Defiant Gezi Park Protesters Keep Turkish P.M. Erdogan at Bay

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

Two weeks into nationwide anti-government protests, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally met with demonstrators’ representatives late on Thursday night in an apparent bid to seek compromise on a controversial plan to redevelop a center city park that sparked the unrest. As talks began, police and demonstrators clashed in the capital Ankara, while in Istanbul thousands of protesters defied official warnings to pack into Gezi Park, the occupied epicenter of their movement.

Erdogan said that Gezi Park would remain as it is until a court ruling on whether a plan to raze it and replace it with a faux Ottoman-era barracks and commercial development is lawful. The gesture was largely symbolic since the government is in any case required by law to uphold court rulings on a case brought by environmentalists trying to stop the redevelopment scheme. The park, a rare pocket of green space in crowded downtown Istanbul, is a cultural and natural heritage site, activists argue.

It was the most conciliatory Erdogan has been in the two weeks since protests first broke out in response to a violent police crackdown on peaceful activists in Gezi Park on May 28. He previously dismissed protestors as vandals, extremists and part of an international conspiracy to undermine Turkey. But that hardline approach has hurt Erdogan’s standing abroad—with many linking his heavy-handed behavior to that of the ousted Arab autocrats he decried during 2011’s Arab Spring upheavals—and slowed the economy.

If the court ruled in favor of the project, he told a group of artists and protesters’ representatives, the government would put the issue to an Istanbul-wide referendum.

But he also told protesters to clear the park. And whether his offer would appease the largely youthful crowd of demonstrators—who have spent two weeks encamped there in tough conditions, withstanding clouds of tear gas—was uncertain. Many are still chafing at police violence—three people died in the Istanbul protests and thousands have been wounded, mostly with tear gas-related injuries. “We basically thought we were going to die here in the park,” says Tekin Deniz, 29, a volunteer, speaking of repeated tear gas attacks on the protesters on Tuesday night. The Taksim Solidarity Platform, an activist group speaking for the demonstrators, said they would announce their decision on Saturday. On Friday night they were due to hold a memorial service for people killed in the protests.

Earlier in the day, Erdogan had issued his ‘last warning’ against protesters to clear the park. “That Gezi Park, they say it’s in the name of environmentalism, but it’s filthy,” he told a group of municipal officials. “It stinks of pee.”

Gezi has become a rallying point for tens of thousands of government dissenters who took to the streets as footage of police violence against a handful of peaceful activists trying to protect its trees went viral. Nationalists, Kurds, feminists, gay activists, trade unions and soccer fans united for the first time against Erdogan, a widely popular politician currently serving a third term. They cite his increasingly authoritarian manner, anti-environmental policies and attempts to introduce Islamist influences into private life. (Mainly Muslim Turkey has been strictly secular since it was founded in 1923.)

Between five to ten thousand people, mostly in their twenties, have camped out at the Park for more than two weeks. They have set up a shared, free space with everything from free food to a library, infirmary and outdoor movie screen. Every night, their ranks swell by thousands more. The atmosphere is free-spirited and festive — on Thursday night, a German pianist set up his grand piano in the center of the Square as thousands of people sang along to the Beatles’ “Let it Be.”

“Gezi has been a turning point for Turks,” says Kutlug Ataman, a well-known artist and filmmaker. “It has created a shift in public consciousness.”

Erdogan said earlier that he would not tolerate the occupation any longer. “Please attend to your children,” he said, addressing parents. “Pull them back. Otherwise we cannot wait any longer because Gezi Park does not belong to occupying forces.” Despite the warning, thousands returned to the park in the evening. A group of mothers formed a human chain around the entrance to the park. “You told us to come and get our kids,” they shouted. “Here we are!”