CD Baby's Brian Felsen Reports From The Istanbul Protests

Tear gas hits protesters in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

(Photo: Brian Felsen)

CD Baby president Brian Felsen just happened to be in Istanbul, Turkey with his family as the anti-government protests over the past two weeks made headlines around the world. What started as a peaceful occupation of Gezi Park, located in Taksim Square in Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul, has escalated into nationwide unrest resulting in violent clashes between riot police and protesters. On Tuesday June 11, the government of prime minister Tayyib Erdoğan mounted its biggest operation to clear Taksim Square with its excessive use of police force (using tear gas and water cannons) drawing condemnation from the international community (both Amnesty International and a number of EU officials have spoken out against the action). As of today, June 13, protesters continue to occupy Gezi Park. Erdoğan has responded by stating that the demonstrations will be halted within the next 24 hours and warned protesters to clear the park for their own safety. Four people have already died during the protests, according to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation. interviewed Felsen, who also took all the photographs in this story, about the situation. As Felsen noted "CD Baby isn't at all a political company" but he does believe it "necessary, whenever possible, to sing loud and clear for the right to sing loud and clear."

Billboard: How did you come to be in Turkey at this moment in time?
Brian Felsen: My wife is Turkish (an opera singer and writer) and we lived in Turkey for two years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I love it here so we come every summer. I’ve always been fascinated by Turkish politics. In 1999 we made a documentary film, COUP, about the military coup and how crazy the concept is of military-enforced secular democracy. But Erdoğan’s ascension was positioned as an exemplar of democratic Islam. [In recent years] it’s become more and more autocratic. Taksim Square has always been a gathering place for all kinds of meetings and protests. Erdoğan’s [intention] is to basically deny a place of assembly and erase some of the last green space in Istanbul to turn it into an Ottoman barracks shopping mall.

Protesters at Taksim Square in Istanbul. (Photo: Brian Felsen)

What are your personal experiences of the protests in Istanbul? 
We arrived June 6 and the police violence in Istanbul had died down. There was still violence in other cities, but Taksim Square was more of a celebratory festival than anything else. So we went and took our son there and just talked to the people. We bought food for them and wanted to show support for the basic human right of speech and assembly. There was a small environmental protest there, basically just occupying [Gezi] Park, like Occupy Wall St. But the disproportionate use of police force was so overwhelming that nobody really anticipated that this would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

You were present in Taksim Square on June 11 when the worst of the violence between police and protesters broke out. Can you talk us through those events?
We went there in the morning to support and mostly the protesters in Gezi Park were completely peaceful. In Taksim Square they were throwing fireworks and rocks and it was being responded to with tear gas and sonic booms and water canon blasts. Then a gas canister hit at my feet and another one hit a guy to my right and took a piece out of his arm. After that I retreated into the middle of the park. At 7pm [EST] I took a conference call and I was looking down at the gathering and I noticed that Taksim Square was getting more and more full. My call dropped out, so I went into [Gezi] Park and in there they had this little building where the protesters were recording interviews. All of a sudden a gas canister hits right outside of us and smoke starts pouring in. Then the entire park runs towards the center [as the police] had completely gassed Taksim Square. People started pouring into this little building that I was in. This woman passes out in front of me. People are puking and just crying everywhere. Nobody is able to breathe or see. We go out into the park and the cops are on the side shooting directly into the park. They have got the park completely surrounded and nobody can leave.  So they are no longer trying to gas people or get them to disperse. They are torturing them.

Police hose down Turkish protesters. (Photo: Brian Felsen)

What was the reaction among the demonstrators?
The Turks' reaction blew me away. During some of the worst of the fire-fighting, the people occupying [Gezi] Park watching the square below were playing the drums and samba music and dancing. It was incredible. After the last burst of the gas everybody was throwing up and it total post-nuclear apocalypse; it was so bleak and horrible and yet the Turks were cheering and clapping and applauding the [fact that they held] their ground.  It was like they were saying: ‘Gas us. Exterminate us. We are not fucking moving.’ It totally blew me away.

What social groups predominately make up the protest movement? Is there a large number of musicians, artists, writers and cultural curators among them?
Huge. But the protest is not [solely] left wing. There are pro-army nationalists protesting. There are Kurdish militant groups protesting. What is most striking is that the biggest cultural differences in Turkey and the biggest partisan conflicts are forgotten. Arch enemies and rival soccer teams are all here together in song, arm around arm. The protesters are made up of all classes and all ages and all political groups–all protesting against the raising of this public square and against the overreaching of this government.

Protesters in Gezi Park. (Photo: Brian Felsen)

What was the mood like in the aftermath of June 11?
Today [June 12] is odd. It poured down today and it’s been quiet in Istanbul. Erdoğan went on TV and said in 24 hours the park will be cleared. On the one hand this could just be a "we will not negotiate with terrorists" type bluster. But there is some off-chance that they could pull a Mexico City [Tlatelolco] massacre and kill everyone.  I have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow. Nobody knows.

Will you be going back to join the protests? 
That is to be decided based on early morning events. My take is I want to support. This is not about politics. This is about the right to expression and assembly, which for me is about as fundamental as you can get and I don’t care what country it’s in–Timbuktu or Tuva. I really feel strongly about the Turkish Spring. Not because of my family ties, but because it's necessary, whenever possible, to sing loud and clear for the right to sing loud and clear. CD Baby isn't at all a political company. But it's important to me personally, as someone who works for a company whose core mission is to encourage and enable the distribution of art that I should, at a minimum moral baseline, take a stand for freedom of expression. welcomes responsible commentary. Please contact with ideas.