Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in more than a dozen cities this weekend following a brutal police crackdown on an Occupy-style sit-in aimed at preventing a popular Istanbul park from being bulldozed:
Protesters lit fires and scuffled with police in parts of Istanbul and Ankara early on Sunday, but the streets were generally quieter after two days of Turkey’s fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years. Hundreds of protesters set fires in the Tunali district of the capital Ankara, while riot police fired tear gas and pepper spray to hold back groups of stone-throwing youths near Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s office in Istanbul.
Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, where the protests have been focused, was quieter after riot police pulled back their armored trucks late on Saturday. Demonstrators lit bonfires among overturned vehicles, broken glass and rocks and played cat-and-mouse on side streets with riot police, who fired occasional volleys of tear gas.
The unrest was triggered by protests against government plans to [demolish Gezi Park and] build a replica Ottoman-era barracks to house shops or apartments in Taksim, long a venue for political protest. But it has widened into a broader show of defiance against Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
As of this morning, more than 900 protesters have been arrested and more than 1,000 injured across at least 90 protests throughout the country. Taksim Square remains occupied, although with a smaller group than yesterday. Considering how quickly the demonstrations materialized, Zeynep Tufekci highlights the extensive role social media has played, also noting that while Turkey is no stranger to political protests, she has never seen one this large or spontaneous before. Elif Bauman makes a related point about Turkey’s vibrant protest culture, and why this one seems different:
The feeling of unreality and disconnect is at the heart of the Gezi [Park] demonstrations. Istanbul loves to demonstrate; I can’t remember ever walking through Taksim without seeing at least one march or parade or sit-in, and on weekends there are usually several going on at the same time. Usually, they are small, peaceful, and self-contained, and the police just stand there. For some time now, the demonstrations have had a strangely existential feel. Again and again, people have protested the destruction of some historical building or the construction of some new shopping center. Again and again, the historical building has been destroyed, and the shopping center constructed.
Nearly every slogan chanted on the streets right now addresses Erdogan by name, and Erdogan hasn’t been talking back much. On Wednesday, he told protesters, “Even if hell breaks loose, those trees will be uprooted”; on Saturday, he issued a statement accusing the demonstrators of manipulating environmentalist concerns for their own ideological agendas. It’s hard to argue with him there; there’s little doubt that the demonstrations are less about [Gezi Park's] six hundred and six trees than about a spreading perception that Erdogan refuses to hear what people are trying to tell him.
In addition, Erdogan and the AKP recently rushed through a law to limit alcohol sales and even targeted kissing in public, moves widely perceived to be theocratically motivated. Regarding the government’s ongoing development plans for Istanbul, Firat Demir explains the outrage: