Turkish riot policemen clash with protesters at the Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Story highlights

Demonstrators oppose shopping center in Istanbul

Protesters try to block bulldozers in park

Turkish government vows to go forward with project

Istanbul CNN  — 

Despite repeated police efforts to disperse them, thousands held a sit-in for a third consecutive night in the city’s main commercial district to protest a government-backed shopping center project.

Police also deployed tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters on Thursday. Officers cleared out their tents and sleeping bags but failed to end to the sit-in.

Demonstrators disapprove of plans to rebuild old Ottoman barracks and create a shopping arcade.

They are organizing over Facebook and Twitter and by Thursday night the number of people in the park was in the thousands. Their protest has turned into an informal referendum on recent Turkish government policies.

“I saw it on TV … saw that there were people, young people taking ownership of the environment. I wanted to support them, because I think not supporting them is inhumane,” said Adalet Makar, a retired banker who spent Wednesday night at the park in her sleeping bag.

The demonstration has grown in size since late Monday. Public outcry over the proposed project, as well as the police tear gas interventions, have drawn more people to the park.

“Gas, gas, gas, it is the only way they deal with problems,” said Esen Tuna, a 21-year-old architecture student.

Turkish police routinely use tear gas and water cannons to break up demonstrations.

The government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear that it will go ahead with the planned project.

“They can do whatever they want. We’ve made our decision, and we will do as we have decided,” Erdogan said Wednesday, according to the semi-official Anadolu news agency.

Erdogan said that the rebuilding of the Ottoman barracks was a matter of having “respect for history.”

Critics disagree, arguing that the project is a way for making profit from the sale of valuable real estate in Istanbul’s main commercial district.

“This cannot be explained by saying this is historical conservation. It is not that, it is about money,” said Ece Demirel, an activist with the Urban Movement Forum, an organization that tracks development projects across Turkey.

The government’s other controversial policies have also come under fire.

Erdogan’s policy on Syria, which many in Turkey blame for a twin car blast that killed at least 52, as well as a new law that would prohibit vendors from selling liquor from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., are part of the sit-in at Taksim Gezi Park.

Demonstrators have chanted, “this is only the beginning, our struggle will continue.”

Many at the park said they believe this may be the beginning of a turning point in Turkey.

“This is an uprising, a protest against the increasing bans,” said Michelle Demishevich, an activist and member of Turkey’s Green Party. “Perhaps just like we saw the Arab Spring, this will be the Turkish Spring.”