ANKARA, Turkey — Cengiz Ulas is no stranger to protests and police brutality. But this time, things are different, he says.
“There was never so much gas, and they aim it directly at people,” Ulas, 56, said at a late-night demonstration in the Turkish capital, Ankara. He began his protest career when he was a student, as a staunch supporter of the secularist founding of the modern Turkish republic. “They used to just chase us with sticks,” he said.
Demonstrators taking part in the anti-government protests now sweeping Turkey say they are surprised by the excessive use of force riot police have used against protestors and activists since the unrest kicked off in Istanbul Friday.
Since then, two demonstrators have been killed — one in Istanbul, one in Antakya — and 1,000 more injured in battles with riot police wielding tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons.
“It is a strategic tool to control the population,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, a military analyst with the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, said of the violent tactics.
In the last six or seven years, Turkey’s interior ministry has upped its use of tear gas, in addition to other tactics, Ali Ozcan said. But the police crackdown on demonstrators has only fueled anger and brought more people to the streets.
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“We are learning how to be prepared,” Elif Karacima, a 28-year-old student who has joined the protests, told GlobalPost. She was still catching her breath after being chased by police firing tear gas.
White, stinging smoke from the gas hung in the air around Karacima and the other protestors in central Ankara Monday afternoon. The demonstrators’ eyes were red and tearing. With handkerchiefs wrapped around their faces, they used stones and sheets of iron to build barricades, hoping to head off another assault by police forces.
The unusual bout of violent unrest began Friday when police attacked a peaceful sit-in at a public park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Protestors had gathered there to demonstrate against the destruction of green space to make way for a shopping mall and other development projects.
The ensuing attack by security forces against unarmed protestors prompted nationwide outcry that saw disaffected Turks take to the streets to battle police in the country’s largest cities.
Demonstrators say moves like the one to destroy one of Istanbul’s last public parks represent a larger government trend of pushing development and modernization at the expense of the environment and marginalized communities.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2002, has also angered many with what critics say is an authoritarian style of governance.
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Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have passed conservative laws that have alienated Turkey’s secular population. They have also presided over the imprisonment of a record number of journalists, and are accused of benefiting financially from the rapid development of Turkey’s urban areas.
On Tuesday, 240,000 members of Turkey’s leftist Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK) announced they would join the ongoing protests in opposition to the brutal police crackdown. The Turkish constitution gives citizens the right to hold peaceful and unarmed demonstrations without prior permission.
“The [tear] gas and their salaries are paid for with our taxes,” Ulas said Monday night.
“Prime minister resign!” the protesters chanted.
“My brother, police officer. While executing your profession, don’t forget that I am also human,” some demonstrators’ leaflets read.
Police crackdowns are not unprecedented here. Security services have long used brutal tactics against the country’s Kurdish population in the Southeast.
“It’s not nice that the people have to encounter police brutality, but it may create some sympathy for us,” one Kurdish protester, a 38-year-old psychologist, said Monday. He would not give his name out of fear of being arrested.
Ulas believes Erdogan is behaving like many of the region’s dictators who faced similar dissent during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Back then, Erdogan had called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — who has presided over the bloody military repression of an initially peaceful uprising — to resign.
“This is a similar case,” Ulas said. “Erdogan should take his own advice.”