After two days of violent street battles, Turkish anti-government protesters today scored a symbolic victory against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by forcing police to retreat in hail of stones and debris from Taksim Square in Istanbul.
What began as a small sit-in protest over the destruction of an adjacent tree-lined park to make way for a mall has been turned by repeated police attacks and tear gas strikes into a much broader protest against Mr. Erdogan’s rule and perceived Islamization of Turkish society by his party.
By Friday, those police tactics – and an uncompromising stance by Erdogan – had brought tens of thousands of Turks onto the streets of Istanbul and other cities, in scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring uprisings.
In a speech today, Erdogan was defiant. “Taksim Square can’t be a place where extremists are running wild,” he said, insisting that the park redevelopment would go forward and acknowledging police may have used excessive force - “some mistakes, extremism in police response."
The protesters say they are angry with what they see as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule after a decade in power. Though democratically elected, most recently with an unprecedented margin, some called for Erdogan to step aside.
“Of course we are not here just for the trees,” says Atilla, a mathematics graduate who wore swimming goggles to keep steady clouds of tear gas from his eyes. “It’s about democracy and against this dictator. Tayyip [Erdogan] has turned into a dictator. He thinks most people voted for him for better democracy, but now people see his real face.”
A winner of three elections – in the last his party garnered nearly 50 percent of the vote – Erdogan at the head of the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) has become one of the most popular politicians in modern Turkish history.
The former mayor of Istanbul's Islamist roots have long raised concerns among secular elements of Turkish society. Many of those on the streets are younger, affluent and secular, a cohort that has bristled at recent AKP lifestyle rulings such as limiting alcohol consumption and tough treatment of the opposition.
Turkish television and newspapers initially ignored the largest anti-government protests for years in Turkey. But Erdogan this morning took an uncompromising line in a speech which riled protestors by denouncing them as terrorists.
“Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice,” said Erdogan. “Those who have a problem with government policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy.”
The prime minister said "don't compete with us," warning that if the protesters could bring 100,000 into the streets that he could counter with one million of his own supporters. While few doubt that point, the swift eruption and scale of the protests – and the destruction they caused along some of Istanbul’s most frequented shopping avenues – may serve as a wake up call.
“We are all terrorists?” asks Atilla, jokingly. He points to a friend who was a 1995 Harvard graduate; another with shop-worker goggles is an engineer; yet another a teacher. Today was Atilla’s first day on the street, propelled by what he calls the “brutality” of the police.
“Why am I here?” asks Sinan, the Turkish Harvard graduate. “If my son asks me in 20 years where I was on this day, I want to be able to tell him I was out on the street.”
The violence has been steady over two days, with protestors being initially forced from their Gezi Park camp in an early morning police raid on Friday. Water cannons and tear gas were used repeatedly; police cleared the park and Taksim Square.
But street battles erupted at multiple entry points to Taksim, the heart of the European side of Istanbul. Protesters doused themselves with milk, lemon juice and vinegar to counteract the tear gas, and dragged everything from potted plants and park benches to shop signs to build makeshift barricades.
The more serious among them used permanent marker pens to write emergency phone numbers on their arms, or their blood groups. Despite dozens of injuries – most from excessive exposure to tear gas – and scores of arrests, lethal force was not used.
Police fired volley after volley of tear gas down the avenues leading away from Taksim Square, and when they advanced with plastic riot shields and batons ready – their way often paved by water cannon bursts – the protestors fled around corners or into alleyways.
Then police would pull back, and protestors would raise their arms to call larger crowds behind them to come forward, moving barricades – some of them burning until 3am – ever forward. Men and women with eyes bloodshot from gas made rude gestures to police helicopters overhead, which used spotlights to target gas drops on concentrations of people.
Soccer team supporters, covered with tattoos and swilling beer, and renowned in Turkey for their own regular violent confrontations with police, also joined the frontlines.
A partial police pullback on one side of Taksim Square yielded greater clouds of tear gas on other areas. Shooting could be heard until first light this morning, just after 5am.
“We’re fed up!” shouted one protestor, poking his head from a doorway as police moved into a nearby intersection close to Taksim. This morning, opposition parties had joined the fray, carrying their own flags and banners.
“This is about more than 3 or 4 trees, it’s about a government that just does what it wants and never listens,” says Hassan, a Turk with a New York Fire Department T-shirt and a face smeared with a milky substance.
“We did not put [Erdogan] in power, but we will put him out,” says another man, stepping back into a column of protesters heading for Taksim. The police units that had engaged that group for several hours previously pulled back to Taksim by late afternoon – sending a few more volleys of tear gas as they departed.
Protestors surged into Taksim, filling it with tens of thousands of people. There was an air of celebration, then the police launched dozens more rounds of tear gas across the square, causing a stampede, choking, and further deepening anger.
Those rounds prompted scores of protesters to pelt the police ranks, then chase them from the edge of the square, and finally prompt a full retreat with water cannon vehicles bombarded with stones as they fired off a few last bursts at protestors. Turkish officials said police were ordered to retreat by 4pm.
The police station adjacent to the square was burned, and a police vehicle left behind was covered with anti-police and anti-Erdogan graffiti, including a swastika. On another wall, a masked man spray painted the words in Turkish: “The AKP are murderers.”
Rumors circulated that the police withdrew because they were running short of tear gas. Canisters and gas grenades of all kinds – from Brazil, the US and South Korea, at least – littered the square and roads.
Turks who took over Taksim Square celebrated their presence, and proclaimed “victory,” temporary though it may prove to be.
“People are saying ‘Taksim is free,’ but that it could also be a trap,” says Costa, a banker who said he was fired upon earlier in the day. “The people who support this cause, even if it is a tiny percent – and it is much more – it is enough to take over the square, and that is empowering.”
Another Turkish man in the square had taken off his motorcycle helmet, since after the police departure there were no more falling gas canisters. Will this protest make a difference to politics in Turkey?
“I think it will,” he says. “I think it will force them [Erdogan and the AKP] to listen a little better.”