„Gezi Park was not exactly the place where I could take my girlfriend“,
says Cenk, a leftist activist, as we are sitting in a small cafe in one of the many side streets of Istiklal Caddesi. Earlier, Feride, a German-Turkish girl had mentioned the same feelings towards a park that had been used mainly by prostitutes, drug dealers and homeless people:
„I had never really been to the park before… because it wasn’t exactly a safe place.“
During my research project on the Gezi Park movement I spent three months in Istanbul in fall 2013 and conducted interviews with people who had been in some way involved in the protests. Almost all of them told me that they had participated for two reasons: the park and its trees as the last green spot in the city; and later the police violence.
But if it is true that noone had actually used that allegedly last natural area of Istanbul, then why would anybody have bothered to protect it?
If the park was not visited by the public anyway, why did young people of all ideological backgrounds feel the need to settle down and build a tent city there?
With these questions in mind I started studying the meaning of space and power and discovered how the mere symbol of a public square can unite a whole generation.
Public space and power
According to Henri Lefebvre, space can be divided into physical and social space. Whoever controls the physical space increases his power in social space and vice versa. Ruling over space means deciding who may or may not enter that space and how the subjects in this space are allowed to behave. Hence, the topic of public space has a great potential for political unrest, as it is always a question of inclusion or exclusion of certain groups of society: illegalized immigrants who are not allowed into the space of a country, rebellious youth that are not welcome in higher class districts of a city, as well as beggars who are shooed away from shop entrances.
Public space provides a political arena, because it combines people of all social, ethnical or ideological backgrounds. Furthermore, it offers room for common memories, struggles and emotions – and for common expression, as Asef Bayat argues:
„The very act of demonstration in public means, in a sense, attempting to establish communication with those who are unknown to the demonstrators but who might be subject to similar conditions as themselves; the demonstrators hope to activate this passive communication in order to extend collective action.“
This means that by being present in the shared public space a small demonstration for saving trees might be noticed and interpreted by people with similar complaints and might then emerge into a huge expression of solidarity.
Istanbul and its “mad projects”
Within the last ten years Istanbul has developed into a mega-construction-site. The struggle for public space has, therefore, become a specifically urgent topic for this emerging global city.
The theory that the character of a certain space determines the way that people behave within this space becomes important,when we look at how the AKP government has exploited public space making it accessible for only a few privileged users and dictating the way that people use it.
Shopping malls that have been multiplying rapidly all throughout the country are the main phenomenon of this development. They are a way of cleansing – or as it is also called, „disneyfying“ – the city center. Disneyland is not a simple amusement park. It is a thoroughly structured world of consumption and so shall the modern cities be in the eyes of their neoliberal rulers. You cannot hold a protest inside a shopping mall or be homeless in a five star hotel. By privatizing public space the government has pushed whole groups of society out of the city, making room for investment and dealing with the city surface as if it was empty space while using the economy to justify the forced displacement of thousands and the violation of architectural regulations.
Gezi Park was supposed to be turned into a shopping mall in the style of the Ottoman barracs that used to be there before the foundation of the Republic and maybe now it is easier to understand why this has caused such outrage. The problem was not replacing this park with a shopping mall. The problem was the concept of replacing another public area with a shopping mall that at the same time commemorates an era of the Turkish history which Erdoğan uses to discredit the modernist, secular parts of the populace and to support his neo-Ottoman, Islamic, conservative approach. And of course the problem was that he could not care less about whether or not the people liked it. Hakan, a teacher, says that he participated after he saw „the president’s grin“, by which he means the arrogant, dictatorial way in which Erdoğan assumed the power to decide whatever he thought best for the country, or rather his own interest. This also includes the new laws on alcohol regulation and abortion, the way that the government infiltrates even the private spaces more and more.
„You just feel so small,“ says Ali, who lost his job after openly participating in the protests.
„Somebody just comes and takes your park away, somebody just takes your forest. And it’s a question of ownership. Who gave that forest to that guy? It’s a big, big forest, how can you own that? Or how can you own a public park in the middle of the city? That’s too much.“
The forest that Ali refers to is the Northern Forest that has similarily been subjected to destruction by the government in order to build the third Bosphorus bridge and the planned airport, one of Erdoğans „mad projects“ (as he himself calls them) with the aim „to turn Istanbul into the financial center of the world.“
In fact, the protest about Gezi Park was by far not the first protest against these mad projects, there have been many previous demonstrations against the demolition of cultural institutions like Emek Cinema, natural areas like the forest and even whole neighbourhoods like Tarlabaşı, a colorful, old and densely populated area near Taksim Square that is being destroyed to make room for a new luxurious district planned by the government.
So why was it this specific protest that has kicked off a wave of solidaric activism by various participants, such as the LGBTQ movement, the anti-capitalist Muslims, the leftist movement and numerous other groups and individuals?
The symbolic meaning of Gezi Park and Taksim Square
„If you protest something and it is really important for you and you believe that that protest will change something, you have to pick a place that has a story. The spirit of the previous events supports you there while you are protesting,“
says Dilek, owner of a traditional and eco-friendly hotel in Cihangir.
Taksim Square, adjacent to Gezi Park, has many symbolic meanings to it for both the government and the protesters. First of all, it has always been a „castle of the leftist movement“ explains Yaren, an anthropology student from Istanbul. The 1st of May protests have always taken place there and in the 1970s a number of protesters were shot by snipers on the square while protesting. The square was closed to protests for many years as a consequence and the 1st of May was no longer recognized as a holiday. Clearly, Taksim Square has always been a place of struggle between the culture of protest and a government that demands a passive and quietistic use of the public areas.
Secondly, Yaren explains, Taksim Square is a place of freedom to be whatever you want to be. It is located in the liberal district of Beyoğlu that is home to artists, intellectuals and everyone who does not quite fit into the traditional, conservative image, for example youth movements, transvestites, etc.
„When you say Taksim it means that all the people are there. A fashionable punk cannot walk with the same courage in Bağcılar or Üsküdar. Taksim just hugs all of the people.“
And finally, maybe most importantly, Taksim Square and Gezi Park are the center of Istanbul. In a country where the state controlled media broadcasts a documentary on penguins while thousands are fighting police forces in the streets, it is all the more important that people and their struggles are visible to everybody. As mentioned before, the political street allows like-minded people to discover their common voice, to realize that they are not alone.
Even though the protests have not removed a government that is attempting to expand its power and a prime minister who is now planning to run for president, they have achieved success on a different level. „The encampment’s democratic and utopian spirit stands in contrast to the self-serving urban policies of the AKP government.“ The gathering of so many different people has in itself created a democratic element. People had the chance to get to know each other and discover their common voice, to not feel alone anymore. „When you see that a million people are feeling the same way you understand that you are not alone, you feel more alive, you have more hope,“ says Ali.
Gezi has produced a new kind of space that embraces different ideologies, minorities and ethnical groups. It has been a living example of diversity, tolerance and social equality – everything that the government has been trying to replace with capitalism and conservative, authoritarian rule.
Occupying Gezi Park – or as Cenk calls it „liberating“ Gezi Park – has resulted in forums that still meet regularly, discussing long-term solutions to the political crisis.
And „a big ‘Fuck off’“ was sent to the government, says Gizem, an artist and student from Istanbul.
„We are the people and when we connect we can beat you.“