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Violent Protests Persist In Turkish Cities


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. It was another night of violent protest in Turkey.


WERTHEIMER: Police clashed with tens of thousands of protesters in Istanbul, in Ankara, and in other cities overnight, capping a weekend of unrest that has seen well over a thousand people injured and prompted the White House to issue a statement on Sunday calling on Turkey's security forces to exercise restraint. What began as a small protest over the demolition of an Istanbul park has now grown well beyond that, indicating a resentment with the government that goes beyond the usual opposition factions. From Istanbul, NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us. Welcome, Peter.


WERTHEIMER: Peter, as I understand it, this started as a small environmental sit-in in central Istanbul, right at the end of May. How did it become this violent? Why did it spread to other cities?

KENYON: Well, the activists originally pitched their tents in Gezi Park, the last green space in the central Taksim Square on the European side. It's slated for development, that park, and the police swooped in to forcibly evict the squatters, only to find that even bigger crowds kept returning each time they did that. And finally on Friday we saw full-scale protests, clouds of tear gas, water cannons spraying everywhere. At that point, the political opposition got involved and the protest numbers ballooned and at times grew violent.

Overnight in Istanbul's Besiktas neighborhood some demonstrators commandeered a front end loader. They broke through police barricades and got right up to the walls of the Dolmabahce Palace, one of the city's most famous historical sites. So the situation is volatile.

WERTHEIMER: And how is Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan responding to it? I know that yesterday in a televised speech, he dismissed the protesters. He called them just a few looters and the usual suspects from the opposition.

KENYON: Well, strong language, but there is a grain of truth in what he says. This definitely has turned from a peaceful act of civil disobedience into a general anti-government rally. And there's no question that the opposition has latched onto the protest as a chance to raise its admittedly very low profile. But there is a lot more to it than that. This violent police crackdown seems to have struck a nerve with a large swath of Turks.

They've grown unhappy with Erdogan's my way or the highway governing style on a whole bunch of issues - restrictions on alcohol, abortion, public displays of affection, how many children you should have. The government has been imposing conservative views and alarmed a large swath of Turks who are, for the most part, happy living in a tolerant society that is a Muslim majority. A number of protesters told me they voted for Erdogan but they want to send him a message he's going too far.

WERTHEIMER: So this is deeper than the secular opposition to Erdogan?

KENYON: Reservations are spreading. One pro-government columnist wrote today that after years of being in power, the government is falling prey to power intoxication, as he put it. Partly because the opposition is weak and because independent media have been bought up or cowed.

WERTHEIMER: Do you see that there is some way out of this for the prime minister, for the government?

KENYON: Well, there may be some changes to this park project. It might become a museum, not a shopping mall. But Erdogan is also continuing to throw fuel on the fire. He says that the Ataturk Center in Taksim Square, which is the heart of modern Istanbul, might be turned into a mosque. This is sure to inflame secular Turks. And meanwhile, the stakes are quite high.

Scenes of tourists choking on tear gas aren't helping the business community. And some are wondering if this is going to impact Turkey's bid to host the 2020 Olympics. That decision's due in September.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thank you very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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