It is with alarming regularity that I read coverage of the protests and ensuing police brutality that erupted in Gezi Park and Taksim Square, Istanbul that emphatically insists that the confrontations are about “so much more than a park.” Reassuring their readers that the protests are not about something as silly or simple as the defense of a small park against redevelopment, analysts are eager to enumerate a bundle of decisions taken by the Turkish government, and in particular the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, ranging from the regulation of public consumption of alcohol to media censorship and journalist arrests to the brutal violence with which the regime waged its war on Kurdish “terrorists,” to explain the enormity of the protests and intensity of police-protestors confrontations. There is no doubt, and there is ample careful and nuanced documentation, of the fact that protestors who have joined the protests in Taksim Square and other Turkish urban centers after 28 May are protesting AKP (Justice and Development Party) governance on many different dimensions, showing frustration with both the government’s position on a multitude of issues as well as their mode of governance. In sidelining the importance of the redevelopment of Gezi park as the space and policy over which the initial confrontation erupted, however, we miss an opportunity to understand the core vulnerabilities of the Turkish regime as well as the power and centrality of the defense of the right to the city as a cause to be protected and championed by its citizenry. This is about the park. On the one hand this is about a government that stands by to watch protest after protest of their policies without as much as flinching but unleashes unprecedented police brutality against an initial handful of a hundred or so non-violent protestors defending their park against not tanks but bulldozers. On the other, this is about a people who chose to flock to the streets against the repression of activists defending their right to the city in numbers and ways that the repression of Kurdish minorities or mounting arrests of journalists had never evoked. What was so powerful about the park?
Erdoğan’s Rise and Demise on Istanbul’s Coattails
Although many like to claim that Erdoğan and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power because they appealed to a Turkish majority hoping for a more “Islamic” Turkey, it is actually well-documented that the celebrated work of Erdoğan and several other renowned leaders of the AKP as mayors of Turkish urban centers in the 1990s is what galvanized support for the party when it first formed and ran for elections in 2002, and continued to capture swing voters over the past decade. The improvement of many urban services in Istanbul was, deservedly or not, attributed to Erdoğan, including the improvement of garbage collection services and public transportation systems, the creation of public parks with remarkable outdoor gyms and the continuation of a project started in the 1980s by Mayor Bedrettin Dalan to clean the polluted and malodorous waters of the Golden Horn. It was in fact quite striking to me, as I conducted research on urban transformation in Istanbul in 2012, the extent to which residents of diverse political leanings would single out and praise the AKP for their urban service delivery as their biggest accomplishment rather than say “growth” or “Islamism”. Most such services and projects were seen by friends and foes alike as falling within the scope of healthy urban governance and management.
Most activists date the shift in AKP policy from urban management to violent kentsel dönüşüm or urban transformation policies to the legislation of what is referred to as the “Renewal and Preservation Law” no. 5366 by the AKP-majority Grand National Assembly of Turkey in June of 2005. The law empowered urban municipalities to transform neighborhoods deemed “urban renewal” areas in accordance with large-scale renewal plans that would most likely evacuate the neighborhoods’ residents. If property owners within such areas did not agree to the compensation offered for their property, the municipalities were enabled to condemn and take the property as an act of “acil kamulaştırma” or emergency nationalization. Moreover, it put negligible mechanisms in place to ensure that Istanbul’s residents and in particular the communities of targeted neighborhoods would be involved in the planning of these urban renewal projects. The urban transformation program was first implemented in the Roma (or Gypsy)-dominated Sulukule neighborhood. There, residents were evacuated and the neighborhood was bulldozed to the ground in its entirety to be replaced by pre-fabricated apartment buildings modeled on American suburban complexes [see photo below]. Sulukule property owners were given minimal compensation for their buildings in accordance with the nationalization decrees and renters or those without valid property deeds were offered the choice to buy apartments in public housing settlements fifty kilometers from the center of the city. It was then followed by a project in Tarlabaşı, a neighborhood adjacent to Taksim Square and dominated by Kurdish residents, where the population was similarly displaced and the buildings were evacuated, but most remained standing due to their status as historical buildings. As seen in the photograph below, however, the buildings were left unprotected from pillaging or recurring fires. Since then the planning of urban transformation projects in tens of Istanbul’s neighborhoods have followed similar patterns. In some cases, as in Sulukule, the state would implement the urban transformation project itself and in others private sector winners of a government bid would implement the project. In the case of Tarlabaşı, it was Çalık Holding’s Construction arm, GAP İnşaat, that won the bid. What was more remarkable about GAP than the fact that it had never been involved in historic preservation projects of any scale before taking on this holistic neighborhood-level project in the historic city center, was the fact that the CEO of Çalık Holding is none other than Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak. Not only was the AKP’s new agenda for the city dispossessive and autocratic but it also reeked of the corruption the AKP had been hailed by many scholars of the Middle East to be uniquely immune to. The cherry on top arrived in the legislation of the Afet Yasası or “Disaster Law” no. 6306 in May of 2012 that declared the launch of a government program to assess the safety of any and all buildings (and especially those in Turkish urban centers) against the risk of earthquake damage. The main issue is that the state had decided to take it upon itself, in alliance with its partners in the construction industry, to demolish and rebuild buildings deemed unsafe and transfer property ownership in a manner similar to the nationalization process ordained in the renewal laws. It is worth noting here that along with the AKP many other politicians from across the political spectrum have approved such legislation and implemented them in their districts as well, but the AKP pioneers the leadership and initiative for the project. The government had empowered itself to grasp and control the design and redevelopment of any and all neighborhoods of the city in a full assault on the pillars of what we once knew to be Istanbul.
[Photo of Tarlabaşı neighborhood in Istanbul after its residents were evacuated from it in the winter of 2011-2012. The buildings were pillaged and suffered from recurring fires. The billboards on the main boulevard in the left corner of the photo present the plans for Tarlabaşı of the future. The photo was taken in March of 2012 by author.]
The assault on Istanbul’s neighborhoods was coupled with a government fetish for mega public and infrastructural projects that would give the city the facelift it needs to become a “Global Istanbul.” Such projects designed and announced in the wake of Istanbul’s prominent status as European Cultural Capital of 2010, included the protested plan for Taksim Square, plans for a third airport in Istanbul designed to be the world’s largest and the oft-cited plan to build a third bridge across the Bosphorus to connect the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. The most megalomaniacal of these projects is the plan, known as “Erdoğan’s crazy project,” to dig a canal connecting the Black Sea and Marmara Sea designed to reroute tanker traffic away from the scenic Bosphorus Strait that already connects the Black Sea and Marmara Sea. The canal would split the European side of Istanbul into a peninsula and an island, and as Erdoğan declared when he campaigned for it, the canal is projected to surpass the scale of the Suez and Panama Canal projects, which incidentally connected unlinked bodies of water. In addition to displacing thousands of the city’s residents to make way for the implementation of such projects, they would severely alter the ways in which Istanbul’s residents navigate and access their shared and public spaces; giving priority to motorists over pedestrians to the demise of a remarkably walkable city. What started as the politics of urban public goods provision as a means to domestic popularity has developed into an obsession to single-handedly redesign Istanbul as the gateway to Turkish global prestige, investment and tourism, even and often at the expense of its own residents.
The Core Vulnerabilities of the AKP’s Project and the Politics of Space
What becomes clear from this brief overview is that the redevelopment of Gezi Park and Taksim Square is not an isolated project but is one that grows from a long history of violent, undemocratic and corrupt urban redevelopment pioneered by the AKP. With the decreasing marginal returns of the export-led growth that pushed many AKP supporters (known as the Anatolian Tigers) to economic prominence, capital accumulation through urban redevelopment has developed into one of the bulwarks of the AKP’s core projects. For the AKP, urban redevelopment provides its support base with the economic stimulation it needs, through dubious partnerships in the construction sector, and empowers the government to reshape and control their city spaces in ways that aim to reproduce a society in line with the party’s ideals.
In fact, for the AKP, Islam is urban redevelopment. Urban redevelopment was packaged and delivered to party supporters as a central venue through which the state was developing a better society. I was personally schooled in this lesson at the AKP-run offices of Fatih Municipality in Istanbul in the summer of 2012. Towards the end of an interview with a government official about one of the Sulukule urban transformation project, the official started to sense from my questions that I am in fact critical of the project and its “social” goals. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he looked at me with severity and asked, “Müsülman mısın?” [translated as “Are you a Muslim?”]. I was taken aback for a second thinking that it should be obvious to him from my headscarf I that I am in fact a Muslim, until the rhetorical nature of the question quickly dawned on me. I was expected, as a supposed Muslim, to see the linkage between urban redevelopment and an Islamic mission.
[Photo of Sulukule neighborhood after it was razed to the ground. The photo depicts the construction of a new apartment complex where Sulukule used to stand. The photo was taken by the author, July 2012.]
Standing at the heart of their economic and ideological projects, urban redevelopment thus made its way to becoming one of the AKP’s central missions, and burst onto the political scene in full force as a central component of the party’s platform during the 2011 election campaigns. It was, in fact, during these campaigns that Erdoğan initially revealed his ill-fated plans for Taksim Square. Thus, it is quite significant that the Turkish government decided to unleash the greatest police brutality (or unrest against civilians) since the 1998 coup against a small and seemingly non-threatening group of protestors defending a park against redevelopment. The point here is that the protestors were very threatening. It was not a fluke that the government had decided to tolerate protests against its media censorship policies, minority repression, or increasing intervention in the fields of family and reproductive planning but decided to brutally repress a small group of protestors against the redevelopment of Gezi park. [I want to highlight here that the AKP government has chosen to adopt a severely repressive and violent policy against the Kurdish minority waging a full war against Kurdish “terrorists” in the South East that escalated since 2009.] There was a reason for the government’s choice to repress Gezi protestors in particular. The protestors had hit at the nerve of the AKP’s raison d’être and its largest vulnerability.
In unmasking the core vulnerabilities of the regime, the protests also showcased the power of attacks on the right to the city in galvanizing a massive protest movement against a repressive regime. It was not a fait accompli that the repression of a small number of urban activists protecting Gezi park would necessarily galvanize the unprecedented hundreds of thousands (possibly more than a million at some points in time) of protestors to the streets of Istanbul, and later other major urban centers such as Ankara and Izmir. Many acts of violence by the Turkish state in recent years including the violence against Kurdish minorities and the mounting arrests of journalists and students in the past two years in no way elicited the kind of reaction we see today. Defending the right to the city touches upon and resonates with the lives of so many, carrying the powerful force necessary to rally such an encompassing resistance.
[Graffiti in photo reads: "We are not an urban transformation project." The graffiti was found in Cihangir, Istanbul -- a neighborhood directly adjacent to Taksim. The photo was taken by Avital Livny on 15 June 2013 and sent to author in personal communication.]
The right to the city stands at the core of the political. The ability of people to decide the fate of their city, use their spaces as best fits their daily and expressive needs, feel secure in their property and receive essential services are at the heart of the relations that bind a citizenry to its government. Significant proportions of swing voter Turks had initially voted for Erdoğan and his party because their performance in managing their cities as mayors had guaranteed many of these needs that are so essential to their understanding of citizenship. Today they rise in protest against the violence with which their control over their city’s fate has been torn from them. Although people joined the protests in defense of a diverse array of causes against the Turkish government’s autocracy, the right to defend their city was the powerful rallying point for launching resistance against more generalized autocratic governance for a reason. The government had gone too far in repressing activists for a cause that stands at the core of citizens’ daily concerns and their relationship to their state. The powerful protests that erupted from Gezi park should remind those of us who are scholars and analysts of the political that management of spaces daily navigated by citizens is at the core of state-society relations. More emphatically, it should push us to expand our research agendas in ways that surpass understanding governance through a focus on electoral politics and economic performance, which remain too narrow to explain a phenomenon as powerful as the protests that erupted around the redevelopment of Gezi park.