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Occupiers Faced Down Cops in Istanbul’s Taksim Square
On the night of May 27, bulldozers and backhoes rolled into Gezi Park, a tiny island of trees and grass at the center of Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, and started ripping it apart. This was part of a government project to “pedestrianize” the historic square—what that meant in this case, according to many blogs, was turning one of the last open green spaces in the city into a shopping mall. No community organizations or local people were asked what they thought about the plans for the park devised by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which included rebuilding a historical barracks that was demolished in the 1940s and adding sidewalks to make the square more friendly to pedestrians.
Four days later, after nonviolent protesters occupied the park and survived attacks by the police that included tear gas and water cannons, they’ve won at least a temporary victory thanks to a court decision. In fact, Instanbul’s mayor, Kadir Topbaş, just announced that there was never any plan to build a mall. It’s an amazing eleventh-hour turnaround, but it didn’t happen without a battle.
Protesters began gathering in the park as early as Monday, May 27, and word spread through social media as more pro-park, anti-government Turks showed up to sit in front of the bulldozers. By Wednesday, the police were involved, and they responded to the nonviolent protests with aggressive tactics—what really got everyone’s attention was a photo from Reuters showing a young, apparently peaceful environmentalist in a red dress getting pepper-sprayed by a gas-masked cop. That image became a symbol of the “occupation” of Gezi Park, as well as the cops’ terrorization of the protesters.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the AKP wasn’t interested in starting a dialogue with the occupation and gave a speech on Wednesday that made it clear that a decision on the park’s fate had already been made. By then, many protesters had set up camp at the park and were sleeping in their tents. At dawn on Thursday, May 30, the police entered the park, firing tear gas and burning tents. The bulldozers were stopped, however, when opposition politicians Sırrı Sureyya Önder and Gülseren Onanç stood in front of them and demanded to see proper permits.
Even with the police using pepper spray as if it were bug repellent, the occupation continued, and even grew. On Thursday, photos of protesters reading to the police spread around the internet, and those who are involved in the occupation say they are committed to nonviolence.