Today, 100,000 protesters pack into Taksim Square in Istanbul for the fourth day running as police, both uniformed and in plain clothes, fire tear gas in their faces. What started as an environmental protest to save 600 trees in the downtown area has rapidly grown into a general outcry against the Turkish government, with demonstrators calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But the future of urban public space, with all of its attendant consequences, remains at the heart of the revolt.
This epic moment began on Friday, when police burned down the tents of protesters performing a sit-in at Gezi Park (Strolling Park), one of the few remaining public parks in Istanbul. The occupiers were taking a stand against the felling of the park’s trees and the construction of a new shopping mall on the site. Of course, the park sits on the edge of Taksim Square, Istanbul’s equivalent of Times Square, and so the actions of the police, who soon began firing tea gas into the crowd, attracted attention. The crowds grew, and outright confrontations began.
The shopping mall in question has been controversial from the start, beginning with its design: a somewhat tacky and questionably accurate reconstruction of an Ottoman barracks building demolished about a century ago. But the mall’s detractors also saw the destruction of public green space in favor of ever more commercialized development as a direct attack on the idea of democracy. The thousands who soon joined them agreed.
In many ways, the police attack on Gezi Park was simply the last straw, the latest in a series of moves by the Turkish government to take over public space and restrict public action. Days before, the government broke ground on a third bridge over the Bosphorus, the approaches of which cut through one of the only forests near the city. The Prime Minister also proposed a canal cutting through the European side of Istanbul parallel to the Bosphorus for increased shipping. The fight over public space has been unfolding in more subtle ways as well, as increasing restrictions on alcohol sales force bars and restaurants to remove outdoor seating during prime drinking times.
The unrest in Istanbul reflects this, with protesters and police each displaying their strength by cordoning off parts of the city; the police make lines with their water guns and armored cars, while protesters erect makeshift barricades and park trucks across streets. In the early stages of the protests it seemed that the police were winning the battle, having fired tear gas into the Taksim Square subway station before closing the doors. Recently, however, protesters took over one of the main links between Europe and Asia, the Bosphorus bridge, as over 40,000 people marched across. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in more than 90 cities across Turkey, as well as internationally (even at the Venice Biennale).
40,000 protesters cross the Bosphorus Bridge. Via.
There are certain similarities between the Istanbul protests and the Occupy movement: Turkish demonstrators have adopted the #occupygezi hashtag, and the New York branch of the protests saw the combined attendance of the Turkish diaspora and Occupy veterans at Zuccotti Park. However, the Turkish protesters have already gotten further than the Occupy movement ever did. Not only have they achieved one of their initial aims—a court ordered a halt to any construction at Gezi Park—but they’ve also gained entrance to bank headquarters and shopping malls. Additionally, they’ve taken over entire streets and districts, defacing advertisements and forcing shops like Starbucks to close.
So despite the expanding scope of demands and hopes pinned on the Istanbul protests, at their core they remain tied to the control of public space. Yes, the protests are now an extended rebuke of the ruling party, but what is there to gain if not greater freedom to live and exist as a full citizen in the public realm? Only time will tell if the protests will continue or be subdued, but Turkey is now a country awakened with citizens taking control of the spaces they occupy daily.
But as the Occupy movement made perfectly clear, these threats to public space and public life are not limited to Istanbul. They can be seen in fights over eminent domain, in the increasing private ownership of public space (as with Zuccotti Park), and the infiltration of advertising to the point of dominance in places such as Times Square. Of course, the Istanbul protests have their own aims and operate solidly within the Turkish context; yet, they have captured international attention and sympathy. Clearly, a nerve has been touched. Who will protect our common spaces and our common heritage? Who will ensure that we retain spaces in which the freedom of speech is respected and maintained?
'Hey Freedom!' Occupy Gezi Protest at Zuccotti Park on June 1. Image by AJ Artemel.