Istanbul's Taksim Square Has Become a Warzone

The police have been shooting water cannons and tear gas at peaceful protesters.

Scores have been injured after a week of clashes between Turkish police and anti-government protesters in Istanbul. The authorities are said to have reacted with disproportionate force, using water cannons and tear gas to disperse the peaceful crowd in a park in the centre of the city. Images of demonstrators who've suffered severe injuries have been posted to social media, many protesters had their tents burnt by the police and reports from a Turkish newspaper suggest that people may have died due to the fighting.

Thousands of Turks have been occupying Gezi Park and its surrounding areas all week. On the night of May 27th, bulldozers and diggers rolled into the tiny island of trees and grass at the centre of Taksim Square in Istanbul, and started ripping it apart. This was part of a government project to “pedestrianise” the historic square – what that meant in this case, according to many blogs, was turning one of the last open green spaces in the city into a shopping mall. No community organisations or local people were asked what they thought about the plans for the park, which were devised by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The plans included rebuilding a barracks that was demolished in the 1940s and adding sidewalks to make the square more pedestrian-friendly.

Four days later, after nonviolent protesters occupied the park and survived attacks by the police that included tear gas and water cannons, they've won at least a temporary victory thanks to a court decision. In fact, Istanbul's mayor, Kadir Topbaş, just announced that there was never any plan to build a mall. It's an amazing eleventh-hour turnaround, but it didn't happen without a battle.

Soon after protesters started gathering in the park on Monday, word spread through social media as more pro-park, anti-government Turks showed up to sit in front of the bulldozers. By Wednesday, the police were involved, and they responded to the nonviolent protests with aggressive tactics – what really got everyone’s attention was a photo from Reuters showing a young, apparently peaceful environmentalist in a red dress getting pepper-sprayed by a gas-masked cop. That image quickly became a symbol of the “occupation” of Gezi Park, as well as the cops’ terrorisation of the protesters.

The protests are also indicative of wider public grievances with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There is a feeling in Turkey that his government is becoming more authoritarian in what is his third successive term as Turkish leader – there have been clampdowns on the sale of alcohol and people have been warned off public displays of affection.

Erdogan wasn't interested in starting a dialogue with the occupation and gave a speech on Wednesday that made it clear that a decision on the park’s fate had already been made. By then, many protesters had set up camp at the park and were sleeping in their tents. At dawn on Thursday, May 30th, the police entered the park, firing tear gas and burning tents. The bulldozers were stopped, however, when opposition politicians Sırrı Sureyya Önder and Gülseren Onanç stood in front of them and demanded to see proper permits.

Even with the police using pepper spray as if it were bug repellent, the occupation continued, and even grew. On Thursday, photos of protesters reading to the police spread across the internet, and those who are involved in the occupation say they are committed to nonviolence.

“[The protests are] just a peaceful, environmentalist gathering with no leader and no agenda but to protect a public space,” said Utku Dorduncu, a financier who recently returned to Istanbul after eight years in New York. “I won’t say the majority of the protesters are the general public because the 10,000 gathered there on Thursday night were mostly college students, recent grads and independent workers. Not really the breadwinners of their families. But those who have the time and opportunity to protect the public’s rights ought to.”

Last night a live feed from the park showed an almost festival-like air, as drum circles formed and rock bands performed. On FourSquare, 960 people had checked into Gezi Park and the hashtags #DirenGeziParki (Resist Gezi Park) and the account for Ayaga  Kalk Taksim (Stand Up Taksim) were all over Turkish Twitter. Mehmet Ali Alabora, a Turkish actor and the host of a half-hour political satire show (a rarity for Turkish television), tweeted (in Turkish), “It’s not just about Gezi Park friend, haven’t you understood? Come over,” and received thousands of retweets.  

“It’s such a diverse gathering,” said Aysegul Yildirim, a student. “There’s even a group called ‘Anticapitalist Muslims’ who describe themselves as Islamist.”

As new tents replaced the burned ones, topics of discussion among the occupiers included the controversial plans to build a third bridge over the Bosporus Strait, the laws restricting alcohol consumption that were passed last week and the recent demolition of the historic Emek Theater. Posters in the park had slogans like “Shoulder to Shoulder Against Fascism”, “Taksim Is Ours, Gezi Park Is Ours”, “Government Resign”, and “The People Will Not Bow Down to You” with a drawing of PM Erdogan in a sultan’s hat.

By the time the actor, TV personality and satirist Okan Bayulgen took his place in the park that night to read The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, the number of protesters had reached 30,000 by some estimates. Then it went to hell.

Elif Cerrahoglu, a 20-year-old university student, described the scene:  “Everything was peaceful, people had gathered in a very calm protest. At around 5AM I started to notice that people were getting up and trying to escape, then I noticed the police, and it all turned into turmoil. We weren’t in the centre so we were able to get away, but thousands of people were hit by stones and beaten up. A girl standing in front of me started yelling, 'Why are you doing this?’ And they beat her up in front of me.”

Yigit Guneli, a 26-year-old computer coder, said that the protesters who managed to stay in the park until 7 AM were sprayed with water. "I don't think it was just water though,” he added. “Those sprayed felt as if their skin was burning up." On Friday morning, however, Yigit was defiant: "We are going to resist with an even bigger crowd tonight,” he said. “If the police had not reacted in such a way, I think the crowd would have remained smaller."

At least five were taken into the ICU for head injuries after the attack by the police, and protesters reported that bystanders who were simply trying to commute to work were also subjected to the pepper spray and tear gas. On every street corner there were clusters of cops, but there were also calls on Twitter for the occupiers to regroup. The police have brought in gates to block entrances to the park, but the protest has spread into the neighbouring streets. “What is there left to do but not leaving the square unoccupied, and continuing to resist?” said protester Utku Dorduncu on Friday morning.

Midway through the fourth day of protests, a crowd gathered in Taksim Square despite three more violent attempts by police to disperse protesters. According to the occupiers, the cops were attacking everyone who wanders through the area with pepper spray, including pedestrians who are getting off the subway. "They are attacking women, children, the elderly, everyone,” said Utku. “And in reaction to that we remain peaceful, sharing gas masks and waters. This is not even unbalanced force, it's brutal."

Official government reports suggest that a total of 12 protesters have been injured thus far. The Istanbul Chamber of Medicine declared earlier that six people suffered from serious head trauma and that a teacher's leg had been broken. But witnesses VICE has spoken to claim that the number of wounded is drastically higher. Amnesty International has condemned "the use of excessive force, including pepper spray, against peaceful protestors in a park in Central Istanbul".

On Friday, more protests near the square were being planned – though it was uncertain where and how they would convene in the face of police aggression – as well as a demonstration in the capital city of Ankara to support the burgeoning Occupy Gezi movement. But apparently, the authorities had had enough of the conflict, despite Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric earlier in the week. Today a court ruled (link in Turkish) that the planned construction projects needed to be halted until they are reviewed, and mayor Topbaş claimed that the park was never going to be demolished. It remains unclear why he couldn't have announced that four days ago, before the violence.

Extended details are scarce at the moment, but we'll bring you more information – including more eyewitness reports, photographs and video footage – when we have it. Meanwhile, you can monitor the clashes yourself using the #occupygezi hashtag on Twitter, which protesters are using to organise themselves and report from the ground in Istanbul.

This article was updated at 18.37 on Friday, May 31st to make it more comprehensive.

More of Nazim's photography can be found here.

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