In increasingly violent episodes, protesters clashed with police this week in a park located in one of Istanbul’s busiest commercial hubs. A crowd began to occupy the Taksim Gezi Park on Monday in an attempt to protect the public space and its trees from bulldozers that had begun to clear the site for construction of a shopping mall. On Thursday morning, police used tear gas on the crowd and set afire their tents. But crowds only increased during the next 24 hours, and an early morning teargas raid on Friday resulted in over 100 injuries, some serious, according to the Istanbul Medical Chamber.
Taksim Gezi Park. (Courtesy Bing Maps)
Occupation of the park, which is located near one of the city’s busiest commercial centers, quickly became symbolic of a much larger issue: the current government’s lack of tolerance for free speech in public. Attempts by the police to clear the occupiers over several days only drew larger and larger crowds in support the protesters. The Guardian noted that a dearth of coverage of this week’s events in the mainstream Turkish media suggested that the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had exerted undue influence over press and television to play down the unrest. The Taksim metro station was temporarily closed following the clashes.
Amnesty International issued a release denouncing the actions of the police, while a joint statement of the groups Urban Movements Istanbul and Habitat International Coalition implored international press to shine a light on the events and also called on the Olympic Committee to remove Istanbul from its list of cities being considered for the summer 2020 games, arguing that photo and video documentation of the police violence “ are enough proof of how the government violates the ideals of the Olympics.”Rendering of the Topçu Barracks Project.
As of Friday evening, a local court had suspended further construction activity on the shopping mall, known as the Topçu Barracks Project after the army barracks originally housed on the site. Taksim Gezi Park, having been cleared by the police, remains closed to the public. But the protests, now anti-government in nature, have spread beyond the city to the Turkish capital of Ankara, where 5,000 people gathered in the streets on Friday. Al Jazeera followed the events on its live stream page.