‘Escalating Force’

Taksim Square Showdown, as Police Forcefully Clear Gezi Park

After seeming to reach a peaceful understanding with protesters, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reverses course, again, and has police clear the park. Mike Giglio reports.

06.15.13 7:48 PM ET

Just days after protesters and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to reach an agreement to halt a planned mall-development project in Gezi Park and Taksim Square, the last remaining green space in central Istanbul, police cleared the park by force Saturday evening. The move—the latest reversal in approach by an administration that’s seemed unable to hold a course of action in response to the now 17-day-old protests—came after Erdogan, addressing a crowd of about 10,000 supporters at a rally in Ankara, announced:

“This state is not your plaything. It is not. I am sorry.” He aimed his message at his opponents in Istanbul, the nation’s largest city: “If it is not emptied, from now on, this country’s security forces will know how to empty that place.”

Just moments later, at about 8 p.m. local time, police loudspeakers in Taksim Square began issuing warnings for protesters to leave Gezi: “Please vacate the park, or increasing force will be used." The park and square in one of the more affluent sections of the booming city had appeared to return to a more normal state in recent days after the government agreed to hold off on its development plans until a court ruling on them and, if the plan was found legal, to allow for a city-wide referendum before proceeding. So the Park and Square were filled not only with protesters, but tourists and families milling about, shopping, eating at pricey restaurants and taking in the scene, unsure what to make of the warnings. Earlier in the day, city workers had been painting over the remaining graffiti left by the protesters. Even after the loudspeakers’ warnings, a mood of waiting prevailed for about 30 more minutes. Erdogan has issued such ultimatums in the past, only to change course.

But, the crowd-control vehicles started revving up, and the police began preparing to move forward.

Protesters massed at the entrance of the park and chanted: “Everyone is Taksim. Everyone is resistance.” At the front entrance of the park, protesters formed a human chain as a man with a gas mask atop his head walked up and down their line, warning them to do nothing to provoke the heavily geared police, who minutes later began moving steadily forward. Ahead of the advancing police, a spray of tear-gas-laced water fired from high-pressure hoses helped to thin the ranks of the protesters, and the front line of police, using their shields as wedges, broke the line of those who remained, which offered no violent resistance, as trailing police took down tents the protesters had pitched. This reporter saw one woman dragged from her tent, screaming, by riot police.

Another middle-aged woman, a teacher, sat amid the just-wrecked canvas and poles strewn about, sobbing in anger and screaming at the swarming riot police, “Why?!”

One 22-year-old university student, who was afraid to give his name, said he and his friends had been in their tents when the raid commenced. "We opened the tents and we saw the cops immediately," he said. "The prime minister said we had 24 hours to evacuate the park, but an hour later he did it. There were little kids and old people there." The park had been full of families and children earlier on Saturday, with activists hosting children’s events such as painting workshops.

Smaller groups of protesters continued trying to form nonviolent masses to slow the police, but the officers sprayed those groups with tear-gas and used their shields to break them up.

With police now holding the park, crowds have massed on the streets throughout the area, engaging in sporadic street fights with officers, shooting fireworks at them, and being sprayed with tear gas in exchange.

The gas even seeped into the swank Divan hotel, just off of the park, where the first two floors were converted to a makeshift medical aid station over the past two weeks—providing care for smaller injuries while ambulances outside are transporting more seriously wounded protesters to hospitals. Volunteer doctors working at the aid station said that most of the injuries had been related to the tear gas, and that some patients had had allergic reactions to it, or perhaps pepper spray. Police were massed at the edges of the park and keeping anyone from entering. When one doctor from the aid station tried to enter to treat an injured man inside, he said police took away his gas mask, forcing him to work through the fumes without it.

As this report was filed, both police and protesters had massed in a standoff at the hotel’s entrance. A mother—it was unclear if she was a protester or a tourist—holding a toddler with a surgical mask burst through the crowd outside the hotel and into a taxi. A boy of about 10, who had been overcome by tear gas, was brought by stretcher from the hotel to an ambulance wearing just a T-shirt and underwear.

In his speech in Ankara, Erdogan said the demonstrators would not negotiate in good faith, according to CNN. "We have reached out with our hands," he said. "However, some people returned their fists in response. Can you shake hands with those who reach out with a fist?"

Erdogan has another mass rally with his supporters planned for Istanbul Sunday, which the student saw as the reason for the eviction’s timing: "He has his two meetings today and tomorrow, and he wants to show force."