ISTANBUL — Turkish riot police used tear gas and water cannons Friday to end a peaceful sit-in by hundreds of people trying to prevent trees from being uprooted in an Istanbul park. The dawn raid ignited a furious anti-government protest that took over the city’s main square and spread to other cities, culminating in what Turkish Facebook users described as a “massacre” which unfolded amid clouds of tear gas.
Istanbul residents on Saturday posted photos and videos of bruised and bloodied protesters, of civilians wearing gas masks and surgical masks to protect them from police offensives and of security forces using pressurized water and tear gas to keep them in check.
The protesters, meanwhile, held up signs denouncing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. “Tayyip is a dictator,” read one sign, while another read “Turkish Spring.” Yet more signs read “Support Gezi Park” or “Occupy Gezi.”
One of the last few green spots left in the center of Istanbul, Gezi Park was once part of the city’s Armenian cemetery. It was confiscated in the 1930s and made into a park. In recent years, Erdogan has expressed his intent to demolish the park, possibly in order to build a mosque there. Earlier this year, he announced that the urban park would be destroyed; on its ruins, a shopping complex and replica of Ottoman-era barracks would be built by a private contractor.
On Friday night, thousands marched from the central, trendy Taksim Square on the European side of Istanbul to Kadikoy on the Asian side, crossing one of the Bosphorus bridges en masse to protest both the demolition of the park and the crackdown on the peaceful sit-in dedicated to saving it.
Some protesters held up photos of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as the crowd cheered them on, while others called Erdogan a “fascist” and warned that “totalitarianism suffocates all.”
If Facebook is any indication, the riots are to become daily occurrences, with over 30,000 people pledging to attend demonstrations until the first of September.
In preparation for a three-month-long series of protests and police retaliations, the demonstrations have been ironically titled the Istanbul Gas Festival, so named after the method used by Istanbul police to disperse them.
Ahead of the Saturday protest, Turkish Facebook users posted advice on how to best cope with tear gas.”Wear swimming goggles, because otherwise you won’t be able to open your eyes,” warned one Istanbul native. “Avoid cheap masks,” he continued. “Instead of a mask costing one TL, you’ll be able to breathe better with one costing 3-5.”
He also urged his fellow protesters to fully charge their cellular phones before arriving at the demonstration, so that they would be able to document it and have easy access to the web.
“Avoid eye contact with the police … the range of gas bombs is 120 meters,” he concluded.
Another Facebook user suggested vinegar and lemon as possible antidotes to tear gas. “Soak a piece of cloth in vinegar and use it as a mask,” he advised. “Never touch your face with your hands.”
In a victory for the protesters, an Istanbul court later ordered the temporary suspension of the project to uproot the trees. But demonstrators around the country kept up protests denouncing what they called a heavy-handed crackdown and a government seen as displaying increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Police took action on the fourth day of the sit-in against a government plan to revamp Taksim square. Officers clashed with angry demonstrators in surrounding areas, firing tear gas canisters and pushing people back with water cannon. A cloud of smoke from the gas filled the square and scattered protests continued into the night.
In solidarity with protesters in Istanbul, some 5,000 people gathered at a park in the capital, Ankara, swelling into a busy street nearby. They chanted anti-government slogans and called on Erdogan to resign. Police used tear gas to push back a group that tried to march toward the Parliament building.
Protests were also held in a dozen other cities, including one that drew thousands in the third-largest city of Izmir, reports said.
The Istanbul protesters were demanding the square’s Gezi Park be protected from plans that include the construction of a shopping mall. Many also aired grievances against Erdogan, whose style has become increasingly uncompromising during his government’s third successive term.
Last week, the government enacted a law restricting the sale and advertising of alcohol, a move that has alarmed secular Turks.
Earlier this week, the government went ahead with a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of a disputed third bridge across the Bosporus Strait that some say will destroy the few remaining green areas of the sprawling city. It also named the bridge after a controversial Ottoman sultan believed to have ordered a massacre of a minority Shiite Muslim group, instead of choosing a more unifying figure.
Protesters in Gezi Park held up a large poster Friday with a caricature depicting Erdogan as an Ottoman sultan with a caption that read: “The people won’t yield to you.”
Protester Serdar Sanman accused Erdogan of “trying to install his dictatorship.”
Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted, conservative government has a strong support base in the mainly Muslim but secular country, and many of the protesters appeared to be from more secular-leaning sections of society.
In Ankara, demonstrators held up posters reading: “Don’t Interfere in my Lifestyle” and “Resist the Dictator.” Many drank beer and other alcoholic beverages during the protest in defiance of the alcohol restrictions, raising their drinks as they chanted “Cheers Tayyip!” They lined the pavement with empty beer and liquor bottles and cans.
Erdogan this week dismissed the Istanbul protesters’ demands, saying the government would go ahead with the renovation plans “no matter what they do.” The forestry minister said more trees would be planted than those uprooted at Gezi.
The dawn raid was the latest in a series of aggressive crackdown on protests. Human rights activists frequently accuse Turkish police of using inordinate force to break up protests and of excessively using tear gas and pepper spray against protesters.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said that authorities would investigate the reports of disproportionate use of force. Still, he defended the crackdown, saying officers were carrying out their duties against an illegal occupation of the park.
In Istanbul, several protesters were injured when a wall they climbed on collapsed during a police chase, and at least two people — including a journalist — were hit in the head by tear gas canisters. Two opposition legislators were among several hospitalized after being affected by the gas, the private Dogan news agency reported.
Istanbul Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu said 12 people were treated in hospitals for injuries and least 13 people were detained.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US was concerned about the number of people injured as police dispersed protesters.
“We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing,” she told reporters. “These freedoms are crucial to any healthy democracy.”
Psaki said the US was still gathering information about the incident.
There was very little coverage of the protests on television channels in Turkey, reflecting the environment of self-censorship by the media, which has, among other things, been pressured into dismissing staff too critical of the government.
The media rights group Reporters without Borders said the injured journalist, Ahmet Sik, and others were deliberately targeted by police and urged Turkish authorities to halt the “excessive” use of force. A Reuters photographer was also injured.
Amnesty International also deplored what it called Turkish police brutality and said some officers should be brought to justice.
Demonstrators affected by tear gas sought shelter at a luxury hotel at Taksim and were tended by guests. Police removed tents and the demonstrators’ belongings and mounted barricades around the park.
The state-run Anadolu Agency said 15 demonstrators were detained in Ankara.
“The people are demonstrating against the government’s intolerance toward demonstrations,” said Metin Feyzioglu, who heads Turkey’s lawyers’ association, during the protest in Ankara. “The government must display understanding and immediately stop the violence against the demonstrators.”