Turkish police clashed with May Day demonstrators in Istanbul on Friday as crowds sought to defy a government ban on assembling in iconic Taksim Square.
Protesters gathered in various parts of the city before attempting to reach the central plaza, but were met with a heavy security presence. Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons injuring several, while marchers responded by throwing stones and fireworks.
Taksim holds special meaning for Labor Day celebrations in Turkey, after 34 people were killed in 1977 when suspected nationalist gunmen fired on a trade union rally being held there, and it has since been a focal point for anti-government demonstrations.
But Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said last month that the square would only be open for "symbolic" commemorations this year and warned that any attempt to reach it en masse would be seen as an attempt to "create chaos." Authorities launched a massive security effort to prevent access, leaving much of the city center in effective lockdown. Entrances to Taksim itself were barricaded and as many as 10,000 police, including a number drafted in from other provinces, blocked access roads. Public transport in the area was also suspended.
Labor unions and political groups, including main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) vowed to defy the ban and gathered in nearby Besiktas municipality to march on Taksim. Hundreds of people attended from a number of different factions, including opposition parties, trade unions, and even anarchist groups and football fans.
"We are going to try to go to Taksim for the 1977 memorial," said Can Onalan, a 28-year-old psychologist, who attended with a group of his colleagues. "We want to go to commemorate the people killed [because] it's most important square and all demonstrations happen there. But the government is afraid of protests and they're looking for an excuse to attack us."
The Besiktas gathering remained peaceful for a period of time, but riot police eventually moved to disperse the demonstrators using water cannons and tear gas. Some protesters threw stones ripped up from the pavement and fireworks back at security forces.
An unclear number were injured in the dispersal, including at least one journalist. Another foreign reporter with Turkish press accreditation was pinned down by plainclothes police officers who ripped his gas mask off in the middle of clouds of tear gas.
Later, security forces pursued the remaining demonstrators down nearby alleyways firing more tear gas. Bystanders, as well as local shop and cafe owners were caught off guard and afterwards stood outside in doorways pouring water on their streaming eyes in an attempt to relieve the effects of exposure.
Smaller clashes and gatherings took place elsewhere in the city throughout the day. A group even managed to reach Taksim, but was quickly detained. The city governor's office said in a written statement that 203 protesters had been arrested and 18 injured, while 6 police officers were also hurt, according to local media.
They were the first major protests to take place since government passed a controversial security bill earlier this year that drastically expands police powers to detain demonstrators, conduct warrantless searches, and use lethal force during violent protests. Critics have voiced concern over the effects the new legislation will have on the right of free assembly in Turkey, and it is universally opposed by all three main opposition parties.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck
Photos by John Beck/VICE News