The images from Turkey that lit up social media sites the first week of June shocked observers. One picture in particular went viral and was displayed on a large billboard in Izmir, Turkey: Police are firing tear gas at a woman in a red summer dress, highlighting the excessive use of force against protesters in a country largely viewed as a beacon of democracy in the Muslim world.
What began as a peaceful demonstration against the demolition of a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square turned into widespread protests against police brutality and the creeping authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan called the demonstrators “looters” and “extremists,” predicting an end to the unrest by the time he returned from his North Africa tour on June 7. Instead, he was greeted with grim statistics: three deaths, thousands of people injured, and mushrooming protests in more than 70 cities.
Fikret Bocek, a pastor in Izmir and a 1998 graduate of Westminster Seminary in California, described the mood at demonstrations in his city as peaceful and festive, “much like New Year’s Eve or the Rose Bowl in the United States.” He said more than 10,000 people in Izmir were gathering each evening to sing, socialize, and dance while vendors sold food and drinks.
But some evenings didn’t end quietly: At about midnight on June 4, police began firing orange tear gas at the crowd in Izmir. “They were just singing and chanting and suddenly they attacked and wanted to kill us. There were civilians behind the police—men with sticks and knives,” Serhat Tuna told me. He barely escaped the violence. Other cities experienced similar brutality and thousands were hospitalized for injuries across the country.
“For 12 years the Turkish people said OK, but enough is enough,” Tuna added. “We just want them to please protect the secular system in Turkey. We don’t want to be part of Islamic rule like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”
Bocek said he saw evidence of AKP supporters and police working hand in hand against the demonstrators. He says the AKP only works for the 47 percent that voted the party into power, ignoring the rights of the other half of the country.
One week prior to the demonstrations, the government passed a law restricting the sale of alcohol and issued a warning about public displays of affection, increasing concerns about Erdogan’s Islamist aspirations.
Media muzzling has added another black mark to public opinion of the AKP. Turkey has more jailed journalists than any other country, and Erdogan called Twitter a “menace” that was being used by extremists to spread lies. On June 4, police arrested 29 people in Izmir for using Twitter to publicize police whereabouts. They were freed several days later.
During the first few days of protests, CNN’s Turkish affiliate aired a documentary about penguins instead of reporting on violence in the streets, fueling anger among protesters who accused the media of self-censorship.
After a week of demonstrations, protest representatives met with the country’s deputy prime minister and presented a list of demands that included the dismissal of police chiefs, a tear gas ban, the release of detained protesters, and the cancellation of plans to demolish Gezi park.
The U.S. State Department encouraged Turkish officials to “refrain from unhelpful rhetoric and unhelpful comments that will not help calm the situation,” but Erdogan showed no signs of backing down upon his return to Ankara. “These protests that are bordering on illegality must come to an end as of now,” he warned. So far his combative stance has only fueled the resolve among protestors.