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Istanbul (CNN) — Turkish trade unions put fresh pressure on the country’s prime minister Monday by holding a nationwide strike after a weekend of violent unrest in major cities.
Describing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government as “despotic,” two main union blocs marched in Istanbul. Crowds headed toward the city’s Taksim Square, which has been at the heart of more than two weeks of protests. But demonstrators dispersed after riot police armed with water cannons blocked their path.
Protesters read statements criticizing Erdogan and decrying what they called police brutality.
Small clashes between protesters and riot police erupted on side streets near the square, but for the most part demonstrators quickly left the area.
Thousands of union members also marched in the capital, Ankara.
Monday marked the second time unions have called a strike to support the protest movement.
Police and anti-government demonstrators had faced off once again around Taksim Square on Sunday, a day after authorities had cleared the adjacent Gezi Park by force.
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Thousands of protesters calling for Erdogan’s resignation attempted to return to the square and park, only to be pushed back by police. The neighborhood south of the park was filled with a burning smell as police swept through the area, firing tear gas at knots of protesters in the streets.
Some groups of demonstrators have shifted to protesting in their local neighborhoods in the city, putting up barricades. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in confrontations between police and protesters is turning uglier.
People carry the coffin of Ethem Sarisuluk, who was killed during recent protests in Turkey, on Sunday, June 16, in Ankara. Protests that began as a demonstration against the planned demolition of a park have grown into general anti-government dissent across the nation.
Tens of thousands attend a rally to hear Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speak in Istanbul on June 16, a day after he ordered a crackdown on anti-government protesters at Gezi Park.
A protester faces water cannons during a clash with police at an anti-government demonstration in Ankara on June 16.
Police walk through tear gas during protests at Kizilay Square in central Ankara on June 16.
Police detain protesters after a crackdown on a demonstration at Istanbul’s Gezi Park on June 16.
A protester runs during clashes between riot police and demonstrators in the streets adjacent to Taksim Square in Istanbul on Sunday, June 16.
A protester throws a tear gas canister back at riot police during clashes near Taksim Square on June 16.
Trash containers burn in front of riot police forces in Ankara, Turkey, on June 16.
Protesters gather in the main shopping street near Taksim Square in the early morning hours of June 16 as riot police clear Gezi Park in Istanbul.
Turkish riot police officers use rubber bullets on June 15 to disperse demonstrators in Gezi Park in Istanbul on June 15.
Protesters scramble for safety as Turkish riot police officers push them out of Gezi Park using tear gas and rubber bullets.
Protesters run for cover as riot police spray them with a water cannon on June 15.
A protester throws rocks at police during clashes at the entrance of Gezi Park on June 15.
A protester on June 15, reacts in pain to a salvo of tear gas fired by Turkish riot police chasing out demonstrators in order to dismantle their tent camp in Gezi Park in Istanbul.
Riot police move in a line through the tent camp on June 15.
Protesters escape from tear gas during the crackdown at Gezi Park on June 15
Protestors fire fireworks as police drive them out of Gezi Park on June 15.
Protesters sleep in Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square early Thursday, June 13. Turkey’s prime minister on Thursday called on protesters camped out in the park to pack up and leave.
A man plays piano for hundreds of protesters in Taksim Square on Wednesday, June 12, in Istanbul.
A man waves a flag in Taksim Square on June 12.
A man sleeps in Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square early on June 12, hours after riot police moved into the square in an attempt to push demonstrators out.
Municipal workers clean up a street in Taksim Square early on June 12, after police moved in to disperse protesters.
A protester prepares to throw a tear gas canister back toward police in Taksim Square on Tuesday, June 11.
Riot police fire tear gas canisters at protesters in Taksim Square on June 11.
People run from a tear gas cloud in Taksim Square on June 11.
People flee as riot police fire tear gas on Taksim Square on June 11.
Protesters run behind a barricade during clashes with police on June 11.
A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward police on June 11.
Photographers crowd around a protester posing in front of a riot police vehicle at Taksim Square on June 11.
Protesters seek shelter behind a barricade on June 11.
Protesters try to run from riot police on June 11.
Riot police aim a water cannon at a protester as others take cover behind a makeshift shelter in Taksim Square on June 11.
Police enter Taksim Square during clashes with protesters on June 11.
Protesters take cover behind a barricade in Gezi Park in Istanbul on June 11.
A protester uses a slingshot to throw stones at riot police on June 11.
Protesters take cover behind a barricade in Taksim Square on June 11.
A protester holds fireworks during clashes with riot police in Istabul on June 11.
Riot police use water cannons and tear gas to disperse a crowd near Istabul’s Taksim Square on June 11.
A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward police on June 11.
Riot police fire tear gas at demonstrators in Taksim Square on June 11.
Police fire a water cannon at protesters on June 11.
Protesters hold molotov cocktails in Taksim Square on June 11.
A protester throws a stone during clashes with riot police on June 11.
Protesters run from smoke as they clash with police in Istanbul on June 11.
Protesters take cover behind a barricade as fireworks go off nearby on June 11.
Medics carry Yasin Ayhan, 23, a protester who broke his leg in a raid early Monday, June 10, in Kugulu Park. Riot police doused thousands of protesters in Ankara with tear gas and jets of water for a second straight night.
Protesters sleep at Taksim Square in central Istanbul on June 10. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned protesters who have taken to the streets demanding his resignation that his patience has its limits and compared the unrest with an army attempt six years ago to curb his power.
A demonstrator is detained by police officers as protests resumed in Kizilay Square in Ankara on Sunday, June 9.
A demonstrator covers his face with a makeshift gas mask during protests in Kizilay Square in Ankara on June 9.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and his wife, Emine, wave to supporters upon their arrival in Ankara on June 9. Erdogan told supporters that “even patience has an end” as he went on the offensive against mass protests that have consumed Ankara and Istanbul.
Erdogan addresses supporters from the top of a bus as police stand guard at Esenboga International Airport in Ankara on June 9.
Protesters gather during a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul, on June 9.
A demonstrator runs toward police during clashes with riot police in Istanbul, on Saturday, June 8.
Demonstrators shout slogans as they gather at Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, on June 8.
Women sing as people gather at Kizilay Square in Ankara on June 8.
Protesters rest in Gezi Park next to Taksim Square during a demonstration in Istanbul on Friday, June 7.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the opening session of the Ministry for European Union Affairs Conference on June 7 in Istanbul. Erdogan said today his Islamic-rooted government was open to “democratic demands” and hit back at EU criticism of his government’s handling of a week of unrest.
Supporters of Erdogan wave the Turkish flag upon the prime minister’s arrival in Istanbul, on June 7.
Protestors dance at Gezi Park in Taksim Square on Thursday, June 6.
A man walks past damaged buses near Taksim Square on Thursday, June 6, in Istanbul, Turkey.
A mother and her daughter read notes placed by protestors on a destroyed car in Taksim Square on June 6. Thousands of striking union members joined the anti-government protests on June 5, marching in Istanbul and Ankara in a sea of red and white union flags, drumming and yelling for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign.
Protestors spend their day at Gezi Park on June 6.
Protestors demonstrate near the office building of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul early on June 6.
A municipal worker collects garbage set on fire by Turkish protesters in a restaurant district of Ankara on June 5.
A woman is wheeled away by paramedics during clashes on Kizilay Square in Ankara on Wednesday, June 5.
Protesters confront police forces during riots in a restaurant district of Ankara, on June 5.
Demonstrators run for cover as police use water cannons and tear gas on the crowd in Ankara on June 5.
Protesters gather in Taksim Square as they shout slogans while protesting on Tuesday, June 4, in Istanbul, Turkey.
Riot police fire tear gas at demonstrators in Istanbul on June 4.
Paramedics carry a woman injured during clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Istanbul on June 4.
Turkish police detain a demonstrator during clashes in Istanbul on June 4.
A protester looks on during clashes with Turkish police outside of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office, near Taksim Square in Istanbul on Tuesday, June 4.
Demonstrators wave their national flag on June 4, during a protest in Ankara.
Protesters cover their faces with plastic. After chaotic scenes in the streets Monday that continued late into the night and sent tear gas wafting through the air, the situation was relatively calm on Tuesday morning in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, near the park where the movement began.
A demonstrator takes cover at a road block between Taksim and Besiktas in Istanbul on June 4.
Protesters clash with riot police between Taksim and Besiktas in Istanbul on Monday, June 3.
Protestors pass bricks for building barricades during clashes with riot police in Istanbul on June 3.
Riot policemen unload tear gas during clashes in Istanbul on June 3.
Protesters throw riot police’s tear gas back at them in Istanbul on June 3.
Protester wounds are treated during clashes in Istanbul on June 3.
Demonstrators set up road blocks between Taksim and Besiktas. Barricades remain up around the square, and Erdogan’s opponents appear determined to continue the demonstrations despite the prime minister’s comment on June 3 that he expects the situation to return to normal “within a few days.”
A medical team tends to a protester. The Turkish Medical Association claimed that at least 3,195 people had been injured in clashes on June 1 and June 2. Only 26 of them were in serious or critical condition, it said.
Protesters stand atop a pile of rubble during clashes with Turkish police on Monday, June 3.
Turkish riot police fire tear gas canisters to disperse protesters near Taksim Square on June 3.
Police officers tend to a demonstrator during the violent clashes in Istanbul on June 3.
A protester waves the Turkish flag from a rooftop at Taksim Square on June 3 as large crowds continue to demonstrate below.
A protester wears a gas mask as smoke from a burned car fills the air at Taksim Square on June 3.
Despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for calm on Monday, June 3, protests continued in Istanbul. Protesters carry the Turkish flag and shout against the government in Gezi Park near central Istanbul.
After protests that lasted until the early morning, a protester sleeps in a damaged and vandalized vehicle in Taksim Square on June 3. Protests showed no sign of letting up on Monday, almost a week after a peaceful sit-in was met with a police crackdown, igniting the biggest anti-government riots the city has seen in a decade.
A tired protester rests in front of the graffiti-sprayed wall of an information booth at Taksim Square in central Istanbul on June 3.
Turkish protesters clash with riot police near the prime minister’s office between Taksim and Besiktas early June 3.
Protesters drive an excavator toward Turkish riot police as they make their way to Erdogan’s office on June 3.
During the clashes, volunteer doctors helped injured protesters in a mosque on June 3.
A protester is silhouetted by a burning car at Taksim Square during clashes in the early morning of June 3.
A protester covers his face on June 3 near Erdogan’s office in Istanbul.
Protesters clash with riot police in Istanbul on June 3.
Protesters gather in Taksim Square in Istanbul on Sunday, June 2.
Riot police fire tear gas during a protest against Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party in central Ankara on June 2. Sparked by the events in Istanbul, general anti-government protests have sprung up in Ankara.
Demonstrators hide behind makeshift shields during clashes with Turkish riot police in Ankara on June 2.
Police use a water cannon to disperse protesters outside Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s working office in Istanbul on June 2.
Protesters cling to a police vehicle mounted with a water canon in Istanbul on June 2.
Turkish police detain a protester during demonstrations in Ankara on June 2.
A protester flashes a victory sign as he takes part in a demonstration in Ankara on Saturday, June 1 in support of the protests in Istanbul against government plans to demolish a park.
Protesters clash with riot police in Istanbul, Turkey, on Saturday, June 1.
Protesters clash with riot police near Gezi Park on June 1. Earlier this week, several dozen activists tried to stage a sit-in at the park, the last bit of green space left in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the city’s transit and commercial hub.
Turkish protesters wearing gas masks face off against riot police near Istanbul’s Taksim Square on June 1.
Riot police use tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd of demonstrators on June 1.
A man flees the clashes between Turkish protestors and riot police on June 1. On Friday, May 31, riot police stormed the growing camp in Gezi Park with water cannons and tear gas, pushing protesters into surrounding streets and triggering the clashes that have continued for more than 24 hours.
The clashes damaged surrounding businesses in Istanbul and forced them to close on June 1.
A man catches his breath behind the line where clashes are taking place on June 1.
A pair of tourists gasp for air as riot police use tear gas and water cannons the fend off the demonstrators. Turkish security forces allowed small groups of pedestrians to travel through the square.
Protesters buy gas masks from a local shop near the square on June 1.
Riot police fire tear gas into the crowd of protesters overnight on Friday, May 31.
Demonstrators set up barricades and build a fire as they clash with Turkish officers on May 31.
Friends carry an injured protester on May 31. More than a dozen people have been injured in the clashes.
Riot police use tear gas and water cannons to disperse a crowd at Taksim Square on May 31.
An activist wearing a gas mask is enveloped in a cloud of tear gas on May 31.
A crowd scatters during clashes on May 31, as one demonstrator throws back the tear gas canister that was launched by riot police.
Protestors brace themselves as they are fired upon with a water canon by Turkish police forces.
A large group of demonstrators gather to protest the demolition of Gezi Park in Taksim Square on May 31.
A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas in Taksim Square on May 28.
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A drone’s view of riot zone
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“Now it feels like there is a level of desperation,” said Clare Murray, who was vacationing in Istanbul from New York for the past week. “The police seem more comfortable with using aggression.”
Rallies and counter-rallies
Since Saturday night, 116 people have been detained during protests in Ankara and 242 people have been detained in Istanbul demonstrations, said Huseyin Aslan, general secretary of the Progressive Lawyers Association.
The protests started at the end of May over authorities’ plans to turn Gezi Park into a mall. They quickly turned into large anti-government demonstrations that included calls for political reforms.
While the protests are unlikely to threaten the rule of Erdogan, who has been one of Turkey’s most popular leaders and is credited with overseeing a decade of economic growth, they are raising questions about what critics say is an increasingly authoritarian style of governing.
For his part, Erdogan remains defiant, accusing outsiders of taking advantage of the protests over the park.
On Sunday, thousands of Erdogan’s supporters gathered at a rally a few miles from Taksim Square. They waved flags and sang songs at a rally that was widely viewed as a re-election rally for the prime minister.
Erdogan sought to contrast his supporters with the protesters. “Hundreds of thousands in here are not like the vandals with petrol-bombs in their hands,” he said.
In Ankara, authorities had warned against a gathering to honor Ethem Sarisuluk, who was shot during protests two weeks ago.
The gathering took place under a heavy police presence around Kizilay Square, in a different part of the city from where Sarisuluk’s funeral was taking place.
At one point, Sarisuluk’s brother knelt in the middle of the road in an attempt to stop oncoming traffic, while police fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators. The protesters, in turn, threw rocks at police and put up makeshift barricades to block off streets.
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After the weekend tumult, the trade unions added their clout to the demonstrations with their one-day strike.
The unions involved have hundreds of thousands of members across sectors that include public services and utilities such as electricity and water supply. They don’t, however, have enough members to shut those industries down altogether.
Under the Erdogan government, Turkish workers have been “domesticated like animals by being kept hungry,” one worker at a union office in Istanbul said.
“Gezi Park made us realize we are not animals in a herd we are individuals,” said the worker, who didn’t provide his name.
The previous strike during the anti-government demonstrations took place near the start of this month.
Erdogan complained Saturday that demonstrators were not meeting him halfway.
“We have reached out with our hands,” he said. “However, some people returned their fists in response. Can you shake hands with those who reach out with a fist?”
He also ridiculed the protesters’ assertions that they are environmentalists, calling them “thugs” and citing their honking of horns as evidence of “noise pollution.”
He accused demonstrators of inciting sectarian violence by attacking a woman in a headscarf, kicking her, dragging her on the ground and snatching her head cover.
Erdogan praised his government’s performance over the past 10 years, citing a rising standard of living, a quintupling of the central bank’s reserves and plans to build an airport.
Root of protests
The unrest began in Istanbul roughly three weeks ago, when a small group of people turned out to protest government plans to bulldoze Gezi Park and replace it with a shopping mall housed inside a replica of 19th century Ottoman barracks.
Protesters said the plans represented a creeping infringement on their rights in a secular society.
Turkey was founded after secularists defeated Islamic Ottoman forces in the early 20th century, and many modern-day secularists frown on Ottoman symbols.
The protests broadened into an outpouring in the square and throughout the country as security forces cracked down on demonstrators.
The unrest also brought political risks for Erdogan, a populist and democratically elected politician serving his third term in office.
Journalist Karl Penhaul and CNN’s Gul Tuysuz reported from Istanbul, and journalist Ian Lee reported from Ankara. CNN’s Salma Abdelaziz, Arwa Damon and Joe Duran in Istanbul and Antonia Mortensen in Ankara contributed to this report.
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