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Occupy Gezi: Turkish Protests Continue Into Their Fifth Day Despite Violent Police Crackdown

Protests in Turkey continue to rage today, with demonstrators taking to the streets in cities across the country to voice their outrage at the Turkish government. What initially began on Monday as a peaceful protest against the demolition of Taksim's Gezi Park in Istanbul has widened following the violent police response to a broader expression of anger at government policies around the country. Although only 50 or so protesters initially gathered in the park, the number of people taking to the streets has grown to over 10,000 following the use of tear gas and water cannons by police.

While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the protests in a speech earlier today, and said the police made a mistake using tear gas on demonstrators, he remained defiant, saying that plans to demolish the park will go ahead and insisting that no one “has the right to protest against the law and democracy” and that “illegal organizations [were] provoking naive protesters.” As the news website Muftah noted, however, unsurprisingly Erdogan’s speech failed to stem the outrage. 

Image credit: Occupy Gezi Pics

The protests began with a peaceful demonstration against government plans to demolish Gezi Park in Taksim Square, the last significant green space in central Istanbul, and replace it with a "replica Ottoman-era army barracks that would house a shopping mall." Police attacked the Occupy-style protesters camping out in the park with tear gas during a dawn raid, barricaded the park, and in a later raid set fire to some of the tents. According to Mashallah News, "Friday morning saw the most aggressive use of force yet, with police using water cannons and excessive force in an attempt to clear the park of people delivering speeches, chanting, singing, and preparing camps." The Turkish Doctors' Association reports that almost 1,000 people were injured in Istanbul on Friday, including six who lost eyes after being hit by tear-gas canisters.

Image credit: Occupy Gezi Pics

There is growing discontent over the government's urban-development plans in Istanbul, in which public spaces are increasingly disappearing as the government moves ahead with controversial development plans and little public input. In April this year, police also used water cannons and tear gas against thousands of people who were protesting the demolition of Istanbul’s iconic Emek Cinema. More broadly, there is mounting protest against what people see as the government's increasingly authoritarian rule. The New York Times argues that while "Erdogan still has great support among Turkey’s religious masses," protesters have a mounting list of grievances including the government's widespread prosecution and intimidation of journalists, the recent bill which places severe restrictions on the sale, marketing, and consumption of alcohol in Turkey, attempts by authorities to curb public displays of affection, and rising public anger of Turkey's support for Syrian rebels amid concerns about violence spilling over into Turkey highlighted by the recent car bombing in Reyhanli.

Image credit: Occupy Gezi Pics

Many secularists in Turkey fear that the government wants to expand the role of Islam in the country, with Muftah arguing that "the feeling that public life in Turkey is being restricted and molded to fit one kind of ideological perspective seems to be motivating the protests over Gezi park and other recent displays of defiance across the country." Despite promises that the Ministry of the Interior will investigate the police use of tear gas and pepper spray, Erdogan insists that his government reflects the will of the people and that the protesters, who he called "extremists," should take their concerns to the ballot box rather than the streets. Yet the protests are continuing, and there are also reports that the authorities are trying to limit cellphone and internet access to hinder the ability of protesters to communicate.

Image credit: Occupy Gezi Pics

With protests mounting and the government remaining defiant, the outrage is "unlikely to dissipate any time soon," and some have argued that it forms the "the basis for a potential Turkish spring." All of which spells bad news for the Turkish government.

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