WASHINGTON — Demonstrators angry with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gathered outside the White House Wednesday to protest his visit to Washington, chanting “Turkey out of Syria” and “Turkey is a terrorist!”
The gathering came amid heightened security along Pennsylvania Avenue to avoid a repeat of Erdogan’s last visit in 2017, when clashes broke out between his security guards and a group protesting the president outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence at Sheridan Circle.
Demonstrators at Lafayette Square on Wednesday included people upset with Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria targeting American allied Syrian Kurds, which followed President Donald Trump’s ordered withdrawal of troops along the border. Other issues include the century-old mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, which the U.S. House of Representatives recently recognized as genocide.
The demonstration came as Erdogan visited with Trump in the White House and the leaders held a news conference.
A brief scuffle broke out early in the afternoon when a man in a long black coat, who appeared to be an Erdogan supporter, walked into the crowd. Shouts directed at him carried over speeches and chants as cursing demonstrators pushed to get closer to him.
Chris Walsh, 30, who came from Boston to attend the rally confronted the man, who was silent as a line of District of Columbia police officers escorted him out of Lafayette Square.
As he went, he held up a hand and made a gesture associated with far-right Turkish nationalist group, the Grey Wolves — his pinky and index fingers raised.
Police officers pushed protesters back into the park. Others, mounted on horseback, blocked exits to the street. “Get back,” they shouted. “Back into the park, let’s go!”
It was a brief flash of violence in an otherwise calm demonstration, where children ran through the grass and jumped up and down on signs depicting images of Erdogan’s face.
Shahnaz Kocher, 41, brought her sons — ages 6 and 7 — so they could “start to understand the history of a place called Kurdistan.”
‘We have been betrayed’
She said standing so close to where Erdogan was meeting with Trump felt surreal.
“What a shame to America,” she said.
Seyid Riza Dersimi, 62, was one of the protesters injured last year. He said Turkish security officers beat him so badly he was hospitalized with a head injury. On Wednesday, he wore a white construction helmet as he addressed the crowd.
“I am not scared of him,” he said to cheers. “Of course I’m going to demonstrate. But this time, I am going to make sure I protect myself.”
For hours, protesters marched around the square, beating drums, waving flags — Syrian, Kurdish, Armenian, American and others — and chanting.
“Turkey out of Syria!” the crowd roared. “Erdogan is a terrorist!”
Many had traveled to the District to be present at the rally. Dlier Rasheed Hosny, 58, arrived from Montreal to join others in decrying Trump’s decision to pull American troops from Syria.
“We have been betrayed by him,” Hosny said.
Kemal Oz, a veteran who served in the army for four years, including a tour in Iraq from 2008 to 2009, wore his army fatigues to the rally to show “not all Americans, not all veterans agree with what (Trump) is doing.”
“I came here to say, ‘Not in my name,’” said Oz, who lives in Dallas and came to Washington, D.C., for the rally. “The Kurds were our strongest allies in the Middle East. We should never have sold them out like we did.”
Lisa Stepanian, 61, of New York, wore a button on her chest that said “the Turkish Delight is murder.”
She had heard about the violence that marred Erdogan’s 2017 visit, but decided to come anyway.
“My ancestors were all killed,” she said. “If I can’t come out here and demand (Erdogan) is made to account for his actions when there’s a little risk, then shame on me.”
With temperatures hovering in the 30s, protesters handed out hand warmers, cigarettes and hot cups of coffee poured from portable thermoses.
The group planned to march to Sheridan Circle after Trump’s and Erdogan’s news conference concluded.
Police are hoping to avoid a confrontation like that which occurred when Erdogan visited Washington two years ago. Members of his security team broke through a police line and beat demonstrators gathered at Sheridan Circle, outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in northwest Washington, and along Massachusetts Avenue leading to the Turkish Embassy.
Several demonstrators, along with police and Secret Service agents, were injured, and authorities charged 15 members of Erdogan’s security detail with various counts of assault. Charges were later dropped against all but four of the guards.
Turkish leaders linked demonstrators to the separatist Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which both Turkey and the United States have designated a terrorist organization. Demonstrators denied being associated with that group.
Erdogan denounced D.C. police for failing to protect him and his entourage, and said it was necessary the guards take action because local law enforcement either refused or were incapable.