An Uneasy Calm in Istanbul as Protests Continue at Taksim Square

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Near Taksim's Gezi Park in Istanbul, on June 12, 2013, hours after riot police invaded the square.

After a night spent under clouds of police tear gas, protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park on Wednesday cleaned up the debris, fortified their encampment, dressed their wounds and said they would stay on. Though Turkey’s government has vowed to end protests it says were co-opted by extremists, the park is home to a colorful group of hundreds of young people at the heart of a bid to save the site from a controversial redevelopment scheme that has led to antigovernment demonstrations nationwide.

An uneasy calm reigned over the square, littered with burned-out vans and rubble. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the protests would end within 24 hours. “I have given the orders to the Interior Minister,” he told members of a shopkeepers’ union. Riot police moved into Taksim on Tuesday wielding tear gas and water cannons but did not enter the crowded park. Taksim Solidarity, a loose coalition of groups represented in the park, said overnight teargassing had ended any possible dialogue with the government. Erdogan on Wednesday met with a group of protest sympathizers, including an actress and a singer, to discuss the protests, but many demonstrators said that meeting was unrelated to their action.

In Gezi Park, protesters continued to make and distribute their own food (supplies arrive daily from hundreds of supporters), run their own infirmary and keep up routines like daily trash collection. At the back of the park, gardeners tended rows of tomatoes and peppers, some trampled earlier as people fled tear gas the previous night. “We came here because of nature, to save the trees,” says Ayse, a volunteer. “This vegetable garden is a symbol of that. The protests are about policies which don’t leave a drop of green space in our cities.”

(PHOTOS: Protests Rile Istanbul as Police and Protesters Clash)

Gezi is the epicenter of protests that have rocked Turkey over the past two weeks. They began over government plans to raze the park and build an Ottoman barracks cum commercial development in its place. After footage showing trees being uprooted and police violently attacking a peaceful sit-in went viral, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. The sit-in in the park grew into an occupation uniting dissidents of all stripes protesting Erdogan’s increasingly heavy-handed rule. Protests spread to other cities and met with police intervention. Clashes continued in the capital Ankara on Tuesday night.

The upheaval in Istanbul’s city center has put the government in a tight spot. Tourism is suffering and the economy is under pressure. Hundreds of lawyers packed the entrance hall of Istanbul’s main Palace of Justice on Wednesday, chanting slogans to protest the detention of 47 colleagues a day earlier in a demonstration supporting the Gezi Park protests.

The U.S. has expressed concern about events in Turkey and urged dialogue between the government and protesters. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Wednesday the Turkish government was sending the wrong signal at home and abroad in its reaction to protests. “We expect Prime Minister Erdogan to de-escalate the situation, in the spirit of European values, and to seek a constructive exchange and peaceful dialogue,” Westerwelle said.

Just across from the park at the elegant Divan Hotel, tourists and demonstrators mingled incongruously. Downstairs, volunteer medics have turned its conference room into a makeshift infirmary for wounded demonstrators. Two portable hospital beds with IV drips are parked by the door. Walls are lined with boxes of medical supplies: antacid solutions and burn creams to ease gas injuries, as well as muscle relaxants, bandages and painkillers.

“We have been functioning like an emergency ward,” says Ugur Erol, a doctor who took vacation time to support the protesters’ cause. On Tuesday, she said, they treated hundreds of people as police lobbed tear gas for some 20 hours straight.

An unprecedented spirit of volunteerism has kept the protest going. Young students in jeans and white jackets, gas masks and goggles at the ready, busily compile an inventory of supplies. Downstairs in the hotel car park, streams of people from across the city arrive to drop off supplies. At noon, office workers from nearby businesses made their way there at lunchtime laden with bags of toilet paper, bread, cleaning supplies and more.

The protests have had a seismic impact across Turkey; in Gezi, a new generation of Turkish dissent has come of age. A study by Istanbul’s Bilgi University of people camped out in the park found that some 60% have no prior political affiliation. Most are under the age of 30. Old fault lines shifted as gay activists, Kurds, nationalists, feminists and conservative Muslims pitched tents next to one another and shared food, as well as first aid.

“There is a new political dynamic that has emerged,” says Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). He was part of a group of CHP deputies who spent Tuesday night under tear gas in Gezi Park. The CHP trades on the outsize legacy of Turkey’s Westernizing founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and has long been accused of failing to adapt to the times. “It has prompted a real internal self-critique. We need to develop a political language based not on old political fault lines but new issues like environmentalism, pluralism and respect of everyone’s way of life.”

A profound shift may be taking place but, for the moment, the only changing ground that matters is still at a small, occupied park in central Istanbul.