Chasing rainbows in Istanbul

Chasing rainbows in Istanbul

By Lene Christensen, Amnesty International

 

There was no stopping this moment. Not even the hundreds of police officers present, heavily armed with dogs, tear gas and rubber bullets could prevent it.

 

Last Sunday in Turkey, the LGBTI+ community and their friends proved that in Istanbul, love and solidarity are much more powerful than intimidation and fear.

 

For an hour, Mis Street offered a small taste of what Istanbul Pride used to be like – a flourishing event drawing tens of thousands of rainbow-clad participants. This year’s Pride march was banned for the fourth year in a row, but literally at the last minute on Sunday and as a result of some very skilful negotiations with the police, the organisers were told they could gather in this tiny side street off Istiklal street, the major pedestrianized avenue where they marched for years without issue in previous years.

 

Within minutes a couple of hundred people had gathered on Mis Street, dancing and chanting. Madonna was on the speakers. Huge smiles and teary eyes were all around. A large rainbow flag was lifted in the middle of the crowd. For a moment it was pure, unexpected magic. But we feared that the spell would be broken soon.

 

The atmosphere was both joyous and intimidating: everyone knew that the gathering could turn from celebration to entrapment any minute.

 

There were riot police blocking both ends of the street. We were surrounded by uniforms and weapons. And the LGTBI community in Istanbul know from bitter experience that the tear gas and rubber bullets were not just an empty threat. They had been used heavily in the last three years.

 

“It was like celebrating pride in a cage,” Yuri Guaiana told me afterwards, when we talked about the experience. He is senior campaigns manager for the global LGBTI+ rights group, All Out, and like me, he was there to show solidarity and document the event.

 

In the hours leading up to Pride, we all saw how riot and plain clothes police lined up alongside their armoured vehicles, some with mounted water-cannons on Taksim Square and at points along the length of the planned march.  It was a surreal experience, walking towards a banned celebration of equality. diversity and love, as heavily armed police mingled with shoppers on what was otherwise a normal Sunday afternoon.

 

Local LGBTI+ activist Cihangir (27) was prepared for the worst when we spoke to him in a quiet café earlier that day. He told us how he feared that, if the police used force or detained him, his already injured arm could be further hurt.

 

In April, Amnesty International released a report about the climate of fear in Turkey, under which activists and human rights defenders never know if they’re the next ones to be targeted by the government. Since last November, all LGBTI events have been banned in Turkey’s capital Ankara under state of emergency powers. Last week, even a screening of the acclaimed British film ‘Pride’ was banned by the authorities. Several LGBTI+ organisations have had to drastically reduce their visibility, and people told us they feel they are being pushed underground again after years in which a nationwide movement had been built in Turkey.

 

Cihangir said this year’s Pride was not just about the LGBTI+ community, but was an expression of solidarity for all marginalised groups currently under pressure in Turkey.

 

“I do believe this is going to change,” he said, determined to be part of the fight for equal rights and the freedom to be himself.

 

“I think of us as kittens”, he continued, referring to the LGBTI+ community. “We will not be left on the Street.”

 

Later, in Mis Street, I caught sight of Cihangir. He was dancing in the middle of the crowd.

 

But after an hour, my colleague Andrew Gardner suddenly told the Amnesty International delegation to come with him. Quickly. He had heard that the police were not letting people out of the street, and we were not going to take any chances. “Let’s go,” he said. Leaving the rainbows behind, we walked past police dogs on tight leashes, hoping they would not stop us.

 

We’d been there to observe love and diversity in action. Now, we felt that we had to hide.

 

Walking down Istiklal Street, we could see how the police presence had increased dramatically. Almost every side street was now blocked by police and police vans.

 

After we’d left, we learned that the pride organizing committee had read press statements in several other places in side streets near Taksim Square, as they had done in Mis street. Courageous participants had continued to assemble, despite the police chasing them whenever they did so.

 

I asked Andrew how he felt about the event: “The point of protest is that it is visible. Shutting people off in a side street, hidden out of sight, is not respecting the right to protest,” he said.

 

When Yuri walked out of Mis street, he told me that he saw what looked like an endless row of police officers coming towards him, most with police dogs. It was a terrifying sight.

 

“Seeing that many police and vehicles for a bunch of people dancing in the street…”, he said, shaking his head, unable to complete his sentence.

 

To leave no doubt: Tear gas was fired this Sunday. We heard about people being knocked to the ground by police dogs. 11 people were detained, but released in the evening.

 

Still, none of us present in Mis Street this Sunday will ever forget those precious moments of joy and the strong feeling of companionship and pride. Yet again, people were able to express themselves publicly in broad daylight, if only for an hour.

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