The air in Taksim Square is practically on fire as pepper spray drifts through the humid Turkish breeze. It burns not only demonstrators but also nearby shop-owners and passing tourists.

Just twenty meters outside of Taksim Square demonstrators were peacefully protesting Istanbul’s mayor’s plans to construct a mega shopping complex over Gezi Park. The makeover would uproot some 75-100 year old trees and park walls in the process.

taksim square teargass

After Turkish riot police used smoke grenades and pepper spray to disperse demonstrators, construction crews started felling the trees. The next day demonstrators returned to replant them.

Now, on its fourth day of protests, shots can be heard nearby as tear gas canisters hit the ground, emitting a 20 foot tall plume of white smoke, forming a smoke-filled wall through streets of Istanbul. A woman balancing a tray of lemon wedges passes through the crowd to serve the bloodshot and hacking demonstrators. They rub lemons across their eyes.

taksim square lemon slices

I witnessed one protester beaten bloody. Another demonstrator told me that one protester had already died in hospital on the second night of protests (though I have not been able to confirm this account).

For now the protests are an initiative spearheaded by the Taksim Platform Group. But this may be the start of a movement against Turkey’s Olympic-industrial complex.

A series of grand urban development projects are slated for years to come as Istanbul’s Summer Olympics in 2020 dauntingly approaches. An ambitious Olympic-industrial complex will set off aggressive massive projects similar in scale to what was witnessed before the Beijing Olympics in 2002.

Perhaps the most far-reaching project is the one to artificially create a second Bosphorous straight that coasts Istanbul. Turkish Prime Minister and project supporter Recep Tayyip Erdogan described it as a “crazy project.”

taksim square statuePlans are also underway to build a bridge from Poyrazkoy in the European section of Istanbul to Beykoz on the Asian side. Scheduled to be completed by 2015, officials claim it will be the longest suspension bridge in the world and literally be a bridge between east and west. Meanwhile opponents call the project wasteful excess given that Istanbul already boasts two bridges across the peninsula.

Erdogan, now one of the project’s strongest supporters had said back in 1995 when he was mayor of Istanbul, that the bridge project now being undertaken would be “murder” to Istanbul’s green area. Indeed, Istanbul is less green and more grey as concrete cement conceals more and more of its cityscape and its skyline has already begun to be littered with billboards advertising the 2020 games.

The Olympics is an important milestone for pathway to European Union membership. Endogan’s conservative government is a driving force behind Turkey’s push towards industrial modernization and presenting itself to the EU as a country that is willing, open and meets the standards of other EU nations.

But the country may not be prepared to go down such a direction, or at least willing to accept the new changes. As Turkey pushes forward towards modernization and potential EU membership it will have to not only negotiate between its people’s past, present and future but culture and religious identity as well.

As the world approaches 2020 more will likely be heard about Turkey’s politics. For now, the battle in Taksim Square continues.

*Photos by Trent Lee, more of his photos available on our Facebook page