Riot police moved into Istanbul’s Gezi Park with tear gas and water cannons on Saturday night. In less than an hour they managed to clear the park at the center of Turkey’s protest movement.
Shortly before 9 p.m. when police began their operation, the park and adjacent Taksim Square were packed with thousands of celebrants. With live music, barbeques, and street venders, the protest had the atmosphere of a summer festival.
Demonstrators had been expecting security forces to attempt to clear the park, but despite police warnings shortly before they began their advance, most people assumed it would come in the early-morning hours when there are fewer people in the park. As a result many people were caught off guard, including elderly people and parents with young children.
Although the raid succeeded in clearing out the park, the brutal police methods, which have long been a core protester grievance, have galvanized many to continue their antigovernment demonstrations. Now many fear the country may see a steady escalation in violence with neither side showing any willingness to back down.
“A movement has started and I think it will continue. Although cops are aggressive every day we will continue,” says Mumu, a medical student helping protesters, who, like many people interviewed, asked only to use his nickname due to safety concerns. “I don’t know what’s going to come next. I don’t even want to think about it, but I’m worried the cops will use real pistols.”
Protests began two weeks ago when police used excessive force to break up a peaceful sit-in opposing a commercial development that would replace Gezi Park. The park remains an issue, but demonstrations now center on anger with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom protesters accuse of behaving more like an authoritarian than a democratically elected leader.
Mr. Erdogan had agreed to postpone development of the park until the courts determined its legality. But in a speech to members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Saturday he said the park must be “evacuated.” Hours later security forces moved on the park, triggering some of the most violent clashes seen in Istanbul over the past two weeks.
As protesters fled a police onslaught, security forces used tear gas, percussion grenades, and water cannons to push thousands of demonstrators away from the park. Amid the flight, demonstrators tried to slow police by pushing trash cans, tables from nearby restaurants, and a host of other objects into the street, setting many of them ablaze.
By the end of the night, protesters had scattered throughout the city. Clashes with police continued until the early morning hours, with some still going on after sunrise.
“It will be a failure tonight, but not in the long term,” says Yigit, a bank employee among the protesters. In what may become a rallying point for many people, Yigit also expressed frustration about police carrying out the raid when the park was filled with many people who hadn’t come to clash with police.
“We all were expecting something like this, but not today when it was the most crowded with civilians. I saw mothers, children, and disabled people in the park,” he says.
Numerous demonstrators who fled the park in the initial chaos of the police raid described seeing young children separated from their parents and elderly people unable to quickly escape the gas fired into the park. Police also fired tear gas into the lobby of the nearby luxury Divan Hotel where a number of protesters had taken refuge to escape the violence.
The excessive force used by police to break up the original sit-in at Gezi Park is among the main reasons listed by many Turks to explain why they joined in calls against the government. Consequently, the clearing of Gezi Park will likely add fuel to the protest movement.
“This is what we are against, the extreme police response, so we will continue protesting,” says Merih, a banker. “The only one who can stop this is the prime minister and he does not want to. In fact he is doing the opposite.”
Erdogan has met with members of the protest movement, but so far has yet to offer any significant compromises beyond a referendum to determine the park’s future. Those in the park met the referendum with much skepticism, many saying they worried that voting would not be fair.
Violence and clashes are likely to continue and possibly intensify on Sunday. Yesterday, demonstrators had already begun calling for a million people to march to Taksim Square on Sunday. Meanwhile, supporters of Erdogan, who have thus far staged few public rallies in Istanbul, had also been planning their own demonstration.
“We have demands, but we don’t know what’s going to happen because no one in the government is going to step back,” says Ezgi, a translator.