The protests began on May 28th after police attempted to disperse a small group of people blocking the removing trees in Gezi Park. Turkish authorities used tear gas to remove protesters, who lamented the loss of green space to the construction of a new shopping mall. The demonstrations grew along with public outcry as security forces used more violent tactics, such as a water cannon against people in the streets. Helicopters also fired tear gas in residential areas as YouTube videos show an armored police truck ramming a protester. While the government claims to have detained more than 1,700 people in 67 towns and cities, the Turkish Medical Association states 3,195 people were injured in clashes.
A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas as people protest against the destruction of trees in a park brought about by a pedestrian project, in Taksim Square in central Istanbul May 28, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
The Turkish police’s strong use of force further escalated tensions. Turkish leaders expressed mixed reactions to the unrest while the international community conveyed concern. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed the protesters but his deputy struck a more conciliatory tone. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologized for the use for “excessive force” towards the original protesters in Gezi Park, but also said that the unrest has been hijacked by “terrorist elements.” The European Union, U.S., and human rights groups voiced unease over the government’s heavy-handed tactics. A U.S. State Department spokesman said “Peaceful public demonstrations are a part of democratic expression.” EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton said in a statement she “regrets disproportionate use of force by members of the Turkish police.”
The simple sit-in at Gezi Park, a long time rallying point for demonstrations, has helped give voice to people opposing to the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). Specifically, the AKP is viewed as authoritarian by many secular middle-class Turks. Erdoğan has headed Turkey for around ten years, and while term limited, Erdoğan remains popular and hopes to run for President. Over the last decade, the AKP has improved Turkey’s economy, but much of the progress has come at the price of decreased consensus among moderate Turks. The protesters want “a majority middle class that cherishes individual rights and the environment” according to Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute. That flies in the face of the recent restrictions on alcohol in the historically secular state enacted by the AKP.