After five days of battling police forces, Taksim Solidarity, a collective formed by protesters in Turkey’s largest city and dedicated to advocacy for the threatened green space of Gezi Park, finally listed its demands Monday night: That Gezi Park remain a park; officials involved in the recent police aggression are forced to resign immediately; tear gas bombs banned; all jailed protesters released; and demonstrations allowed throughout Turkey.
As of Tuesday, protests have flared in dozens of cities across the country, and at least 1,700 people have been arrested, hundreds injured and at least two killed, with a handful in critical condition. Just today, a 240,000-member workers union began a two-day nationwide strike to protest the police’s excessive use of force. Why the sudden mass support? “This is not about a park,” read a leaflet circulated online. “This is about democracy.”
It may have begun with the Emek Theatre, a century-old Istanbul cinema torn down by the municipal government to become a mall six weeks ago. Or with the way the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) rushed to pass a restrictive new alcohol law last month. Or the way Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended it, saying the previous laws on alcohol had been created by “two drunkards” (likely referring to the beloved founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and his comrade-in-arms Ismet Inonu, the country’s second president), while his new version was “commanded by religion.” It might have started with the government’s long-running crackdown on domestic media and freedom of expression, or its decision to eschew a master plan for Istanbul.
Whatever the case, by this past weekend, when a demonstration to save one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul exploded in a matter of hours into a visceral national movement, it was clear that Turks had had enough of the AKP’s authoritarianism. Catalyzed by an unwanted makeover of public space, Istanbul residents demanded a say in the governance of their country and the development of their urban environment. A small group of determined urban activists transformed a local effort to “save the trees” into a call heard around the world to “reclaim the streets, and the country.”
Just a month ago, Erdogan was at the peak of his power, plotting to rewrite the constitution and transform the government to install a French-style presidential system. After a decade of strong economic growth, Turkey is brash and influential, much like its leader. Istanbul, the country’s cultural capital and economic engine, has developed into a tourist mecca and go-go metropolis of 15 million, where jackhammers, scaffolding and construction cranes are as familiar as the city’s cigarette-slim minarets.
Istanbul is only 1.5 percent green space, compared to 17 percent in New York City. The city’s central area of Beyoglu is particularly nature-free. At the northeast rim of Taksim Square, Gezi Park may be unkempt and little appreciated, but it is also one of the few remaining areas with trees in the district. On top of that, in a city suddenly filled with swank shopping destinations, it was slated to become yet another mall.
“Just like our ancestors, we are continuing to write history and leave behind creations,” Erdogan said at a groundbreaking ceremony for a $3 billion bridge over the Bosporus last week. The bridge, to be completed in 2015, is named after 16th century Ottoman conqueror Yavuz Sultan Selim — the man widely seen as responsible for the slaughter of Alevis, a moderate Muslim people that today makes up some 15 percent of Turkey’s population of 75 million. “This is how we are building a powerful Turkey,” Erdogan added. “For the seven hills of Istanbul, we have seven grand projects — one is this bridge, a third necklace over the Bosphorus.”
Other Erdogan-backed projects in the works for Istanbul include the world’s largest airport, the city’s largest mosque on a hill overlooking the Bosporous, and a project to carve out a Suez Canal-style waterway to the west of the city, linking the Marmara to the Black Sea — a project the prime minister himself has called “crazy.” Thus far, the government has made all the decisions about these projects with little to no public discussion.
The third bridge had long been opposed by progressives and environmentalists because its anchors were to be built in some of Istanbul’s last great swathes of green, not far from the Black Sea, and the expectation was that the resulting traffic would doom those areas to smog and sprawl. Yet the government, led by Erdogan’s AKP, went ahead despite the opposition. Again, residents were not consulted.
Other troubling government actions in Istanbul include the following: Mass evictions of low-income residents to make way for renewal in tumbledown Istanbul districts like Sulukule, Tarlabasi and Zeytinburnu; the stoppage of May Day activities in Taksim Square by cutting ferry, bus and metro service in the area and sending out tens of thousands of policemen to apply liberal doses of teargas; and the evisceration of Taksim, the heart of the city and the site of a constant stream of smaller protests in recent years.
Several dozen protesters took to the park early last week and refused to vacate to allow for demolition. In response, Erdogan underestimated the people’s frustration and overestimated his own power. “Do whatever you want,” he said. “We have made our decision on Gezi park.”
Police came to retake Gezi Park at dawn last Thursday, burning tents and applying teargas, pepper spray and the occasional beating. The protesters scattered but soon returned. After authorities again forcibly evicted the demonstrators the following morning, protesters returned in greater numbers and spread details of the attacks via social media.
With the national media cowering, much of the news about what came to be known as Occupy Gezi has spread, particularly in those first few days, via Twitter and Facebook. One photo from last Thursday — of a smart-looking woman in a red dress, white handbag slung over her shoulder, all but ignoring a policeman’s aggressive pepper spraying — became a symbol of protesters’ defiance.
Woman in red becomes leitmotif for Istanbul’s female protesters. Credit: Photo by Osman Orsal. Reuters.
Other widely circulated images included a gas-masked whirling dervish protester and, not surprisingly, some nasty head wounds. Protesters in Turkey have flooded networks with up to 100,000 tweets an hour, directing each other to hotspots, calling for media coverage and highlighting authorities’ acts of violence. They used the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo to raise more than $80,000 for a full-page ad in the New York Times.
Not all the protesters have been angels. They set dumpsters on fire, graffitied walls, smashed windows, looted shops and burnt cars. Some used small makeshift weapons. But the vast majority has been peaceful, and Sunday morning many of them worked together to clean Gezi Park.
Erdogan, yet to respond to the demands of Taksim Solidarity while on a state visit to North Africa, seems to have turned into a modern-day Selim the Grim. “There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” he said during a TV interview Sunday, echoing dictators everywhere. “To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” The following day, as Turkey’s stock market took its biggest tumble since Erdogan came to power, he blamed the protests on “extremist elements” and said intelligence agencies were looking for a foreign hand. He also said, “anyone who drinks is an alcoholic” and threatened to meet the protesters’ numbers with more of his own.
Solidarity from Zuccotti Park to Gezi Park. Occupy Wall Street and members of New York City’s Turkish community picketed the Turkish consulate in New York Street on June 3. Credit:Michael Fleshman on Flickr
Leaders of Turkey have never been big on checks and balances, but Erdogan’s decade in power seems to have warped his understanding of his position and of democracy itself. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Growing up in conservative, working-class Kasimpasha, Erdogan earned a reputation as a take-no-prisoners brawler. Rather than negotiate or surrender when cornered and losing control, a brawler keeps on fighting, clinging to the feisty, indomitable attitude that put him on top. He has let go of his mall plan for Gezi, but suggested he might build a mosque in its place.
With the prime minister the clear loser, the big winners from the past week are President Abdullah Gul, who has hit many of the right notes in responding to the protesters and who seems to have opened a rift between himself and the suddenly out-of-touch Erdogan; Turkey’s youth, who now have a much greater understanding of their power; and Istanbul, the city Mehmed II conquered so many years ago has discovered, once again, that it is unconquerable, and largely able to control its own destiny.
And one more, outside Turkey: The international urbanist community, which has a new, tone-perfect example of how concerns about public space can spur greater, broader calls for democracy and basic rights, and how people everywhere are equally willing to fight for some measure of control of their parks, neighborhoods and built environment.
Due to its still-considerable support, there’s no reason to expect the AKP to fade from Turkish politics anytime soon. But Erdogan’s stranglehold on national power may continue to slip with more clashes in the days to come. As I write, reports are flooding in of more teargas in Ankara, Antalya and other cities, while thousands of Istanbullus head toward Taksim Square early Tuesday evening. Once more unto the breach.
Story originally ran at NextCity.org, on June 5th 2013.