NEW YORK — Fist fights broke out between opponents and supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, where Erdoğan addressed a reception in his honor.
Erdoğan carried on with a speech condemning terrorists and other enemies of Turkey, and calling for Muslim unity, the crowd erupting with each disruption, his supporters cursing at the protesters or attempting to drown them out shouting Turkish nationalist slogans.
A small crowd of demonstrators on Wednesday outside the United Nations building protested the Turkish leader's address at the annual U.N. General Debate, in which world leaders gather in Manhattan to discuss issues of international importance. The protests, however, were peaceful.
Erdoğan's speech to the U.N. touched on the PKK alongside ISIS, praising Turkey's "intensive fight against the bloody terrorist organizations in the region." Additionally, he called for an increase in aid for Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Turkey, and denounced a referendum on secession planned by Iraqi Kurds for September 25.
Thursday's clash is the third time in two years a visit to the U.S. by the leader of the Republic of Turkey, was marred by violence. It was unclear as of this writing whether anyone was injured or arrested.
The hosts, the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), describes itself as "a District of Columbia non-profit organization that helps coordinate the efforts of the nation's leading Turkish American organizations." Its website features quotes from historians criticizing the use of the term "genocide" for the massacre of Armenians and Syriacs during World War I.
A crowd of American admirers carrying Turkish and American flags greeted the polarizing Erdoğan, who had come to the Broadway Ballroom to talk about human rights around the world. The crowd included nervous-looking officials in suits with Turkish flag pins as well as New York Police Department (NYPD) and Secret Service officers.
As he entered, Erdoğan was welcomed with chants in Turkish, as well as the religious phrases "in the name of God" and "God is great" in Arabic. A speaker from TASC mentioned several nationalities in the audience, and an introductory video lauded Turkey's humanitarian efforts in Burma and Syria.
Muhammad, a Bengali-American New Yorker, excitedly called Erdoğan the "true Sultan of the Muslim community," declaring that the Turkish president is the only world leader to speak about the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in the southeast Asian nation of Burma, and that people of many nationalities came with him to see the speech.
In his speech, the Turkish president singled out ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Gülen movement as "terrorists." "Although the left-wing SDF fights alongside US special forces against ISIS, Turkey considers it an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both the US and Turkey classify as a terrorist group.
An angry man pushed over Meghan Bodette, yanking the flag of the SDF women's unit from her hand before security rushed to restrain him. Nearby, another man shouted misogynistic slurs at her. "They barely touched me," Bodette, an organizer for the North American Kurdish Alliance, tells me.
Hotel security escorted the protesters out, but were often unable to stop brawls from erupting. Often the Turkish president's supporters had already begun beating the demonstrators before security arrived, forcing them to wade through a thick crowd to find the source of the commotion.
Afterwards, N.Y.P.D. officers patrolled the hallways. Hotel security glanced around nervously, unable to distinguish which shouts in Turkish were outpourings of support and which were attempts to disrupt. Indeed, the size and volume of the crowd made it difficult for even a Turkish speaker.
Erdoğan met with President Donald Trump May 16. Returning from that meeting, Erdoğan was greeted by a crowd near the Turkish ambassador's residence chanting "baby killer Erdoğan!" His security detail broke through a Washington, D.C. police line, assaulting protesters and injuring 11.
Despite a unanimous House of Representatives resolution condemning the violence and a Senate decision to block arms sales to Mr. Erdoğan's security team, President Trump has not spoken out publicly about the incident.
In a Tuesday interview with PBS, President Erdoğan claimed that President Trump personally apologized to him. The White House denied the report, but did say that the issue was discussed during a call between the two heads of state.
The few dozen who gathered outside the UN headquarters on Wednesday were cordoned off alongside two unrelated demonstrations. However, the May clashes were fresh on the protesters' minds. Rojhat Amed of Boston had been at some of the May 16 protests, but was not present when the clashes happened.
"My friends were attacked by Erdoğan's bodyguards, even the children. They kicked the children," the New England Kurdish Association member says. "One of us stayed in a hospital for months. The entire world witnessed this."
Turkish authorities have been criticized for arresting Kurdish politicians and imposing military rule on Kurdish-majority areas. Bodette says she knows several people who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Erdoğan defends the crackdown as a counter-terrorist response to the PKK and other Kurdish rebel groups.
In addition to his foreign policy and treatment of ethnic minorities, Erdoğan has also been criticized for his religious conservatism and populist strongman style. These criticisms intensified after the Turkish government jailed hundreds of opposition figures in the aftermath of a June coup d'etat attempt, for which Erdoğan blames the Gülen movement.
A constitutional referendum in April, which passed with 51.5 percent of the vote, extended the power of the Turkish presidency over the courts, military, and parliament. President Trump called his Turkish counterpart soon after to congratulate him.
"[Erdoğan] is looking for an excuse to criminalize people standing up against his war crimes, because that's how he treats opposition in Turkey," Bodette told me a few days before Erdoğan's visit, "but this is the United States, and that's not how it works here."
Photo Credit: CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom