Riots continue to rage across Istanbul today, where a small and peaceful protest over an urban redevelopment plan has transformed into a violent demonstration against the Turkish government and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Police clashed with thousands of protestors in Istanbul's Taksim Square Friday, with similar movements unfurling across the capital of Ankara and the coastal city of Izmir. Sources on the ground in Istanbul have confirmed to The Verge that police have deployed tear gas and water cannons against protestors, as part of a show of force they describe as violent and heavy-handed.
The unrest is some of the most violent and widespread the country has seen in years. It began on Monday, when a small group of people gathered in Istanbul's Gezi Park to protest a government plan that would see the park demolished and replaced with a shopping mall. The peaceful sit-in continued through Wednesday, when Erdoğan announced that the demolition would continue as planned, while urging protestors to bring their demonstration to an end.
All photos taken on June 1st in Istanbul, provided courtesy of Oğuz Özgül
With demonstrators remaining defiant, Istanbul police staged an early morning raid to forcibly remove them, flooding the surrounding area with tear gas and shooting water cannons at fleeing protestors. The response sparked outrage across the city, as thousands took to the streets in support of the Gezi Park demonstrators. Media reports estimate that tens of thousands gathered in Istanbul's central Taksim Square, with an additional 5,000 staging demonstrations at a park in Ankara.
The Associated Press reported Saturday that police have begun retreating from Taksim Square, citing state-owned media, in a sign that the government may be looking to defuse the conflict. Earlier, Erdoğan delivered a televised speech in which he acknowledged that police may have used excessive force, and vowed to investigate it further. Dogan, a private Turkish news agency, reports that protestors continue to throw objects at the withdrawing police, and that police have responded with more rounds of tear gas.
Many people have been injured, though counts remain uncertain. As Al Jazeera reports, a woman of Palestinian origin was put into intensive care after sustaining brain injuries sustained from a police tear gas canister. As of Friday, at least 60 people had been arrested.
As with similar movements, social media has played a critical role in disseminating information and organizing demonstrations. Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with photos and video, with Twitter users rallying around hashtags such as #occupygezi and #geziparki.
Posts to Twitter have proven particularly insightful, with many users posting harrowing images of violence and chaos. But there remains significant confusion and the risk of misinformation runs high. A picture of people walking across the Bosphorus Bridge, for example, was re-tweeted more than 500 times, but was ultimately determined to have been taken at an earlier time.
There are reports that Twitter and Facebook have since been blocked within the country, and some speculate that the social media sites were targeted by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. Sources in Istanbul tell The Verge that both Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible at the time of this writing, though it remains unclear whether the outage was orchestrated by the government.
Ahmet Kizilay, a 27-year-old Turkish national living near Taksim Square, says central Istanbul has been completely engulfed by the protests.
"[On Friday night], local residents who would not actively participate in the demonstrations started banging on pots and pans to show solidarity," Kizilay said in an email to The Verge. "They continued this type of protest until sunrise. Local shops and hotels offered shelter and water to protesters running from the gas."
Kizilay says the conflict appears to have scaled down by Saturday afternoon, though it may have unforeseen political consequences.
What began as a quiet protest about a city park has since evolved into a wider demonstration against the Erdoğan regime, which many see as authoritative and increasingly conservative. Many have criticized his implicit support of Syrian opposition groups, suspecting that the prime minister is dragging Turkey into an unwanted conflict. In May, Turkish officials blamed the Syrian government for a car bomb attack that killed dozens.
Most of the demonstrators are allied with the opposition Republican People's Party, which had already been planning protests against the government's recently ratified alcohol restrictions — one of several policies that critics see as Islamist and conservative. Erdoğan has also arrested hundreds of military officers for planning a coup against him, while prosecuting academics and journalists on similar grounds.
Yet despite this growing discontent, Erdoğan remains popular throughout much of the country. Turkey's economy has thrived under his tenure, and Erdoğan has spearheaded several ambitious development projects, including the construction of a new shipping canal and airport. And unlike the authoritarian regimes of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and other deposed leaders in the region, Turkey has retained a comparatively democratic and open state.
The US State Department says it is concerned over the violence in Turkey, and that it will continue to monitor and investigate the situation as it unfolds.
"We believe that Turkey's long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Friday.
Additional reporting by T.C. Sottek.
Update 1 (6/3): Demonstrations continued through the weekend in Turkey, as thousands of people took to the streets Sunday in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Adana — the country's four biggest cities. As Reuters reports, Sunday's protests were not as violent as those seen earlier in the week, though police and protestors continued to clash, with authorities using tear gas against demonstrators in Ankara's central Kizilay square.
Reuters reports that things have calmed down in Istanbul's Taksim Square, with protestors singing and chanting for Erdoğan to resign, and police scaling down their presence. But there were clashes near the prime minister's Istanbul office, and the city's Besiktas district.
According to the Dogan news agency, some 500 demonstrators were detained overnight in Ankara on Sunday, while the country's Fox television reports that 300 were detained in Izmir. The BBC reports that in total, more than 1,700 people have been arrested across 67 cities and towns, though most have since been released. Government officials say more than 1,000 have been injured in Istanbul, in addition to "several hundred" in Ankara.
Erdoğan has remained resilient throughout the unrest, taking to national television Sunday to defend his policies, while dismissing protestors as an outspoken minority.
"We will not yield to a few looters coming to that square and provoking our people, our nation, based on their misinformation," the prime minister said in a televised address. Erdoğan insisted that his administration will move forward with its plans for Gezi Park, and brushed aside accusations that he has become more dictatorial.
He defended his government's recent alcohol ban, as well, telling citizens he was only acting in their best interest. "I want them to know that I want these [restrictions] for the sake of their health," he said. "Whoever drinks alcohol is an alcoholic."
"To me, social media is the worst menace to society."
But Erdoğan saved his harshest words for social media sites, targeting Twitter, in particular. "Now we have a menace that is called Twitter," he said. "The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society."
Update 2 (6/3): In a press conference held Monday, Erdoğan once again called for his constituents to remain calm, attributing Turkey's unrest to "extremist elements."
"Be calm, relax, all this will be overcome," the prime minister told reporters in Istanbul before departing for Morocco on official business.
Update 3 (6/4): Officials in Turkey's Hatay province confirmed Tuesday that a 22-year-old man has been shot dead. According to the Associated Press, the man was shot during a demonstration in the city of Antakya, and later died in a hospital. The circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear, though officials implied that he may have been shot by demonstrators, adding that local police had been fired on.
Tuesday's announcement marks the second confirmed death in as many days. On Monday, 20-year-old Mehmet Ayyalitas died after being struck by a taxi that drove into a crowd of demonstrators in Istanbul. The government has determined that Ayyalitas' death was an accident. Eight other demonstrators are in critical condition after being injured in Ankara.
Thousands of public sector workers, meanwhile, announced a two-day strike Tuesday as a show of support for anti-government protestors. As Al Jazeera reports, Turkey's Public Workers Unions Confederation described the strike as a response to "state terror implemented against mass protests across the country." The confederation represents approximately 240,000 workers across eleven unions.
Update 4 (6/5): With protests entering their sixth day, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc met with demonstrators in Istanbul Wednesday, after publicly apologizing for the "excessive violence" used by police in Gezi Park. The Taksim Solidarity group outlined their demands during a press conference held after the meeting, calling for a halt to the demolition of Gezi Park, and an official ban on tear gas.
According to the group, four people have lost their eyes after being with tear gas canisters, and a total of 2,319 people have been injured. Taksim Solidarity is also calling for the resignation of governors and police commissioners in Istanbul, Ankara, and Hatay — where protests have been most violent — as well as the release of all those detained since unrest broke out last week.
A screengrab of occupygezimap.com, a site where visitors can find the nearest hospitals and WiFi access points in Istanbul and Ankara, as well as any cafes or hotels offering assistance
Ezgi Akdağ, a 26-year-old protestor in Istanbul, tells The Verge that the atmosphere at Gezi Park is notably calmer today, likening the scene to a "festival space." Protestors have shown no sign of relenting, ignoring government orders to clear the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, where police once again deployed tear gas and water cannons late Tuesday night. In Izmir, nearly 30 people were arrested Tuesday for posting tweets that authorities say were intended to incite rioting and further unrest.
With Prime Minister Erdoğan on an official visit to North Africa and not expected to return until Thursday, it has fallen upon Arinc to ease tensions in Turkey. On Tuesday, the deputy prime minister formally apologized for his government's response in Gezi Park, promising a change in policy going forward.
"The government has learned its lesson."
"The government has learned its lesson from what happened," Arinc said. "We do not have the right and cannot afford to ignore people. Democracies cannot exist without opposition."
He stopped short, however, of apologizing to those who participated in subsequent demonstrations against the government, limiting his sympathy to those who staged a sit-in at Gezi Park.
"The ones who caused the destruction to the public property and the ones who are trying to restrict people's freedoms, we do not need to apologize," Al Jazeera quotes him as saying.
According to the latest figures released by the Turkish Medical Association, a total of 4,177 people have been treated for injuries across the country as of Tuesday evening, 43 of which are described as severe cases. The association also says that 15 people have been treated for severe head trauma, and ten have lost an eye.
Update 5 (6/6): Prime Minister Erdoğan is scheduled to return to Turkey today, following a three-day visit to North Africa. It's not clear whether Erdoğan will deliver an address immediately upon his return, though those within his party are warning his supporters against showing up to welcome him home.
"The prime minister does not need a show of strength."
"Nobody should take it upon themselves to go and greet the prime minister in this situation," Hüseyin Çelik, deputy chairman of Erdoğan's AK party, said in a televised interview. "The prime minister does not need a show of strength."
A Bob Ross-inspired protest poster. The text loosely translates as, "Maybe there is a little mall here..."
As the Guardian reports, Istanbul saw relative calm overnight, though protestors continued to clash with police in the province of Tunceli, erecting barricades and hurling stones at officers. Similar unrest broke out in Ankara, and in both situations, police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
In a press conference delivered in Tunis, Tunisia Wednesday, Erdoğan remained defiant against calls for change, reaffirming his administration's plans to develop Istanbul's Taksim square. Standing alongside Tunisian counterpart Ali al-Urayyid, Erdoğan once again dismissed protestors as "extremists," and reiterating his calls for calm.
Erdoğan's remarks come after reports that a Turkish policeman had died earlier Wednesday after falling into an underpass while trying to break up a protest in Adana. Turkish stock markets plunged precipitously as soon as Erdoğan began speaking.
According to BBC Turkey, Erdoğan is expected to arrive at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport at 9 PM local time (2 PM ET).