The urban roots of Gezi, Istanbul
Toplumun ŞEHIRCILIK HARECKETI, 2014
This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.
It is now a truism to state that Gezi Park Revolt in Istanbul, represented much more than a resistance against the demolition of a public park. It has articulated long-time grievances, mostly cultural in their content, against Erdogan’s neoliberal and socially conservative government. On May 28th when handful of urban activists and environmentalists resisted the municipal bulldozers entering the Gezi Park at Taksim Square, they had no idea that their defense of the park would lead up to the biggest urban revolt of Turkish history during which 2.5 million people in 79 cities took the streets at the very least1. At the heart of the initial conflict was an urban redevelopment scheme that has planned the construction of the replica of a 19th century Ottoman Barracks called Topçu Kışlası to be used as a shopping mall. This was part of a broader urban plan of transforming the Taksim Square contested by the urban activists in the year prior to the protests.
Between May 28th and May 31st, activists put up peaceful resistance, organized sit-ins, and camped out in the park, each time with growing numbers in the face of persistent and ever more brutal police violence. This escalating urban conflict had taken place in the political context of increasingly blatant authoritarianism of the government which was manifest in various acts including a recent law restricting the sale of alcohol, government censorship on media pertaining to a massacre in Reyhanli near the Syrian border, and police crackdown on May 1 demonstrations among many others. In this socio-political context, invested with meaning transcending the original protest, Gezi both as a symbol and a concrete physical space has become a nodal point representing the frustrations of a heterogeneous mass of people with the consolidating authoritarianism in Turkey and their democratic aspirations.
Although this argument certainly has a merit, it does not do full justice to the urban specificity of the Gezi protests. We must ask how has the Gezi Park resistance acquired this incredible capacity for representation in the absence of an organized campaign to invest it with such significance? Was there anything immanent to Gezi Park resistance that made the fierce police crackdown on initial protestors to resonate with the broader public more easily than the all-too-routine incidents of the same sort?
Neoliberal Urbanization under AKP
We think that the distinct role of the urban question came to occupy in contemporary Turkey under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule2 is central to our understanding of the Gezi Rebellion. More succinctly, we argue that the urban policy arena has become the microcosm revealing AKP’s broader authoritarian mode of ruling. For the urban citizens, Gezi was indeed the all-too-evident but also physically accessible manifestation of this mode of ruling that has been engraved on the physical and social space of the city in the last decade. This authoritarian mode of ruling was in many ways the political requirement of the political economic functions the urban policy started playing in AKP period (2003-) as a key mechanism for generating economic growth and distributing material favors. More than any other government in Turkey’s history, AKP utilized the urban policy tools for its broader neoliberal economic growth-oriented policy. In doing so, not only it drastically changed the institutional and legal setting but more importantly unsettled the long entrenched patterns of urbanization. Increasingly, the radical make up of the urban fabric started enmeshed in Neo-Ottoman aesthetics as a discursive strategy of reconciling blatant neoliberal consumerism with conservative populism that constitute the contradictory political ideology of AKP.
Urban populism was a key tenet of the Islamist movement in the 1990s and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as the mayor of Istanbul, was its most popular face. When AKP under Erdogan rose to power in 2003, this focus on urban policy took a new neoliberal bent within the austerity conditions of the post 2001 crisis era. AKP embarked on a neoliberal urban agenda that reconfigured urban policy as the key tool for economic growth/capital accumulation. This included massive infrastructural investments, penchant for mega projects, massive sale of public assets to private investors, an urban redevelopment agenda targeting working class and popular neighborhoods in the center and the periphery, ultimately a policy logic that prioritized the valorization of urban rent more than any other concern with public good. Social housing policy within this policy landscape emerged as a tool to relocate the urban poor and a relatively quick and concrete fix to manufacture the image of a party that is “accomplishing things”. It could be argued that it served a limited lower middle class constituency.
AKP’s urban policy agenda seeks to address three distinct objectives: boosting economic growth and employment, addressing the demands of the major developers and nurturing a pro-AKP contractor class, and manufacturing the populist image of a party serving its constituencies. As urban scholars often-noted, urban neoliberalism often requires authoritarian mode of ruling in order to circumvent the popular pressures that might be challenging it. This is more so the case when urban policy is conceived as an instrument of transferring massive public assets and wealth to a new crony capitalist class. Under AKP, this was not simply limited to the formation of entrepreneurial municipal governance; it instead meant a major institutional transformation that re-scaled urban policy-making to the central state authority. After 16 legal changes, the Housing Development Administration (TOKI), directly connected to the Office of the Prime Minister, emerged as an urban leviathan with draconic powers over the use and distribution of urban lands and public assets. Not only it acquired the command over all public lands and the right to sell and develop them for private sector projects, but it was also granted the permission to keep its public auctions outside of any accountability mechanism, most importantly that of Court of Auditors. Through two laws on urban renewal of historic neighborhoods and poor and dilapidated zones, TOKI in collaboration with metropolitan and district municipalities gained the capacity to demolish the valorized working class neighborhoods, relocate the “entitled” residents under the terms of long term debt and open the emptied lands to large-scale urban development projects. After 2010, The Ministry of Urbanism acquired these exceptional rights over the entire country through a “disaster law” enacted purportedly to take precautions against the looming earthquake.
The outcome of these laws under the conditions of high financial liquidity was a construction spree not leaving a single area untouched, including the globally cherished vista of the historical peninsula. The monotonous construction of low quality public housing complexes across the urban landscape of Turkey accompanied these private projects and the demolition of squatter and historical neighborhoods became common news. The mega projects seeking to privatize and redevelop such public assets and spaces like ports, train stations, schools and open to construction remaining forest areas were personally branded as “crazy projects” by Erdogan himself. He was the one taking the helicopter ride to decide the exact location of the Third Bosphorus Bridge, and presenting the projects of building a new canal, satellite city and an airport on the remaining green areas and water basins of Istanbul, the grandest mosque of Turkey on the Camlica hill overlooking the Bosphorus and finally a shopping mall dressed as a revived Ottoman Barracks replacing Gezi Park. Thus urban authoritarianism was quite visibly associated with the figure of Prime Minister Erdogan. Moreover, the cronies of the party and the prime-minister including the firm of his son in law, Calik Holding were directly involved in these numerous construction projects. In other words, urban development was a mechanism for accumulating personal wealth and transferring rents to the pro-government elites.
For the larger public, these authoritarian neoliberal urban policies meant a number of things. First, they initiated a series of local resistance movements against specific projects by the coalition of actors including Chambers of Planners and Architects, local residents, urban activists and organizations. These movements pressed legal challenges, organized street protests, waged media campaigns, etc. They failed in some, achieved partial victories in others. But they certainly created a degree of public awareness of numerous projects that were violating law and citizenship rights, detrimental to ecology, enmeshed in corrupt practices. For the middle class who are certainly not anti-capitalist or for that matter even necessarily anti-neoliberal, the endemic corruption among the central and local government and the contractors involved in these projects were all too visible. As the construction spree started targeting the remaining green areas and iconic cityscapes with an increasingly conservative symbolism, not so long terms consequences of AKP’s urban policy agenda for their urban life and ecology were more visible.
Gezi Protests emerged at the backdrop of these urban processes. The urban activists had already been organizing a campaign against its demolition for around a year before the initial protests began. The barrack project was considered as a chain of the broader project of reconfiguring the Taksim-Beyoglu area for a global tourism industry, which would make it increasingly inaccessible to popular sectors, and strip it from its historical cultural and political heritage as the demolition of the iconic Emek Cinema and the re-closing of Taksim Square to May Day demonstrations revealed. The initial resistance against the demolition was organized by the established network of activists and turned into a collective action to occupy and appropriate the public space as a “common” to protect it from encroachment. Within three days despite and perhaps because of state violence, the occupation managed to gather more than around 10 thousand people to protect the park, on its own one of the largest urban struggles in Turkish history. For those participating, it not only meant saving one of the few green spaces remained at the city center but also resisting the broader urban policies encroaching on entire Istanbul. Moreover it signified a collective defiance to the figure of the Prime Minister who dismissed the protests and claim for participation, thus in a way articulated the Gezi as yet another instance of his condescending authoritarian discourse and practice dismissing and ridiculing public opposition.
Thus, when the police violently cracked down on a peaceful press release on 2013 May 31st, it touched upon one of those deep moral strings that otherwise apolitical or unorganized people have. The authoritarian intrusion in the city and the park perfectly resembled the other forms of intrusions in people’s lives including but not confined to education, female body, alcohol consumption, etc. The on-going resistance was considered legitimate and necessary. The fact that the urban conflict has not been part of the ossified social and political polarizations such as the Kurdish issue that used to render state violence against its participants relatively unproblematic in the eyes of the larger public, also made this round of police violence unacceptable for the masses.
If AKP’s urban policy is key to our understanding of this historic event, we must not underestimate the articulatory power of the social and physicalo-physical? space. Its accessibility and habitual presence in the daily routine of Istanbul’s middle class youth certainly made a protest of this size possible; perhaps its historic and contemporary importance in the collective imaginary even more so.
Today, the Gezi Rebellion unleashed an immense potential for reinvigorating and expanding the urban struggles over the future of Istanbul. Neighborhood assemblies, which could not have been imagined only a few months ago, diffused across the city currently comprising more than 50 neighborhoods. Weekly protests on a diverse array of local issues are organized. A new youth generation gets politicized around urban issues to demand democratization of urban space and local politics and become more vocal against the neoliberal assault on Turkish cities. The central task ahead is to build linkages between these emerging forms of struggles and the existing conflicts in the working class neighborhoods of Istanbul which face and experience dislocation, dispossession and socio-spatial isolation. The prospects of accomplishing these challenging tasks look much more promising after Gezi.
1 Estimates of Ministry of Interior Affairs in “2.5 milyon insan 79 ilde sokağa indi” Milliyet Gazetesi, June 23, 2013.
2 AKP is an offshoot of Islamist movement, which came into being in 2001 when a faction led by Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul broke away from the Virtue Party and joined forces with center-right cadres. The party won 34 percent of the votes in 2002 general elections, formed a single party government and has remained in power for three terms by increasing its vote shares. Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, currently under AKP rule, has been run by mayors from the Islamist tradition since Erdogan’s election as a mayor from Islamist Welfare Party in 1994 local elections.
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