Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- Sitting down with the protesters in Gezi Park, the message to the government from demonstrators, young and old, seems simple enough: Don't try to control us.
Incinerated cars, desecrated monuments and homemade banners now litter Istanbul's commercial hub, Taksim Square, after demonstrations at the weekend turned violent when police moved in to scatter protesters.
"They are trying to decide whether we drink alcohol," industrial design student Ozgsa Bertag-Apunaman, 20, says calmly: "Telling us how many children we should have and if a woman should have an abortion or not."
He recalls how he was left breathless after being struck on the back with a tear gas canister fired by police. "They're aiming at us. A shell exploded on my backpack. Luckily I had it on."
The clashes were sparked following a peaceful demonstration against the government's proposal to uproot Gezi Park and erect in its place a shopping mall styled like a 19th-century Ottoman barracks.
But for many Turks now massing in the park and on Taksim Square, a new mall is more than just another eyesore; it is a symbol of autocratic rule from a government that, in their view, is harking back to bygone days when this city -- once considered a gateway to Asia -- was ruled by emperors.
Gozde, 19, a university pupil studying genetics, joined the protests with her mother and is worried for the future of her country under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"Everyone thinks he's a dictator," she tells CNN. "He is acting with his ego... We're not terrorists but that's how he wants to show it."
Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted party Justice and Development Party further infuriated demonstrators by labelling them "a few looters," adding that the protests in Istanbul and Turkey's capital, Ankara, are the work of opposition extremists trying to challenge the government.
The prime minister has said that he could bring large crowds of his supporters onto the streets should he chose to do so. He has also attacked speculation about his position online, criticizing Twitter for helping people spread "lies" and saying that social media "is the worst menace to society.''
A more conciliatory tone from the government emerged Tuesday, when Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologized "for the police aggression against our citizens who were involved in the initial protests and acted with environmental concern," Anadolu, Turkey's semi-official news agency, reported.
Metehan, 19, a university student studying English literature, believes the government's latest policy initiatives and the "brutal" measures taken by police are a true reflection of the state of Turkish democracy.
"Democracy is not just voting but protecting the voices of the minorities," he says. "Istanbul is a historical city and many cultures existed here and we want to protect this history."
Istanbul -- a metropolis of 12 million people -- is famed as a melting pot of cultures where Christianity and Islam heritage are fused into one city. While the protests rage on in Taksim Square, much of the city remains peaceful. In the tourist hub of Sultanahmet, across the Bosphorous, it's business as usual.
But according to Ayean, 33, a fashion designer, the "beautiful" mix that exists in Istanbul, along with people's way of life in the city, is under threat.
"He [Erdogan] is starting to define people as alcoholics if they drink," she said in a reference to the recent enactment of stricter alcohol controls. "It's just against freedom whatever your background."
Modern-day Turkey was founded in 1923 under secular laws which replaced traditional religious legal codes. Under Erdogan and his ruling AKP party, Turkey has lifted curbs on public expression of religion, including strict limits on women wearing Islamic-style headscarves.
Rock star and environmentalist Haluk Levent, 44, believes it's about time that Erdogan listened to the concerns of the country's young people. "It does not surprise me that the police have been so brutal. The government is turning Turkey into a police state and this worries me."