protesters. An officer — ponytailed, wearing a bulletproof vest — grabbed my camera and demanded to know what I was doing. I offered to leave, but he refused to let me go. Another officer yanked my wrists behind my back and tied them with zip ties, hard enough to make me think they might be cut.
SLIDESHOW: Attempted military coup in Turkey >>>
They led me to a bus and shoved me halfway up the aisle. In the back, several officers were beating a man — an Italian tourist, I learned — around the head. Then the police ordered us to sit and, in English, to “shut up.”
Moments later, police brought in another man, a Turkish protester. He was struggling, and they shoved him into a seat in front of me, handcuffing him to the rings on the bus seats.
A police officer in plain clothes, carrying a gun on his hip, pulled me from my seat and moved me back, away from the Turkish man, whom I will call H. The plainclothes officer must have realized that the situation could get dangerous, and it did. Several officers crowded around H; they beat him in the head with their fists, punched him in the torso and yelled at him. Another officer noticed me and slapped me on the side of the head, opening a small cut. My face hit the bus window.
The plainclothes officer shouted at him. I was taken off the bus to a trailer nearby and put in a windowless room, where I was eventually joined by the other two detainees.
The shouts outside became louder, and I heard gunfire. I learned later that tanks had been driven into the square, possibly under the command of the coup plotters, and crowds had attempted to commandeer them and disarm the soldiers inside. Fighter planes flew low over the square, causing the room I was in to shake; that was followed by detonations and gunfire.
In the room the police were less hostile. During the shooting, they turned out the lights and moved us to take shelter under a table. They brought us water, tea and cigarettes, and eventually took the ties off our wrists.
They were young men, in their 20s. They talked about their lives, the women they married and what they hoped to do after they finished their police service. They took pride in their professionalism; they said they hated the violence in the square and that they were working long hours to keep order. “We are nicer than the American police,” one told me. “We are better.” When I asked why, he responded, “They are killing our brothers, the Muslims and the black people. This is not good.”
But their views were very much those of the Turkish security apparatus. “This is a bad time in Istanbul,” one officer told me. “These terrorists running around, it is not [normally] like this.” It seemed they viewed anyone who would cause problems during the protest as a “terrorist.”
H was not impressed; at one point, when the police were out of the room, he clutched his side and muttered that they were “jerks.” Eventually medics arrived to inspect his injuries and took him away in an ambulance.
By sunrise, the clashes had stopped.
The Italian tourist repeatedly asked to leave. He seemed dazed, frightened and confused; perhaps as a joke, he asked the officers to shoot him, saying he wanted to “die in Turkey.” It didn’t go over well; the cops taunted him back and said he could have a last cigarette before they executed him.
In the early hours of Saturday morning we were taken to a police station, where we met two others who had been detained overnight without charges. One was a female photojournalist and the other a Turkish man whose face was bruised around the eyes. There were small cuts on his neck. The photojournalist said she had been grabbed and dragged by the hair when she was detained. She wasn’t injured, but she worried about her gear, which seemed to have been lost.
The television carried statements from Erdogan and news from Ankara. At least 265 people were killed in the capital and in Istanbul that night, and government authorities reported that hundreds of soldiers had been arrested on suspicion of participation in the attempted coup.
Five soldiers were brought to the police station while we waited. They were escorted by investigators into one of the rooms for questioning, and we didn’t see them again.
The Turkish detainee got up on several occasions to speak with one of the investigative policemen. The officer, dressed in jeans and checkered shirt with a long beard and hip haircut, offered the man cigarettes, and they left the room. Afterward the investigator called me into the office and reviewed the footage on my camera. He said, “You cannot have this. You cannot leave here, you will have to spend five nights here.”
When I asked what my charges were, he said, “I cannot tell you.” He refused to allow me a phone call. I explained that I couldn’t just disappear without alerting someone. He sighed and went to speak again with the Turkish detainee, who had served as an intermediary and translator off and on. When he returned he said, “I want to help you. I will make a call and tell someone there is no problem, and then you can go.”
But he repeated I could not keep the footage of the protests, and he took the memory card from my camera.
Finally, the officer arranged for the four of us to be inspected at a hospital, had us sign paperwork acknowledging the events of the night and sent us on our way, nearly 12 hours after being detained.
Later I learned that the Turkish protester was largely responsible for our release.
The Turkish police say they want to preserve order and unity, but sometimes discipline breaks down. In the face of protests, sometimes they resort to violence and intimidation. What are the rights of a foreigner — or even a citizen — who is detained during a demonstration? It isn’t always clear, and the police don’t always bother to communicate.
One Turkish man at the hospital said, “I miss the days of justice.”
But whether the government, the military or the police can give it to him may have to await a new government with a true popular mandate. For now the masses stand with Erdogan, combating the military’s attempt to take over the country and demanding a civilian-led democracy, while they wonder what freedoms they have left.