Turkish Police Storm Park Occupied by Protesters
After 18 days of antigovernment demonstrations that presented a broad rebuke to the country’s leadership, [Turkish] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the riot police to storm the center of the protest movement in Gezi Park on Saturday, June 15 evening, setting off a night of chaos in downtown Istanbul.
As protesters fled the tear gas and water cannons, the police pursued them, in one case into a luxury hotel near the park where medics tended to people injured in the raid. Within hours, thousands of people began streaming downtown to protest the crackdown, setting bonfires on the city’s main boulevard as tear gas wafted through streets normally bustling on a Saturday night.
Local officials said at least 44 people had been injured in the mayhem — the worst since the protests began — but their counts are often low. Some people sprawled on the floor of a makeshift clinic in a hotel ballroom complained of burns from chemicals in the jets of water shot from the water cannons.
The crackdown came just a day after it appeared that Mr. Erdogan may have outflanked the protesters, whose complaints against the planned destruction of Gezi Park for an Ottoman-themed shopping mall grew into broader anger and nationwide protests over what critics call Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian style. The wider protests began after the first police attack in the park, in Taksim Square.
Facing the gravest political crisis in more than 10 years in power, Mr. Erdogan was initially defiant, but late last week attempted to halt the broader movement against him by offering a compromise on the razing of the park that included letting the courts decide what should happen. He won over the protest organizers, but they struggled to bring along the rank-and-file demonstrators, who vowed on Saturday to stay put.
Then, even as the organizers continued to try to work for a peaceful solution, Mr. Erdogan appeared to lose patience, sending in the police.
It is unclear how the latest crackdown will play out in the wider population, given that Mr. Erdogan — who remains popular in many parts of the country — had first offered a compromise. But the brutality of the police assault already set off new demonstrations in Istanbul, and the capital, Ankara, and appeared to harden the resolve of the core protesters.
“We will keep coming back,” said Tulay Bardak, 52, who had fled the park on Saturday night. “We will resist. It’s us against them. No amount of gas can keep us out of the park.”
By 3 a.m. Sunday, the police were chasing protesters in the streets in Istanbul near the contested park, firing tear gas, water cannons and, according to many demonstrators, rubber bullets. Some protesters hurled rocks and bottles, but most were attempting to march peacefully to Taksim Square. To try to stem the flow of new protesters, the city shut down the subway, ferries and some bus routes and the police were blocking main arteries to Taksim. Earlier in the evening, as violence engulfed the city center, Istanbul’s mayor, Huseyin Mutlu, said on television, “The police will go easy on the protesters.”
He criticized the foreign media for “giving false information about Taksim,” and said, “we should be a loving society, not a clashing one.” Several private television stations, meanwhile, appeared to back off their coverage as the protests intensified. Mr. Mutlu later said the crackdown in the park had lasted only a short time and “did not cause any problems.”
One of the protesters who was in the park at the time of the raid, who gave only his first name, Deniz, said, “They fired sound bombs first, and then the tear gas came, and we were caught totally off guard. It was as if they were trying to kill us, not evacuate the park.”
The luxury Divan Hotel, on the edge of Gezi Park, became a refuge for protesters fleeing the violence. Hundreds of protesters, wearing hard hats and gas masks, filled the lobby, where glass cases of cuff links and silk handkerchiefs were smeared with milk that the injured used to clear their eyes of tear gas. As some kept up their anti-Erdogan chants in the lobby, ambulances arrived and medical workers shuttled in with oxygen tanks and other medical supplies.
“Does anyone have any burn cream?” one man yelled.
Another man sat with his shirt off, fanning his burned skin with his socks. “Two days ago he told us to leave, so we were expecting this,” said the man, referring to Mr. Erdogan. “He’s a dictator.”
Selami Yalcinkaya, 42, said, “I have been through the military coup in 1980s, but haven’t seen such a brutality.” Adding that he had voted for Mr. Erdogan’s party, he said, “This is not an issue of trees any more.”
Then, the police outside rushed the lobby, but protesters wedged themselves inside the revolving door and kept them out. A little while later, the police attacked again, and fired tear gas into the hotel, filling the lobby with white smoke and setting off a mad scramble. Many people fled down the stairs into the ballroom. One of the injured dragged in was a journalist, who kept saying, “pigs, pigs, pigs,” in reference to the police.
The street battles almost surely ensured a tense day in the city on Sunday, with Mr. Erdogan planning a rally meant to show the support he says he has from the “silent majority.”
Mr. Erdogan is supported by roughly half of the population, and the other half is a cross-section of secularists, liberals, urban intellectuals and minorities who are divided in their political views but are increasingly united in opposition to what they view as Mr. Erdogan and his Islamic allies’ attempts to unilaterally impose their views on the country. Many critics have been especially upset by his recent campaign to crack down on alcohol consumption and his pursuit of vast urban development projects, which have enriched construction magnates with close ties to the government.
Mr. Erdogan has also antagonized many secular Turks in smaller ways, for example by often telling women that they should have at least three children.
“He goes as far as getting in people’s bedrooms, he decides what we should eat and drink and how many kids we should have,” said a woman in the hotel lobby, whose shoulders were burned from by chemical-laced water.
As the protests in the streets continued, the tent city in Gezi Park was bulldozed. Crumpled tents lay on the ground, amid plates of food that had not been finished when the police arrived.
Turkey Expands Violent Reaction to Street Unrest
The Turkish authorities widened their crackdown on the antigovernment protest movement on Sunday, June 16, taking aim not just at the demonstrators themselves, but also at the medics who treat their injuries, the business owners who shelter them and the foreign news media flocking here to cover a growing political crisis threatening to paralyze the government of Prıme Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
After an intense night of street clashes that represented the worst violence in nearly three weeks of protests, Mr. Erdogan rallied hundreds of thousands of his supporters on Sunday — many of them traveling on city buses and ferries that the government had mobilized for the event — at an outdoor arena on the shores of the Sea of Marmara. In some of his toughest language yet, he called his opponents terrorists and made clear that any hope of a compromise to end the crisis was gone.
“It is nothing more than the minority’s attempt to dominate the majority,” he said of the protesters. “We will not allow it.”
The escalating tensions have raised the risk of an extended period of civil unrest that could undermine Turkey’s image as a rising global power and a model of Islamic democracy, which Mr. Erdogan has cultivated over a decade in power.
As he spoke, the police fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators in Istanbul and in several other cities. In at least two strongholds of support for Mr. Erdogan, the nature of the confrontation seemed to take a more dangerous turn, as antigovernment protesters clashed with his civilian backers. In Mr. Erdogan’s childhood neighborhood in Istanbul, a group of government supporters joined the police with sticks and fought against protesters, according to one witness. In Konya, a conservative town in the Anatolian heartland, government supporters also clashed with protesters, according to a local news report.
Even before Mr. Erdogan took the stage to deliver his nearly two-hour-long speech, the master of ceremonies had bashed the foreign news media, which the prime minister has suggested is part of a foreign plot, along with financial speculators and terrorists, to topple his government.
“CNN International, are you ready for this?” shouted the announcer to the sea of people waving flags bearing Mr. Erdogan’s face and the yellow and white logo of his Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials as A.K.P.
Mr. Erdogan then singled out BBC, CNN and Reuters, saying, “for days, you fabricated news.”
“You portrayed Turkey differently to the world,” he continued. “You are left alone with your lies. This nation is not the one that you misrepresented to the world.”
At least 400 people were detained on Sunday, according to the Istanbul Bar Association, with local news reports saying that some journalists had been among them. One foreign photographer documenting the clashes Saturday night said a police officer had torn his gas mask off him while in a cloud of tear gas, and forced him to clear his memory card of photographs.
Some doctors and nurses who treated protesters were detained by security forces on Sunday, according to the legal offices of the Istanbul Chamber of Doctors. Lawyers have been held by the authorities in recent days. Mr. Erdogan said Sunday that even the owners of luxury hotels near Taksim Square who had provided refuge to protesters fleeing the chaos of the police raid were linked to terrorism.
“We know very well the ones that sheltered in their hotels those who cooperated with terror,” he said at the rally. “Will they not be held accountable? If we do not hold them accountable, then the nation will hold us accountable.”
The last three weeks have laid bare Turkey’s deep divisions between the religious, largely conservative masses who support Mr. Erdogan and the mostly secular and middle class who have joined the protest movement. Their contesting visions of the country played out clearly across Istanbul on Sunday. As Mr. Erdogan’s supporters flocked to his rally, police forces were already firing tear gas at protesters who were trying to march to Taksim Square, which had become the center of the movement before the police cleared the area.
With a helicopter flying overhead, the police set up barricades and positioned armored vehicles, their water cannons aimed down side streets leading to Taksim. The center of the city once again resembled a war zone, as shops were closed and heavy clashes in central Istanbul continued long into the night.
At Mr. Erdogan’s rally on the seashore, near the walls of the ancient city, enthusiastic government supporters voiced anger at its opponents. Walking up to the rally grounds, people chanted, “Go gas them, Captain! Break their hands!” A helicopter flew overhead to provide panoramic footage for state television. Later, as Erdogan supporters rode buses and trains back to the city center, many removed their A.K.P. hats and discarded their flags, fearful of being targeted by antigovernment demonstrators.
Sabitha Altin, 62, a retired teacher wearing a fuchsia head scarf, said, “I’ve never been to a rally in my life, but today I came because the country is in turmoil and I believe this is the only man who can save it, with our support.”
Ms. Altin acknowledged Mr. Erdogan’s harsh crackdown on protesters, but she said it was necessary to preserve his accomplishments over the last 10 years. “He may seem like he has been coming down on people hard these past few weeks,” she said. “But what do you expect when everything he has built for us over 10 years is torn apart and counts for zero. Anyone would be angry and act in this way.”
Many at the rally took at faith what Mr. Erdogan has been saying for days: that the unrest gripping Turkey is the work of foreigners, and not reflective of the legitimate grievances of the Turks who did not vote for him.
“This whole thing is not as bad as it looks,” Fatma Aygun, 33, said. “It is just a game of the foreign media.”
She added, “Things will be back to normal in three to four days. Taksim will look like this: happy, colorful and festive. We are the majority, and we will make sure of it.”
(. . . ) In responding to the crisis, Mr. Erdogan sought to divide the protest movement last week by offering concessions on the park. But by then, it was too late: the movement had already become about much more. By Sunday, Mr. Erdogan sought to thoroughly delegitimize any opposition to his governance, linking the effort to save the park to a recent terrorist attack in Reyhanli, in southern Turkey, which was connected to the Syrian civil war and killed dozens.
“I wonder what these foreigners who came to Taksim Square from all corners of the world were doing,” he said. “We have seen the same plots in Reyhanli.”
"The New York Times," June 16 and 17, 2013