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Istanbul in lockdown

Another sleepless night in Istanbul as thousands of people take to the streets to oppose Erdogan's increasingly brutal regime.

Jon Wiltshire
16 June 2013
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Protestors took to the streets against the government after police forcibly evicted them from Gezi Park following days of demonstrations.Miguel Carminati/Demotix

Istanbul did not sleep last night. Those protesting Erdogan's majoritarian yet increasingly brutal rule have been marching towards riot police lines throughout the Sunday 16 June. Large anti- and pro-government rallies are planned for this afternoon, with many ordinary Turks fearing injuries and arrests this evening. Last night, the city was on lockdown, with bridges closed, taxis refusing to take people to flash-point districts, and today, reports of police roaming the streets targeting those wearing gas masks and helmets.

In an incendiary speech on Saturday, Erdogan issued his third and 'final' warning to protesters, "leave". Within two hours, Gezi Park, the site of a twenty-day occupation that has come to symbolise frustration with Erdogan's near-totemic influence over the state apparatus, as well as increased indignation over police brutality, was bulldozed. What followed was unprecedented: despite cancelled ferries across the Bosphorus, little transport in the city, and closed bridges, thousands walked towards Taksim Square, clashing with police and calling on Erdogan to resign. As dawn broke this morning, you could hear crowds' chanting throughout the city, their voices echoing against the city's buildings.

Thousands were out. It's too early to say how many, and Turkish media coverage of these protests has been notably lacklustre, but, like my Turkish friends, being in the street or glued to Twitter, it was obvious that police were struggling to contain the crowds. I was on Istiklal, one of Istanbul's main shopping streets and a major thoroughfare to Taksim Square, which was rammed with what looked like several thousand angry citizens, gas masks and helmets at the ready, calling for an end to the police violence that they feel directly stems from Erdogan's fiery rhetoric.

The Taksim Solidarity Platform later confirmed around 150 of those on the streets last night were injured, with higher numbers being reported by the Turkish Medical Union and others. Although unconfirmed, reports from trusted journalists were suggesting that the 'water' cannons were spraying a chemical that burned the skin. Hundreds have suffered overexposure to tear gas. In a bizarre and worrying scene, the luxury Divan hotel on Taksim Square, which housed protesters who had been sheltering after the police raid, was laid siege to, with gas canisters reportedly being thrown into the enclosed hotel lobby. Many more have been arrested and detained with young Turkish lawyers trying and failing to find and provide legal aid for friends. There is a notable silence from the Government over last night's events.

It's clear Erdogan underestimated people's indignation. Deciding to rule through division, it seems his version of "national unity", touted in Saturday's pro-government rally in Ankara, must be achieved through police force. Early this morning, military vehicles were aiding police efforts. For many, images of the military in the city echoed Turkey's history of military interventionism in civil matters. Although, like the police, the military answer to the Minister of the Interior, the fact that ordinary police capacity couldn't sufficiently hold the protesters is testament to the accumulating anger felt by a large cross-section of the city's residents. 

Throughout the night, those saying at home banged pots and pans to support those on the street. And it's not just in Istanbul: in solidarity with the raid on Gezi Park, and protesting their own experiences of police brutality, Ankara's streets were thronged with protesters, as well as other major cities across the country.

Most commentators on Turkey's rapid economic and political development over the last ten years are worried. Many Turks are saddened by last night's events, which have continued throughout today. Turkey's prized democratic system seems to have been unable to tolerate peaceful protests, and brutal policing have led to barricades, burning cars, tear gas bombardments and arrests. Erdogan's handling of the situation has spooked markets, and damaged Istanbul's booming tourism industry.
  
So what's his strategy? Erdogan has made it clear that he will rule through uncompromising combativeness. In his eyes, it seems his legacy and future bid for the office of Presidency depends on it. His aggressive stance is ill-advised, and it encourages more -- not less -- people to take to the streets in defiance. Today -- Sunday -- will see a pro-government rally organised in Istanbul, with special transport arrangements for the party faithful. Yet, without transport and despite the guarantee of heavy handed policing, anti-government protesters will also rally around Taksim Square this afternoon. After seeing and hearing the crowds last night in a chaotic, panicked city, it will be a miracle if tonight isn't another sleepless one.

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