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Water Cannons on Taksim Square

A tear-gas confrontation on Saturday night. A rally for Erdogan on Sunday.

Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

On weekends, Istiklal Caddesi—an avenue off Taksim Square—is densely, sometimes ludicrously, packed. The street is designed for people; save for a sluggish trolley and the occasional cleaner, the avenue is closed to cars. Clothing shops and kebab restaurants line the main thoroughfare; bars advertising Turkish beer are tucked onto side streets. On Saturday nights, crowds shuffle from end to end under string lights and Turkcell ads. That's what Istiklal Caddesi was like last Saturday night, until around 8:30.

That’s when riot police sealed off the entrances to Taksim Square and began clearing Gezi Park, where protesters had erected a tent city. It was an unexpected aggression; a few days of relative calm following negotiations between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and protesters had given people hope. Instead, protesters, as well as visitors, were apruptly pushed out amid clouds of tear gas. Some took refuge in the opulent Divan Hotel, which would later be the site of the night's worst fighting. Others fled to the Hilton, where police would later confiscate their gas masks and water.

At 9 p.m., at the intersection of Istiklal and Taksim, a line of police stood beside a white police truck, its mounted water cannon aimed at a group of protesters a few storefronts down. Cafes and restaurants began closing their windows, anticipating the heavy spray of water mixed with pepper spray, and eventual tear gas. A group of diners watched from the Burger King balcony. A couple ran with their young son through the electrified space between police and protesters, hurrying down a side street. One young protester peeled himself from the crowd and, carrying a flag with a photo of Ataturk, stood beneath the cannon of peppery water while onlookers yelled "Bravo" and the police advanced. "Those are Tayyip's police," a girl told me.

A block away, police had cleared Tarlabasi Boulevard, a heavily trafficked road originating at Taksim Square, and the tight white knots of tear gas were beginning to spread. People walked around dazed, some in the uniform of a protester and others for a night out. "I thought this was a stable country," Cristina, an American tourist, told me. The vapor from the cannon water—less like inhaling a pinch of ground pepper than swallowing a few whole peppercorns—was distracting. We coughed and said goodbye.

Shop owners hastily pulled down grates. An assortment of makeshift gas masks and goggles emerged from purses, pockets, and backpacks. Protesters hung their armor around their necks, waiting. A tear gas canister, presumed to be fired from Tarlabasi, clinked onto a street ahead, smoking and rolling down the slight hill. Tear gas is debilitating, fogging the air and sending people into a panic or sickening them. Still, just a few blocks away from the new canister, the air was breathable and the bars were open. One, still full, was showing live footage from Gezi Park on its television. A lone bulldozer sluggishly moved through the empty park. 

Back on Istiklal, protesters had lit a bonfire. Some were posing in front of its high flames, taking photos on their cell phones. Orange liquid from an earlier water cannon pooled between cobblestones. Later some protesters would be treated for burns, the result of exposure the pepper and water combination. The governor of Istanbul would call the additive "medicine."

Just down the hill, in Cihangir—a neighborhood home to Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence and numerous boutiques—protesters overturned dumpsters to build barricades against an approaching water cannon and police. Rotten heads of lettuce and empty milk cartons spilled from the dumpsters onto the road, and protesters cheered. Nearby, a vendor in a gas mask flipped kofte on a grill, preparing sandwiches.

The police advanced into Cihangir, shooting water and tear gas into the crowd which, once dispersed, would regroup, led by chants of "Come! Come!" They were mostly young, fitting the demographic of the hip neighborhood, but after close to two weeks of fighting, they were changed. For hours they challenged the police, while tear gas filled the tiny, hilly streets. At 4:30 in the morning I watched from a friend's balcony as policemen chased the remaining protesters—now alone or in groups of two or three—through Cihangir, shooting tear gas canisters at them. In the early morning the police intervention looked more like a hunt.

The next day I boarded a ferry in Uskudar—a conservative neighborhood on the Asian side of the city—which would take me, and a few hundred others, to a rally for Prime Minister Erdogan's party, the AKP. It was a free ferry, arranged by the municipality, and decorated with orange and blue AKP flags and pictures of Erdogan. Outside the entrance two men on stilts and smocks decorated with the AKP logo barked into megaphones, and inside the ferry some smiling attendants handed out a bagged lunch. It was thirty minutes from Uskudar to Kazlicesme, where the rally was set to be held.

Mustafa, a ship captain, told me why he was going. "Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a very good person," he said. "He made the economy a lot better." The wind whipped his hat—a blue and white AKP cap—up onto the top deck, where it landed at the feet of a young woman in a pastel pink headscarf. He fetched it. "Istanbul is a very big city," Mustafa continued. He pointed out the landmarks of Sultanahmet as we passed them. "The sea is also big. Taksim"—he held his thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart—"is a very small problem."

Even though Erdogan would spend much of his speech condemning the protesters, Mustafa's sentiment was common among the AKP supporters. Many were angry that there had been so much coverage of the protests in the international media. Walking from the ferry to the fair grounds, a woman said to me, angrily, "Write the truth." Gesturing to the crowds that walked ahead and behind us, she specified: "We are very happy with our prime minister."

The AKP had dubbed the event the "Respect for the National Will" rally, but the day was about Erdogan. His photo hung everywhere, on giant banners over the crowd, on an oversized red flag, lining the walkway leading to the park. An Erdogan mask— the prime minister's face with the eyes cut out—was popular among his supporters but, when worn, looked more like a satire than an homage.

Most of the people weren't there to condemn the Taksim protests—although one man did hold a sign that read "Occupy Kazlicesme"—but to glorify Erdogan. Funda, a woman in red sunglasses sat in a patch of shade. "Erdogan is the best prime minister," she told me. "He's one of the best leaders in the world." I asked what she thought of the protests in Taksim. "Good question," she paused. "At first it was about trees, but now it doesn't make sense. Erdogan said it was OK, but they still continue to protest. It looks like some political games against him," Funda said. "Dirty games," her friend chimed in.

"Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a beautiful person," a young man, lounging with a few friends, told me. I showed him a photo on my phone which a friend had sent just as I reached the park. The photo shows a water cannon spraying a group of protesters as they run away. "This is happening right now," I said. He made a gesture like tipping a drink into his mouth. "Those people drink and they go crazy," he said. Erdogan's motorcade drove into the park, causing a joyous stampede.

At first, there was the image of a girl in a red dress getting sprayed with tear gas. Now there are plenty of other illustrations of police brutality—of children in the gas-filled lobby of the Divan hotel, of doctors being arrested, of protesters propelled through the air by the force of a water cannon. But there is also the image of our ferry home from the rally, with its garlands of AKP flags. We shouted at other ferries dressed like us while in the distance, rising like a needle out of the massive city, the Galata Tower—a tourist destination just below Istiklal—was surrounded by tear gas.