[This statement was released by the Taksim Gezi Park Association in May 2015.]
Gezi Park Is an Indestructible Momumental City Park. Come and Breathe Freely Here
As the symbol of the great Uprising of Turkey (2013), Taksim Gezi Park is a city park within the borders of Beyoğlu, a historically cosmopolitan urban district in Istanbul. Located between Taksim Square and Elmadağ, Gezi Park is well known as the first park of the Republican Era. Likewise, Taksim Square, bordering the park on the south side, is the first square that was designed as an open public space.
The story of Gezi Park began in 1806 when the Taksim Artillery Barracks were built on the site where Gezi Park now exists. The Barracks witnessed the 31 March Incident of 1909 that resulted in dethroning Sultan Abdulhamid during the late Ottoman Empire. The barracks suffered considerable damage during this incident and began to disintegrate due to the high cost of maintenance and repair. Between 1921-1940, the internal courtyard of the Barracks served as the first soccer field in Istanbul. The original architectural plans and drawings of the Barracks have been lost.
Henri Prost, a French city planner and architect, made the master city plan of 1939 in which he envisioned an area of thirty hectares (seventy-four acres) as a green belt for recreational purposes. Taksim Gezi Park was designated as the beginning of this continuous green space stretching from Taksim Square all the way to the neighborhood of Nişantaşı. In accordance with Prost`s city plan and the order of the city governor and mayor Lütfi Kırdar, the ruins of the Barracks were removed between 1939 and 1940, and a beautiful park was constructed on the spot in 1943. Nevertheless, the larger park as planned in the master city plan of 1939 has yet to be completed.
Gezi Park has a smaller and much lesser known section corresponding to the back side of the Divan Hotel. This land was part of the Surp Agop Armenian Cemetery. The two parts of Gezi Park were connected by an elegant bridge stretching over Asker Ocağı Street (unfortunately, this bridge, named after Henri Prost, was demolished as part of the pedestrianization project of Taksim Square in 2013). In the decades following 1950, the lands once designated for the future public recreational area began to be plundered piece by piece and turned into apartment buildings.
Finally, in 2013, neoliberal politicians set their eyes on Taksim Gezi Park, which is the only green space left in the vicinity and the only possible gathering spot in case of an emergency such as an earthquake. Without any consultation of the people in the neighborhoods or any NGOs, the prime minister declared that he would build a residence building and shopping mall (under the guise of the Taksim Artillery Barracks) on Gezi Park`s land. Plans for such radical changes were already being made in 2010. The ultimate goal of these construction projects is/was in fact to destroy the diverse, artistic, and liberal atmosphere of Taksim and its vicinity, replacing it with a commercial space solely servicing the interests of corporations and consumers. More specifically, Taksim Square was meant to be deserted, turning it into a non-living place and closing it to political protests and mass celebrations. In the face of these developments, NGOs, neighborhood associations, professional organizations, and trade unions joined together and formed the Taksim Solidarity Group in order to fight against government projects hostile to public interests.
In early November 2012, the construction site was enclosed by fences as a prelude to the pedestrianization project. In response to this, thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Taksim Post Office (which no longer exists) and started a petition drive. Under the banner of “Taksim Vigilance,” almost fifty thousand people signed the petition. The petition drive lasted thirty-two days and was held in Taksim Square (also known as Labor Day [May 1st] Square). With the help of the petition bearing fifty thousand signatures, the local Assembly of Protecting Natural and Cultural Heritages of Istanbul did not authorize the municipality to build a shopping center on Gezi Park`s land.
The prime minister illegally—that is to say, acting as though he was the mayor of Istanbul—expressed his dislike for the local Assembly`s disapproval of building a shopping center on Gezi Park`s land. In other words, he did not recognize the decision of the Assembly, which is the highest and most competent authority in its field. Moreover, he circumvented the disapproval of the Assembly by taking the project to a “Supreme Assembly” that had been founded only a year prior, apparently to get around such cases. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Assembly made up of officials living in the capital, most of whom cannot even locate Gezi Park within Istanbul, gave a quick approval to the construction project. This sham and completely arbitrary decision led the community to go on a vigilance and petition drive, meanwhile giving rise to the foundation of the Taksim Gezi Park Association.
The Association sued the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for not canceling the project. With the slogan of “Stand Up,” a call was made for the Taksim Gezi Park Music Festival. On 13 April 2013, the festivities took place at Gezi Park with an attendance of forty thousand people. There was live music and dancing beginning in the early afternoon and continuing until midnight. At one point before the festival ended, the audience was asked to promise aloud to march to the park in order to protect it in case excavators cut down the trees. Meanwhile, signatories of the petition reached one hundred thousand.
On 27 May 2013, around 10:30pm, excavators entered the park and even did some damage to it, but they were stopped by members of the Association and activists who happened to be in the park that night. Starting in the early morning of 28 May 2013, those who expressed their commitment during the festival to save the park began to rush to Taksim. As the number of protesters continued to increase, the riot police began to attack peaceful protesters with tear gas and water cannons. Though the protesters had to temporarily disperse to protect themselves, they did not give up, each time returning to the park and its nearby streets. The people`s resistance to police violence thus received a great deal of attention and media coverage from all over the world.
The most peaceful protest in Turkish political history turned into a national uprising by the end of the week. Millions of people took to the streets on 31 May and 1 June 2013, Friday night through Saturday morning. The protest spread to seventy-eight cities across the country. The prime minister’s hostile, provocative rhetoric against the protesters worked together with excessive police violence. Amnesty International expressed its concern with the police`s excessive use of force and torture. Thousands of people from all walks of life and world views at the park, along with many millions outside the park and across the country, united around the image of Gezi and created an atmosphere of solidarity and brotherhood that inspired the entire world. Indeed, solidarity rallies with the protests in Turkey took place around the globe, from Athens to Cologne and London, and from Beijing to Buenos Aires to Boston and New York and Tokyo.
Even in the face of such widespread solidarity, the government did not change its position even an inch. On the contrary, it continued to dismiss people`s ecological rights; worse, it also continued to exercise police violence in an ever-escalating manner. Consequently, fourteen protesters lost their lives, eight of whom were teenagers and young protesters who were killed by targeted shooting. There were also many more injuries and torture cases that were mostly ignored by the mainstream media.
Choosing violence and threatening rhetoric over dialogue and diplomacy, the government furthermore turned to all kinds of conspiracy theories and manipulations to disgrace the Gezi Uprising. However, none worked: Gezi Park continues to live as an indestructible, monumental park. Without making any discrimination between races, religions, or genders, it continues to serve each and every living being`s need for healthy and free breathing under the trees in an urban setting.
Taksim Gezi Park Association, 2015