John Last
Last updated: 12 June, 2013

The truce has been broken

John Last reports from the latest Turkish clashes. As seen on TV screens across the world, it's been yet another teary night for Istanbul's "chapulchus."

Police blanketed Istanbul’s Taksim Square and adjacent Gezi Park in a thick fog of tear gas more than once Tuesday as police carried out an operation to retake the square’s public face, the facade of the Ataturk Culture Center (AKM) and monument to Kemal Ataturk, founder of republican Turkey.

But this time, in a new and potentially dangerous development, protesters fought back.

Istanbul awoke today to reports of protesters using molotov cocktails on police moving into Taksim to remove political banners hung on the AKM and monument. Protest organizers furiously denied involvement, alleging police instigators perpetrated the violence.

Clashes began again around noon after police had cleared the banners, leaving only a portrait of Ataturk and a Turkish flag. A large group of police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on a largely docile crowd while trying to cross the square, after an altercation with protesters led to rocks and bottles being thrown.

Taksim quickly degenerated into a warzone of tear gas and debris. An elderly man tried to climb onto one of the fearsome TOMA crowd control tanks, waving for others to join him, as protesters built impromptu barriers under pressure from water cannons.

Young men hid behind tourist booths, slinging rocks and casting bottles at the tanks and officers behind.

In adjacent Recep Pasa Avenue, currently a half-completed construction site, protesters built, burned, and rebuilt barricades under a constant barrage of tear gas. At its height, more than 200 people hurled bottles and stones from Gezi’s western escarpment while supporters beat war drums, trying to prevent police from shooting canisters into the park.

Teenage boys bared their chests and threw rocks at nearby water cannons, deftly dodging their streams, while older ultras in football jerseys chastised them for drawing unwanted attention.

Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu had previously said the police operation would not involve the park, where hundreds of protesters are encamped. Despite this, police entered the park around 2 P.M., gassing some areas, though they withdrew shortly thereafter.

The clashes certainly suggested an increased sense of militancy among the protesters, which is protective of the growing sense of permanence in Gezi Park. Those using slingshots and throwing bottles were wearing the colours of opposition groups like the Communist Workers’ Party of Turkey (TKIP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), but also of defunct or banned political parties and the ever-present black flag of anarchy.

Even Istanbul’s LGBTQ community were represented on the front lines. One protester carried a pride flag out into the no man’s land between the TOMA tanks and the protesters’ burning barricade, deftly dodging water cannons and canisters of tear gas fired from across the divide.

Taksim and Gezi has been the site of historic protests against the conservative government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for almost two weeks. The government has maintained a harsh stance against the protests, rejecting demands for an end to tear gassing, censorship and development in Gezi Park.

It was Erdogan’s plan to reconstruct an Ottoman-era barracks on the site of Istanbul’s last urban green space that sparked the protests in the first place, a plan he shows no signs of discontinuing.

The move to remove the banners marks an end to the more than week-long truce between police and protesters that saw Taksim Square transformed into a festival-like “freetown.”

Erdogan has maintained a hard line, demanding protesters clear the streets in Istanbul and across the country, where sympathy protests have drawn thousands and been subject to similar police violence.

His move to remove the banners may have been an effort to prevent opposition or radical parties from “branding” the protests with their name, or it may have been an excuse to show police muscle after weeks of peace.

Either way, it indicates the bullish Erdogan of past weeks has not changed after his four-day trip abroad.

In the park today, I saw at least six protesters injured, and one police officer. I was personally gassed more than five times in the space of four hours, despite protesters returning dozens of the canisters that landed around me.

There is a real possibility, with protesters concentrated in Gezi Park, that police could clear the protest by tomorrow with heavy gassing. With potentially thousands heading to Gezi for tonight’s rally, however, it won’t be easy.

For now, it’s another teary night for Istanbul’s “chapulchus.”

John Last is a Canadian freelance journalist in Istanbul covering the protests.