what tear gas smells like

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By late evening Friday, the whole neighbourhood of Cihangir was under gas — the pepper gas that was dispersed at the demonstration on Istiklal street had drifted several blocks, so that even though I took a circuitous route home afterwards, I still had to cover my nose and mouth.

The demonstration was against the government corruption scandal that came out in the news a couple weeks ago. In the scandal, police carried out a raid in which they detained the sons of 3 government ministers for bribery related to large construction projects,  found a shoebox with $4.5M dollars in the house of the general manager of the state-owned bank, and detained several other prominent people. The government retaliated by firing several police chiefs claiming that the external forces, that is Gülen, are trying to damage the government.

It is difficult to tell the difference between a demonstration on Istiklal and a normal Friday night — the street is always just so packed. But this was definitely a demonstration: people were chanting. I remember seeing an older man in a trench coat walking steadily towards the square, he didn’t look like the riotous type, but he pumped his fist into the air firmly and shouted out rhythmically some words in Turkish. I saw boys no more than 15 with patterned handkerchiefs covering their faces like train robbers. The crowd was a total mix and they chanted and pumped their fists and some held political flags.

I was about 300 meters back from Taksim square — the centre of it all — with the mass of people moving forward towards the square steadily. From here I could see the police trucks in the square spraying water cannons at demonstrators. They have water cannons mounted on top of what resembles a large Zamboni and a camera so they can aim it from within the truck. At some point I saw what looked like a red laser coming from the square — I have no idea what it was. Then fireworks, Roman candles, started going off in the square.

I walked towards the square with the mass of people until there was a bang of a tear gas canister and a wave of people started running back in retreat. After this, police that I had seen stationed earlier moved in from the rear of the protest. They came in so quickly that I didn’t even notice them until they were about 20 meters away. About 4 of the police broke from their formation and moved in towards a group of people standing near a storefront. I’m not sure if the people were doing anything, maybe they were spray painting or something, but the police had them cornered against the wall and shot at them with paintball guns using pepper spray ammo. At this point, everyone ran pretty quickly down a side street. Most people had their mouths covered, either with their hand or with a scarf.

I decided it was probably time to head home so I went down a parallel street just one block off Istiklal. It was a restaurant-lined street and I was surprised to see everyone eating outdoors like nothing was going on, even the hosts were out pestering passersby to check out their menu. The only sign that anything was up was that there was a kid at the end of the block selling particle masks for 5 Turkish lira (about $2.5, what a markup). Business as usual.