After nearly six days of police crackdowns and a bitter morning of pouring rain, protesters in Taksim Square's Gezi Park -- the heart of one of Turkey's largest protest movements in a decade -- staged an early morning clean up, coordinating a small municipal miracle with city crews who helped tidy the park and surrounding neighborhoods upended by days of clashes.
Protesters say the goodwill effort is a sign they are digging in their heels as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged again on Sunday in a speech at the opening of the new Ottoman archives in Fatih to go ahead with plans to build a replica of Ottoman-era barracks atop Gezi Park -- a roundly criticized project that this week kicked off days of mass protests in İstanbul, Ankara and the Aegean city of İzmir.
In his speech, Erdoğan accused “thugs” and the country's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) for the violence, and insisted that the city would go ahead with the project and other government plans for redeveloping the iconic square. Those plans would include the construction of an opera house and a mosque near the square, plans for which the prime minister said: “We don't need the CHP's permission. We already have the permission of those who voted for us.” He later repeated similar remarks early Sunday evening, speaking to the Habertürk news channel. Those words did little to win over demonstrators. “This protest is about more than the park, it's about how the government is using its power in an intolerable way. So it is unbelievable that Erdoğan isn't even compromising on the park,” said demonstrator and Mimar Sinan University student Ege Söner. While handing trash bags down a chain of demonstrators, Söner said the protesters' “main goal now is to keep as peaceful and as focused as possible. It's the only way we can win.”
Demonstrators are indeed playing a game of public image, and those who braved the rain on Sunday morning condemned the considerable vandalism visited on stores and offices in Taksim last night by what they say were “marginal groups” and drunken youth. Throughout late Saturday night, this correspondent watched as small groups of men threw pavement at storefronts and smashed ATMs on İstiklal Street, an activity impeded by scattered clusters of volunteers who confronted vandals or guarded damaged stores to prevent looting.
“We're not for destruction; we want something new in Turkish politics,” said one volunteer who was guarding the badly smashed facade of a Pizza Hut. Protesters flooded into Taksim and Gezi Park yesterday after police, who had prevented demonstrators from entering the central district with a withering rain of tear gas and water canons, withdrew amid wide international criticism for using excessive force during the protest. Yesterday was the first time a public demonstration has been allowed in Taksim Square since May 1, when police clashed with groups who also tried to rally in the square.
Taksim's tourist areas were largely open on Sunday after hours of cleaning by municipal workers and volunteers, and shops received tourists while foreigners and Turks alike snapped photos of ubiquitous anti-government graffiti.
Videos of Turkish police beating protesters and severely injuring individuals with water cannons or tear gas canisters, as well as a video of a police vehicle slamming into a demonstrator, have earned the police harsh condemnation from foreign governments, press and rights groups like Amnesty International. According to the Turkish Doctors' Association, over 1,000 demonstrators have been reported injured in clashes in İstanbul. EU parliament member Hannes Swoboda on Saturday called on Erdoğan to “contribute to social peace and not conflicts by politically motivated projects and police violence,” a call that Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç seemed to agree with that day. He told the press, “I see benefit in telling people about the project ... instead of spraying pepper gas at them.”
Those words still didn't end the use of tear gas or other methods of crowd control by police, who on Saturday evening were locked in sustained clashes with protesters in the İstanbul district of Beşiktaş. There, police skirmished with a massive crowd of protesters on a street lined with boutique shops and art galleries, while water cannons and a constant torrent of gas kept protesters from advancing beyond the walls of the historic Dolmabahçe Palace. The use of gas there and in districts in Ankara and İzmir saw Erdoğan advisor İbrahim Kalın grilled on an Al-Jazeera broadcast late on Saturday evening. Kalın stated that police had been ordered not to use tear gas, while a live broadcast by the news group showed panicked demonstrators in Beşiktaş running from a steady cloud of chemicals.
A peaceful Sunday would be in keeping with president Abdullah Gül's call on Saturday for both sides to display “maturity” in the coming days. Gül told the press that protesters should act “in accordance with the law,” while he reprimanded police and authorities who he said hadn't exerted “serious efforts to lend an ear to differing opinions and concerns.”
But as protesters dig in, there is little doubt that anger hasn't subsided, with the protesters and common İstanbulites lamenting issues broader than Gezi Park. Chief among the issues has been the state of the national media. While protests were growing in Taksim on Friday and Saturday, pro-government dailies Sabah and Yeni Şafak made no mention of the Gezi Park events and broadcast news groups were largely silent -- rather than protests, CNN Türk showed a documentary about penguins late Saturday night. “Why this silence? Why can't we be informed like adults,” asked Ozan Şahin, a night clerk at one of the many hotels that opened its doors to protesters during the Saturday demonstrations.
Aside from most protesters' general anti-government attitude, many say their grievances are with the flood of massive infrastructure projects inaugurated this year that threaten to dramatically remake the city and remove prime, green spaces. Those projects include newly approved plans for a third Bosporus bridge, plans to build the world's largest airport north of İstanbul at the expense of 2 million trees, the construction of a 30-mile canal to divert shipping from the Bosporus, the recent leveling of the historic Emek cinema, an urban renewal project that has demolished hundreds of historic buildings in the district of Tarlıbaşı, a mosque project in Çamlıca that saw little public input over design or location, a massive land reclamation project on the coast of the historic Golden Horn district of Yenikapı and “Galataport,” a renovation project which would develop a stretch of Bosporus warehouses into rows of sleek malls and apartments.
“How can so many things be approved democratically when nobody is informed, consulted or allowed to debate?” asked Söner. “In İstanbul and nationally, we need to be able to discuss, to debate and to compromise.”