Turkish police recaptured Taksim Square from antigovernment protesters after dawn today, spreading across the iconic square at the heart of Istanbul and using tear gas and water cannon in a day of steady street battles.
Taksim has been the center of an unprecedented 12-day protest which started as a small demonstration about a park redevelopment and spiraled into a challenge to the decade-long rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan across scores of Turkish cities.
Protesters have accused Mr. Erdogan of authoritarian and “fascist” rule and of behaving like a “dictator." They hung a huge banner that read “Shut up, Tayyip” – along with many others – from the Ataturk Cultural Center beside Taksim.
As police marched across the square – shocking the hundreds of protesters who have been sleeping in the adjacent Gezi Park, where tree demolition and heavy-handed police tactics first prompted local outrage – they cut down those banners and replaced them with a Turkish flag and portrait of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Erdogan kept on the offensive and spoke in parliament as events in Taksim were still unfolding. He said the government was “analyzing” the reasons behind the protests, asked “What are the streets saying?” and said “we will continue to listen to them, to their legitimate demands, and their demands for democratic rights.”
But the prime minister was also defiant, and sought to draw a line right through Gezi Park and Taksim, between “good” and legitimate environmentalist concerns, and others from more secular opposition parties and fringe groups who he said hijacked the event with violence and vandalism. They "could not win elections," he said, and so they took their grievances to the street.
“Dear friends, what do they expect? Did they expect us to kneel down in front of them?” Erdogan asked lawmakers, who began chanting in unison as he dismissed as “rags” the opposition banners which had by then been removed from the cultural center and Ataturk statue.
“If my reactions to these actions is considered to be too tough, too stern, well I am sorry, this is Prime Minister, this is Tayyip Erdogan, you can’t change that,” said Erdogan.
The police march through Taksim was largely unhindered in the early morning light, although the crowd in the park chanted: “Every place is Taksim, every place resistance,” For hours afterwards, street fights ensued inside the square and along its periphery, but not in Gezi Park itself.
Police initially showed restraint, but later doused the fluctuating frontlines with repeated volleys of tear gas as they were attacked with stones, fireworks, flaming Molotov cocktails, and marbles, as well as nuts and bolts fired from slingshots.
“We have no intention to move against Gezi Park or the young people there. There will be no intervention against them,” Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said of the operation.
“We are still exercising restraint. We are working to normalize the square,” said Mr. Mutlu. “Some groups wanted to get into conflict with police. These marginal groups, who wanted this to be a bigger conflict, we have dealt with them. Their actions were posing a serious problem to the image of our country and Istanbul internationally.”
Many protesters formed human chains or threw rocks, a few cried disconsolately; others fought among themselves as they argued about not provoking the police into further reacting. Much of the graffiti that has covered walls, burnt cars, and numerous barricades along roads leading to Taksim targeted the police for the heavy use of gas in the early stages of the protest. A gas mask has become a common symbol of the protest.
During one clash this morning, as fireworks aimed at police exploded and Molotov cocktails landed, one police water cannon truck burst into flames and burned.
Pawns in a 'dirty game'?
Police commanders on the ground tried to convince the protesters that their orders were limited to retaking control of Taksim, and not Gezi Park. Erdogan has agreed to meet on Wednesday with the “legal” protest elements – code for those protesting the park development, and not the host of opposition political groups that have also occupied the area.
A police vehicle with a loudspeaker on top broadcast the words: “Dear Gezi friends, we are unhappy with this situation. We don’t want to intervene. We don’t want to harm you. Please withdraw.” Later, as the skirmishes deepened, the loudspeakers were used to implore people to stop throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.
Erdogan has frequently labeled the protesters “marauders” or “looters” working alongside “terrorists” whose anger was stoked by foreign hands wanting to besmirch Turkey’s reputation as the fastest growing economy in Europe, his own reputation, and that of the ruling Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan told parliament that he represented all Turks, not just the 50 percent who voted for the AKP in the last 2011 election – the third the party has won with ever-increasing popular support. Some 95 percent of those now protesting in the park, Erdogan claimed, had never heard of Gezi Park before the protests erupted while he was “born there, and grew up there."
He said that the government would “carry on” with Gezi Park and Taksim Square.
“It’s not a place to be occupied,” said Erdogan. “It’s been used as a cover for the chaos that was going to be created. Under the cover of Gezi Park and Taksim Square, there’s a big game being played using Gezi Park as an excuse. They are trying to damage the Turkish economy, shut down the growth of Turkey. I want the Gezi Park protesters to know they are being used in a dirty game.”
The after-dawn police arrival in Taksim surprised the hundreds who had camped out overnight in Gezi Park, which, along with the square, had been the scene of a continuous street party for more than a week. The largely secular protesters had also taken issue with recent new laws restricting alcohol sales – President Abdullah Gul provided his final signature last night – and showed their disdain by drinking beer and liquor heavily on the streets.
Not all were drinking, and one group of three pointed out, before the raid, that they were not drinking at all – a counterpoint to Erdogan’s past statement that anyone who drank at all was an alcoholic, and that the protest was full of them.
Yet this morning the police emerged from behind a building on the northeast corner, where they had been forced to flee by stone-throwing protesters 10 days earlier. They had managed to skirt rows of barricades by traveling up less-defended roads, and deployed in force.
Behind the police came the water cannons, and then almost as quickly came bulldozers to dismantle the barricades – many formed from dug-up sidewalk bricks, captured police barricades and metal poles – and city clean-up crews with dump trucks to take them away.
Among the items now under police control is one length of barrier where the protesters had hoped to hold out when the alarm first went up at 6:15 am, anxiously adjusting their gas masks and goggles for the fight in the shadow of the Hyatt Hotel, beside three destroyed buses.
In spray painted words, the graffiti on that one piece of barrier encapsulated protest grievances and read: “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.”