ISTANBUL, Turkey — Pedestrians quickly boarded buses to escape the tear gas and in the street, several people lay unconscious. Police stacked makeshift barriers to ward off protesters, and travel coaches carried foreign tourists unknowingly through the mayhem.
It was a surreal scene Friday in central Istanbul — Turkey’s largest city — where for hours protesters battled Turkish riot police over the planned demolition of the historic Gezi Park.
At least 63 people were detained and dozens more hospitalized Friday with respiratory difficulties and head injuries after riot police fired tear gas and used water cannons on demonstrators staging a days-long sit-in.
Protesters had initially descended on the park to demonstrate against the destruction of what they say is an important public green space.
The government had planned to bulldoze the area around Taksim Square, as well as the nearby Ottoman-era Tarlabasi district, to make way for new shopping malls and modern apartments it says will regenerate the neighborhood.
But the protest quickly morphed into a lightning rod for a broad set of social and political grievances against the Turkish government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).
An aggressive and expensive push to reform Istanbul’s infrastructure — often at the expense of its natural environment — has given rise to resentment among the city’s population.
Istanbul is competing with Madrid and Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympics, prompting the Turkish government to spend billions on development projects that don’t necessarily benefit the people. Authorities also announced in January plans to build a third airport for the city, but which would result in the felling of more than 650,000 trees, according to the Turkey's Environment and Urban Planning Ministry.
“By now, Turkey’s shopping centers would cover the whole of Luxembourg,” Ekrem Eddy Guzeldere, an Istanbul-based political analyst, said of the rise in the number of glitzy shopping malls and modern tourist projects.
Luxembourg is roughly 1,500 miles northwest of Istanbul.
On the social front, fresh laws restricting the sale of alcohol and the morning-after pill, in a country with a well-established history of secularism, is also fueling discontent.
The attendance of Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, on the protest’s first day lent the demonstration more political weight.
But by nighttime Friday, Erdogan had not yet commented on the unrest.
The Istanbul mayor’s office also declined GlobalPost’s requests for comment. But in a press conference Friday evening in Istanbul, mayor Kadir Topbas said he wanted to “share the unease” he feels about those “trying to drag the issue into other areas” outside the issue of the park.
Many Turkish television stations did not broadcast pictures from the protests Friday, and instead focused on the conflict in Syria during evening newscasts.
But in the square, the reality was much different. And according to reports on social media websites, demonstrations had also spread to the cities of Izmir, south of Istanbul, and the capital, Ankara.
“This is the worst it has been all week,” an employee at a Taksim Square hotel said of the protester and police battles. The employee asked not to be identified. “These are ordinary people on the street suffering. They are not involved.”