After a Violent Weekend Crackdown, Turkey Braces for More Chaos

As Turkey’s defiant Prime Minister speaks before a crowd of hundreds of thousands, defending his decision to clear Gezi Park and vowing to settle accounts with opponents, a new wave of protests grips Istanbul

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BULENT KILIC / AFP / Getty Images

A protester throws back a tear-gas canister at riot police during clashes between police and demonstrators in the streets adjacent to Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 16, 2013

On Sunday morning, neighborhoods across Istanbul woke up to what has by now become a hauntingly familiar smell — tear gas. Before dawn, clouds of it enveloped the Bosporus Bridge, as riot police confronted hundreds of protesters trying to reach the city’s European shore. Around Taksim Square and Gezi Park, where renewed clashes erupted on Saturday night, its stink, combined with that of garbage left uncollected, infested the summer sea breeze.

Outside the Divan Hotel, just north of Gezi, where groups of protesters sheltered throughout the night, and where police responded by firing tear gas into the lobby, dozens of exhausted, bleary-eyed young men and women camped out on the sidewalk. “They gassed people just in front of the entrance,” Halit Eke, 24, a university student, told me. “They were picking their targets and shooting plastic bullets and gas canisters straight at us. There were children inside, mothers and even pregnant women.”

“The hotel people took us inside, as guests, filling up to the fourth floor. We were trapped in a huge gas capsule and couldn’t get out,” he said. As he spoke, a column of police officers passed in front of the building. The protesters booed them and whistled. “We won’t go until we’ve taken back Gezi,” said Eke.

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

Barely a day earlier, the mass antigovernment protests that erupted after a police crackdown against a handful of young activists opposed to the planned demolition of Gezi Park, a small and rare green space in Istanbul, appeared to be calming. On Friday after a two-week confrontation, Turkey’s hitherto intransigent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had finally yielded some ground to the protesters. The demolition of Gezi, he announced after a tense, lengthy meeting with a small group of civil-society representatives, would be suspended until a court ruled on its legality.

The Gezi Park occupiers, insisting that it was too late for such concessions, and that the protests were now about much more than the fate of the tiny park, refused to budge. Five people, including a police officer, have died and more than 7,000 have been injured since the protests began. “We are going through a period in which the rights of people, including right to life, are trodden,” the Taksim Solidarity Platform, which represents the protesters, said in a statement released on Saturday. The protest leaders vowed to continue the park’s occupation and to press for legal action against those officials responsible for the violence, as well as the release of all protesters in police custody. Amnesty International has since reported that the whereabouts of about 70 people detained by police remain unknown. It also cited “consistent and credible reports of demonstrators being beaten by police during arrest and transfer to custody and being denied access to food, water and toilet facilities for up to 12 hours.”

Saturday also saw Erdogan, speaking before tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in Ankara, compare the protesters to “thugs” and announce that his patience had given out. “I address the protesters at Taksim,” he said. “If Gezi Park is not cleared, then this country’s security forces know how to clear it.” The Prime Minister also claimed to be in possession of evidence that the protests, aside from being led by “terrorists and illegal organizations,” were part of an international plot. “We will make public documents that show the real issue was not Gezi Park,” he said. “This is a process coordinated from inside and outside the country.”

(MORE: An Uneasy Calm in Istanbul as Protests Continue at Taksim Square)

On Saturday evening, Erdogan lived up to his word. Shortly after dusk, riot police fired tear gas and water cannons in and around Taksim, charged into Gezi Park, and demolished tents and barricades raised by the protesters. Clashes raged in the area, and on the Bosporus Bridge, late into the night.

The next day, after protesters called for a “million-man march” on Taksim, and after the authorities had partially shut down public transport across the city, thousands of people moved toward the square, defying a government minister who warned that anyone approaching the area would be treated “as a terrorist.” At the same time, hundreds of municipal buses ferried ruling-party supporters to a rally — dubbed “The Respect for the National Will” — held by the Prime Minister in Kazlicesme, a neighborhood about 10 km from the city center. At an intersection near the Galata Bridge, the two groups squared off. A protester hurled a plastic bottle onto the side of one bus, before being told off and restrained by the others. A group of young men whistled, booed and taunted the passengers by waving bank notes near the bus windows. As the buses reached Kazlicesme, and as thousands of Erdogan’s supporters spilled into a large square to await the Prime Minister’s speech, a chant went up among them. “This is Turkey, and where are the looters?” The chasm between the two groups had never looked wider.

As evening began to fall on Taksim, protesters clad in construction helmets and surgical masks marched up through side streets to try to retake the square, only to be swept back, time and time again, by yet more tear gas. Locals leaned out of their windows, banging pots and pans in support of the demonstrators. A phalanx of policemen in riot gear chased a crowd of several hundred young people toward the Golden Horn, rounding up those lagging behind. Istanbul, and all of Turkey, braced for more chaos.

VIDEO: Police Renew Sweep Through Istanbul Square