In a speech on 1 June, responding to the wave of protests sweeping through Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proclaimed that “the issue is not the 5-10 trees that are being removed.” By calling the demonstrators “ideological,” and suggesting they were simply opposition cadres or opportunistic rioters using the debate over the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Parkı to stoke unrest against his government, Erdoğan meant to discredit them. But on this point, the prime minister and the crowds of people in the streets calling for his resignation would agree: this is now about something much broader than the few hundred trees threatened by the plan to rebuild an Ottoman-era barracks in place of the park, or even about the preservation of a small green space at the center of a sprawling concrete city.
Demonstrators began to gather in the park on Tuesday 28 May, after a call went out for people to defend the park against the bulldozers that had appeared in the middle of the previous night. The initial alert came from Taksim Solidarity (Taksim Dayanışması), an umbrella platform formed to oppose the Taksim redevelopment project in 2012. Taksim Solidarity is spearheaded by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers, and loosely affiliated with a broad coalition of movements organizing around the right to the city and against the kentsel dönüşüm (urban transformation) projects that characterize the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) urban policy: among them, the eviction of working-class and minority populations from shanty-towns and neighborhoods slated for gentrification; the approval of environmentally-destructive infrastructure projects like the third Bosphorus bridge and the Istanbul Canal; and the privatization of formerly public infrastructures and spaces, including the famous Haydarpaşa train station and Gezi Park itself. What began with a small group of people keeping watch over the trees rapidly grew into a round-the-clock occupation of the north end of the park, with tents going up on the second day, and more people joining the rallies with every passing night, their numbers reaching tens of thousands on Thursday evening. When the police raided for the second time at 5:00 a.m, on the 31 May, tear-gassing the occupants and setting up barricades to keep them out of the park, the occupation flared into the broader wave of protest that has continued ever since.
So far, no single ideology or party has been entirely able to capture this movement and turn it into a continuation of politics-as-usual. The makeup and the content of the protests have varied widely from neighborhood to neighborhood and from city to city, with different slogans and symbols (e.g., secularist, nationalist, leftist, and anarchist) predominating in different settings. The millions of people who have joined the demonstrations throughout the country are united by perhaps only two broad concerns: first, a roiling sense of frustration with Erdoğan and his administration’s autocratic approach to governance (initially with respect to the urban transformation process symbolized by the Taksim project, but also on a range of other issues), and second, anger at the violent response of the police, and the failure of the mainstream Turkish media to cover it. At this point, the Gezi protests have drawn participants from nearly every ideological stripe in Turkish politics, except for the supporters of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) themselves. The majority of those taking part are middle-class and secular, but the participation of working-class people, practicing Muslims, and ethnic and religious minorities belies any simplistic attempt to characterize this movement as a simple reiteration of existing divisions between secular and religious, urban and rural, Turkish and non-Turkish, and so forth. The positions and goals of the people participating in the demonstrations are diverse and sometimes incompatible, but the phrase that they are chanting everywhere is “her yer Taksim, her yer direniş” (“everywhere is Taksim, resistance is everywhere”), a slogan hearkening back to Taksim Square, the adjacent Gezi Park, and the contested understanding and use of public space they have come to represent.
Public Space and the Making of Publics
On 2 June, Taksim Solidarity announced four fundamental demands from the government. The fourth and final demand calls for an end “to the banning of meetings and protests in all of Turkey’s squares and public spaces, first and foremost Taksim [Taksim başta olmak üzere Türkiye’deki tüm meydanlarında, kamusal alanlarda toplantı, eylem yasaklarına son verilmelidir].” As the demand suggests, these protests are motivated in part by a desire to “take back” public space—a desire that is not only about resisting a series of controversial urban transformation projects, but about asserting the right to engage in certain kinds of public practices. For some, this means the ability to engage in political protest without fear of police violence (a right, it is important to note, that has been denied to Kurds and other minorities in Turkey for decades). For others, it is connected to the recent outcry over new laws pertaining to the sale and consumption of alcohol and warnings against “immoral” behavior in the Ankara metro (that is, about what kinds of lifestyles and behaviors are promoted and permitted by the state). The vibrant self-organized commune that has sprouted up in Gezi Park over the last week, with its library, garden, kitchens, and tent neighborhoods, has become another object lesson in the re-imagining of a public space. However, we need to be careful about how we frame this question: rather than reading these protests simply as struggles over a single generic “public space,” we might more productively ask about the kinds of spaces that are involved and about the publics that are organized in and through them.
Consider these notes from Timur’s fieldwork in Eyüp, a predominantly religious and conservative neighborhood in Istanbul:
Spoke with Zehra Hanım [her name has been changed] today. We had talked last night about maybe meeting up in Taksim, she tells me today she wasn’t able to make it because she went instead for a tour of the Mavi Marmara. “But,” she added, “I’m really glad I didn’t go to Taksim––when I got home and looked at all the news and the things people were writing about it, the violence, the throwing stones at the police, the breaking of property.” We argued about the square and about the kinds of protest which should and should not be allowed there. “I’ve been there to demonstrate in support of things before,” she said, “but things like this, they shouldn’t be allowed there.” “But,” I returned, “where should they be?” “Küçükçekmece,” she said, referring to a municipality west beyond the airport and some distance from Taksim. It was to Küçükçekmece that the government had suggested moving May Day festivities that year. I replied, “But the whole point is to be seen. That’s why people protest in Taksim!” “But that’s not why I’m in Taksim. There’s no mosque there, there are always people drinking there, I remember my aunt used to live around the corner from Galatasaray [on İstiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian boulevard that feeds into Taksim], there was a cafe full of leftists who would always go out and stir up trouble.” [31 May 2013]
For her, the rebuilding of the barracks in Taksim ––“without,” she pointed out, “cutting down any trees”––and the restriction on protests in the square was absolutely necessary to creating a healthier, more open, and more pleasant space. The Taksim she envisions is also a public space, but one produced for and by a different kind of public, one in line with a set of more conservative norms. This is a public closely in line with the social and political program of the AKP, although we might also think more broadly about the changing trajectories of political publics in the decades since the 1980 coup. Indeed, many of the people we have spoken with over the past few days reference the political violence of the late 1970s, in which struggles over public space were closely tied to political divisions. Public space is always political, insofar as it involves a particular imaginary of the public, people, and their authority. What began in Taksim and has since spread far beyond is, in part, a debate about what kinds of political behavior can emerge from particular spaces. Even as we marvel at the new kinds of sociability that are emerging in places like Gezi Park right now, it is important to continue asking about the boundaries (material, economic, cultural, and religious) of those publics, about the terms upon which people come to be included within them, and about the capacity for particular spaces to accommodate multiple publics. If “Taksim is ours,” as many have come to say, it is necessary to continue asking who that “we” is, how it comes to be constituted, and how inclusive it is, and can or cannot become.
A Tree or Its Meaning
It is perhaps because the initial mobilization around Gezi Park was largely divorced from the standard categories of political organization and party affiliation in Turkey that it was able to develop into such a broad and unpredictable protest movement. While Taksim Square has long been important both as a political symbol (especially for the Turkish left and labor movement) and as a site of public political practice, Gezi Park was—until last week—a much less politically and emotionally charged place. The movement to stop its demolition was initially framed in terms of the preservation of green space—of having nefes alınacak bir yer (a place to breathe)—and resistance to the enclosure of a commons, given the announcements that the reconstructed barracks would probably house a shopping mall, hotel, and private residences. In this context, Gezi’s threatened trees—and the park in which they stand—have become a potent and flexible symbol, one open enough to be harnessed by a range of people and political viewpoints. In the early days of the occupation, the banners and posters around the park gestured at this multiplicity: placards quoting a line from communist poet Nazim Hikmet—"to live like a tree, solitary and free, and like a forest, in brotherhood/this is our longing”—hung adjacent to a banner from an organization of “revolutionary Muslims” featuring a quote from the Qur’an—“the trees bow down before God.” Nearby were spray-painted slogans about the importance of green space—“parks, not concrete”—and similar environmentalist claims, more emphatic denunciations of rent-seeking capital and neoliberal urbanization, as well as a series of banners screen-printed with the giant marching tree-spirit Ents from movie version of The Lord of the Rings.
Since the withdrawal of the police and the reoccupation of the park on 1 June, the trees have been festooned with banners and signs—“listen to your conscience, don’t kill me”—and personified with the names (and in some cases, photos) of people killed in the Roboski/Uludere massacre and the Reyhanlı bombing—an effort to link this struggle to the Kurdish rights movement and the ongoing controversy over Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict. After the death of Abdullah Cömert, a young protester in Antakya, on 3 June, his name and image were added to the trees, with the caption “Gezi park martyr.” The trees have become a sort of floating signifier, seemingly apolitical enough to be available to a diverse range of movements, parties, and positions, while still tangible and rooted in a specific place. On 31 May, one activist in Ankara tweeted a line from Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red: “Ben bir ağacın kendisi değil, manası olmak istiyorum” (“I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning”). Because the question of what a tree means is up for grabs, it has become an icon around which people alienated from or uninterested in mainstream party politics can rally. While the protests have drawn some of their energy and turnout from the participation of organizations with a long tradition of political mobilization in Turkey, they have also been able to engage a group of people who consider themselves either apolitical or unaffiliated with these movements. Furthermore, while various political parties and movements––most notably the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its Kemalist and secularist constituency––have tried to coopt the energy of the protests to their own ends, they have met with considerable resistance from the organizers in the park itself.
But this does not mean that the symbolic openness of Gezi Park is universally available. The movement’s valorization of the park as a public space that belongs to everyone elides another part of its history. The site of the current park overlaps with that of the Surp Agop Armenian Cemetery, which was expropriated and destroyed in the 1930s to make way for the construction of Turkish Radio & Television’s Istanbul Radio building and the hotels that now surround the park on its northern and eastern sides. The stairs in the park were constructed out of gravestones stolen from the cemetery. Some members of Istanbul’s Armenian community have joined the occupation, and sought to reverse that absent past with signs saying “you took our cemetery—you won’t take our park,” but others are alienated by the initial erasure of this history embedded in the movement’s rhetorical claim that “Gezi belongs to all of us.”
Infrastructure as Performance
As the ongoing occupation of the park, square, and their surroundings has altered these spaces, the visible traces of the transformations wrought by the protests have become another source of debate. “Wreckage Was Left,” ran the lead headline for the pro-government newspaper Star on Monday 3 June. “Environmental awareness,” added the conservative Zaman, “turned into burn and destroy.” The image of a burned-out vehicle in Taksim, its windows broken in and graffiti scrawled over its sides, was prominently displayed in both panels. The liberal-leaning Radikal ran a photo from the same square, but its cover was strikingly different in both content and message. In the background was the same vehicle shown on the other two covers; but in the foreground, a group of activists working side-by-side to clean up the square. The banner headline ran, “Now is the time to learn the lesson.” These images of destruction and reconstruction draw our attention not only to the contested narratives about the malign or benign motives of the protests, but to the role that property and place play in public discourse in Turkey today.
One of the signal accomplishments of Erdoğan and the AKP over the past decade has been the way the party has used infrastructure projects (both large and small) to both ground their political authority and to naturalize a particular project of generating value. Whether at the municipal or national level, the opening of new buildings, roads, bridges, cultural centers, sewer lines, theme parks, and housing developments serve as opportunities to link the transformation of the built environment with the continued success of the AKP. Indeed, in identifying their political impact so closely with the transformation of urban environments and the provision of services to the urban population, the AKP has developed a political vocabulary that links local experiences into a much broader, national coalition. The opening ceremony for the third bridge on 29 May was one recent instance of this. The rhetoric of the event was of a rising nation and a more prosperous, developed Istanbul. Its spectators were largely AKP cadres ferried in from all parts of the city. As for the rampant land speculation which will funnel money into private hands as Istanbul’s northern reaches are developed, destroying much of its remaining forests and reservoirs, that is taken to be the natural order of things.
As we have spoken with Istanbul residents sympathetic to the AKP over the past week, many have framed the success of the party in terms of these (infra)structures. A cafe owner in the largely secular neighborhood of Kadıköy (where the opposition CHP has organized rallies in support of the protests) echoed some of these sentiments in a conversation with Elizabeth, contrasting the economic growth of the past decade and the expansion of Istanbul’s public transit system with the gridlock and inflation of the 1990s. While he disagreed with many of the recent policies of the AKP government (such as the restrictions on alcohol sales and smoking in public places), he said, “even a bad decision is better than indecisiveness.” This is a rhetorical claim that Erdoğan frequently makes in his own defence—that he is a decisive leader, that his administration is effective at providing services, and that he gets things done. Istanbul, he argues, is cleaner, more organized, and runs better than it did when the opposition was in power. The AKP, he says, wants to make a more beautiful, more modern city—claims that were echoed in the speech he made to a crowd of supporters upon his return to Turkey on the night of 6-7 June. As much as we may disagree with such arguments about the impact and benefits of the AKP’s urban policies, it is important to remember that they are rhetorically and aesthetically compelling to those who make up Erdoğan’s political base.
If the AKP’s success has been grounded upon what might be termed a performance of (infra)structures, it will be revealing to see whether these protests will be able to develop alternative ways of thinking about both urban transformation and the production of value, and express those critiques to a broader public that has previously been sympathetic to such projects, even as they have shared unequally in the results. Indeed, we argue that one of the things that helped to lay the foundation for these protests is a decade-long struggle of activists like those who founded Taksim Dayanışması for a more equitable and sustainable approach to urban planning and policy. Their critical vocabulary has been one of the common vernaculars of the recent protests. Beneath the calls for the resignation of Erdoğan and for solidarity against authoritarian politics also runs a growing dissatisfaction with the ways that the city is being reshaped, with the proliferation of high-rise concrete towers, shopping malls, and luxury hotels, with the aesthetics and spaces of neo-Ottoman neoliberal urbanism. The vision of the city being articulated in Gezi Park today, with its emphasis on grassroots organization and mutual solidarity, presents a challenge to the AKP’s claim that it is the only political force able to build things and provide services. But it is unclear whether the movement will succeed in extending that vision beyond that particular space, to the variety of other people who are taking to the streets around the city and country, and to those who have stayed home so far.
Conclusion: Future Traces?
Recalling his visit to Taksim over the weekend, the same man who had earlier praised Erdoğan’s decisiveness called it “a freedom square.” He marveled at the range of political constituencies coexisting in the space, and at the differences between his generation and the young people who made up many (though by no means all) of the protestors. “This is something new,” he said. It is impossible to be certain what will come of these protests and of the novel forms of political practice and community that seem to be emerging out of their terrain. One of the most interesting dimensions of this movement is how intensely it has been self-documented, partly in reaction to the initial failure of much of the mainstream Turkish media to cover the demonstrations. What will happen when the graffiti is painted over, and when—if—the confrontations in the streets diminish in intensity? As we have tried to argue, the AKP’s claim to political authority has stemmed in part from its production of material infrastructures that testify to its effectiveness. The apparent durability of those objects and spaces undergirds the seeming durability of the AKP—and of Erdoğan himself—in power. Over the past week and a half, Taksim Square and Gezi Park have emerged as vibrant spaces of possibility. But it remains to be seen what the durable effects of their transformation will be.
Even if the future of Gezi Park and Taksim Square––and the kind of possibilities and paradoxes they represent––are still in doubt, we know at least this much: they have become the site of an unusual and striking convergence of people and perspectives, one unprecedented in Turkey’s history. We do not yet know what kinds of publics will emerge from these spaces and how open they will be, but they stand as a testament to the right to protest, the right to be different, and the right to assert other claims to the streets and the city. Our hope––like that of many of the people gathered in Taksim and Gezi Park right now––is that they are able to extend that sense of possibility and inclusiveness, and generate spaces that are open to different publics, in place of the narrow and polarized claims that have sought to mold a singular kind of place and people in the past. That, we think, could be a Taksim everywhere.