Reclaiming the City: The Case of Gezi Park Resistance

taksim halkindir. bd

In April of this year, I published a blog post here on the protests against the demolition of Emek Cinema in Istanbul. My purpose was to use it as an entry point to discuss the massive urban reconstruction projects unrolling at a high speed, specifically around the historic centers of Istanbul such as Beyoglu and Fatih. These projects do not only intend to create particular centers of capital accumulation displacing the urban poor, they intend to transform the everyday life of Istanbul as we know it.
I ended the post with a requisite touch of hope for the future. I wrote that the legislative changes that legitimate these projects and enable them to occur so fast are “establishing the conditions for a ‘city without limits’, while inciting a dynamic resistance gathering in defense of the city and its people.”
While I knew of the growing discontent over the past few years of the urban reconstruction projects targeting specifically these historic centers and of the government, I did not have any evidence to suggest that a nationwide massive resistance would occur a month later. My comment was in part habitual. Gesturing towards a resistance deferred to a coming future is almost a requisite way of concluding the type of scholarship I am involved in. I admit, my heart was not in it when I wrote that sentence. On the other hand, I did contain a tiny bit of hope that the docility of people would break against the constant attack on their public spaces.

Gezi Park Resistance which began on May 28th as an action to protect the last remaining green space in the center of Istanbul, Taksim square, spread like wild fire across the country. Gezi Park occupation itself held on until the violent dispersal on the night of June 15th which lasted until the early mornings of June 16th. The solidarity protests across the country have been massive especially in Ankara, Adana Izmir and Antakya. It is hard to chronicle the movement here in one blog post. I am more interested in setting a goal of interrogating the structures of violence this movement laid bare. The following is the conference paper I presented at The Critiquing Culture Conference at George Mason University in September 2013. I would like to note that the struggle against urban restructuring is ongoing in Turkey; right now more localized in Ankara against the construction of a highway on the forest land which belongs to Middle Eastern Technical University.

“When I sat down at my computer to write this paper, a separate window was playing a live stream of police attacks against the people demonstrating on Taksim Square. Only a few hours before, I had woken up to the news of police murdering yet another young activist, this time in Antakya, a city on the Syrian border with Turkey. 22 year old Ahmet Atakan was participating in a demonstration against the government’s support of a possible US military intervention to Syria and in solidarity with people protesting in Ankara since the end of August against the construction of a highway that would destroy a part of the forest on the land of the Middle Eastern Technical University. Ahmet was hit in the head by a tear gas canister and died in the early morning hours of September 10th, bringing the number of deaths in the hands of the police to 6 since the end of May this year.

I tried to compose something meaningful to say about the legislative changes aimed at transforming the city of Istanbul into a space of capital, devoid of a ‘public’, while also gesturing at abstract conceptualizations of neoliberalism. Meanwhile, on the live stream I heard police sirens, bangs of tear gas weapons, and plastic bullets, and people chanting “Everywhere is Taksim, Everywhere is Resistance” and “Insurrection, Revolution, Freedom”

The subject of this paper is home to me: not only geographically, but also politically. I align myself with this struggle that demands the right of the people to the city, and I participated in the resistance from mid June to the end of July. I therefore present this paper haunted by the death of 6 young men, several severely wounded, and by a people terrorized daily with the heavy presence of the police and tear gas in their neighborhoods. At this time, any congregation of people in main squares of the country in opposition to the current ruling party, is dispersed by the state security forces, effectively banning all peaceful assembly. Riot police, TOMAs (which translate as Vehicle of Intervention to Public Events), and other militarized police vehicles use crowd control technologies with potential to kill; from real ammunition as evidenced by the death of Ethem Sarisuluk in Ankara on June 12th to supposedly less lethal options which in fact killed 5 more people and hospitalized thousands. I mention all of this to make clear my position as a scholar, the limits of this position due to a lack of distance between my object and myself, and to highlight the challenge of trying to abstract the struggle of a people, at times fighting for their lives, and yet still daring to say: “this is just the beginning.”

I want to be clear: I am not making any claims on the nature of Gezi Park Resistance, the narratives and performances associated to it, nor the variety of organizing strategies employed. I am also not interested in trying to find the right theory to apply to the movement, as if I’m playing shape sorter. Gezi Park Resistance continues to have a transformative impact on the lives of people in Turkey especially their perception of governance in the light of the brutal crowd control technologies and the silence, rather the silencing of media. These events force even the most apolitical person to think about property, consumption, media manipulation and censorship, community organizing, solidarity…etc. We are observing actions of a people feeling, practicing, embodying what the poet Percy Shelley once said ‘we are many, they are few’.

I am interested, rather, in questions such as: From what kind of an environment did this type of massive resistance emerge? What is Gezi Park Resistance, described as “a historical threshold”, responding to? What can Gezi Park Resistance tell us about the political and economic order in Istanbul? In short, I am not attempting to answer the ‘what’ but instead the question of ‘why now’.

The demolition of Gezi Park and its construction into a shopping mall by way of rebuilding 19thth Century Taksim Army Barracks was the final act of the Taksim pedestrianization project, part of a series of urban reconstruction projects in the district of Beyoglu. Construction on this project began in October 2012despite popular opposition and the continuous legal challenges by the Chamber of Architects. Here I am focusing on this one district out of 39 in Istanbul and only on those reconstruction projects that began after changes in urban renewal legislation.

My intention is neither to identify Beyoglu as more significant than other districts nor to claim that this type of urban transformation is new. The history of Istanbul, and that of Beyoglu in particular, is full of several spatial transformations including moments of massive domestic and international migration as well as riots against its non-muslim residents to cause a mass exodus and abandonment of property. It is important to note here, as Caglar Keyder points out, “Istanbul has always been a world city” with a rich, significant history. And while Istanbul is not new to the global economy, the city is experiencing mutations in the markets and shifting population patterns in particularly localized ways.

My purpose in limiting my focus to this period is to trace the Gezi Park Resistance as a ‘right to the city’ movement. It emerged out of the opposition to construction of Demiroren shopping center on Istiklal Avenue, the closing of Emek Cinema and the demolition of its building, the Tarlabasi neighborhood renewal project and finally Taksim pedestrianization. These series of projects were accelerated by changes in legislature such as the urban renewal law titled “Usage of Timeworn Historical and Cultural Real Property with Restoration, Protection” (Law no. 5366). Dubbed ‘the Beyoğlu law,’ emphasizing the planned complete overhaul of the district, this legislation was passed in 2005.

Law no. 5366 along with changes made to the municipality legislation called “City Transformation and Development Areas” in June 2010 gave the local municipalities sole authority to dictate any area under their jurisdiction as protected zone and open them up for what they call auctions for “regeneration or renewal projects”. Additionally, if an area or building is declared at ‘disaster risk’, individual owners no longer have rights to contest the sequestration; the majority decision in a building is enough to begin development projects. The restructuring of urban spaces, leading to uneven development and massive displacement are realized under the auspices of protection and earthquake/disaster prevention.

In Tarlabasi, 278 buildings in nine blocks were declared urban renewal area in 2006. Mayor of Beyoğlu, Misbah Demircan, in a speech at the Association of Touristic Hotel Managers, Administrators and Investors luncheon in 2007, said: “For one hundred million dollars, we’re going to bring a new identity to Tarlabaşı.” According to Demircan, the buildings which were built in 19th Century, have small living quarters with inadequate space for parking, and therefore do not fit the needs of the modern city. Moreover, he said, the projects and programs planned for Beyoğlu, such as high end residences, office buildings and boutique shopping centers, are designed to “save Beyoğlu from thieves and pickpockets”.

Another prime example of how the new legislative maneuvers aimed to advance market expansion and woo investors is the 2004 approval of a shopping center at the site of Sin-Em-Han building located on Istiklal Avenue by the Council for Preservation of Sites of Historical Interest. The municipality gave Demirören Group, which had bought the building in 1980, the license for the construction. Later in 2007, amongst controversy about the Demirören Group expanding the surface of the construction area, adding several stories above and below the ground, the site was declared an Urban Renewal zone. Now in place of Sin-Em-Han, exists a monstrous and grotesque shopping mall.It rises one story above and extends further into the avenue than all of the buildings on Istiklal Avenue. Moreover, its construction caused serious harm to many buildings in the area, including the symbolic Hüseyin Ağa Mosque built in 1597.

The Demirören Mall created a new model for development on Istiklal Avenue. The next building to be demolished was the Cercle d’Orient building next door. This building, which housed the historic Emek Cinema, was also declared a renewal site in 2009. Despite several legal petitions, demonstrations, and protests, the construction of the building began in April. Coincidentally, at the time of the construction, the Istanbul International Film Festival which showed many films in Emek Cinema until it closed in 2010, was also in session. The cinema and the Cercle d’Orient building became an icon in the emerging “right to the city” mobilizations in Istanbul. A demonstration took place on April 7th with the attendance of director Costa-Gavras, who was in Istanbul to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Film Festival. This was the first time people demonstrating against these projects were dispersed violently by the police, until it became the new normal in May.

The urban reconstruction projects in question thoroughly obliterate housing for the urban poor, and spaces of sociality as well as historical and cultural heritage that is not in direct service to market expansion. This process of urban transformation is realized through processes and discursive formations that seek to control land development through a reframing of conservation and preservation; privileging destruction over restoration.

The particularly manipulative language of the legislation uses a culture of innovation and progress in order to, as David Harvey points out, reconfigure the city “to secure wealth, status, social capital, access and control for the upper classes.” Beyoglu, primarily in Tarlabasi, Taksim square and Istiklal avenue, has been a space of sociality for a mix of people including the poor and marginalized, as well as the young and educated but unemployed. The Taksim pedestrianization project, by eliminating traffic from the square also restricts quite a bit of access by public transportation. Moreover, as many protesters pointed out, it created a giant identity-less concrete block. Both the pedestrianization project, which was used as an excuse to ban May Day celebrations this year, and projected destruction of Gezi Park, the last green space around Taksim square, became catalysts as they laid bare who or what has higher priority, value or privilege to exist under these urban policies.

Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore identify cities as “spaces of neoliberalization” arguing that cities have a strategic role “in the contemporary remaking of political-economic space” wherein “a variety of neoliberal initiatives – along with closely intertwined strategies of crisis displacement and crisis management – have been articulated.” They emphasize that destruction is necessary in neoliberalism for the emergence of new markets and possibilities of accumulation. This is what they conceptualize as creative-destruction: “geographically uneven, socially regressive, and politically volatile trajectories of institutional/spatial change.”

I refer to Brenner and Theodore not to make a cohesive and complete argument about neoliberalism. Their framework of ‘creative destruction’ as well as a methodology that prioritizes localized manifestations seem useful in thinking about urban restructuring in Istanbul. For example, Brenner and Theodore write that “transformation of the built environment and urban form” as a mechanism produce “destruction of traditional working-class neighborhoods in order to make way for speculative redevelopment” and “creation of new privatized spaces of elite/corporate consumption and construction of large-scale megaprojects intended to attract corporate investment and reconfigure local land-use patterns.” Istanbul’s urban renewal legislation creates the conditions of possibility for this‘creative destruction’ with their current speed, intensity and wide scope, through the rhetoric of progress and development. Beyoğlu, one of the largest districts of Istanbul where the city itself is branded as modern and developed, then becomes central to these processes.

Özlem Ünsal and Tuna Kuyucu argue that while the 1980s, after the military coup marks the onset of neoliberalization in Turkey, it was not until the 2000s that Turkey reached full neoliberalisation (JDP came into power in 2002). Regarding urban development in Istanbul, they point out that “emergence of new powerful actors in the form of large developers, real-estate investment trusts and various state agencies, whose interests lie in a fully commodified market” ended the previous populist regime which gave amnesties to informal housing developments and squatting. According to Tolga Islam, the scale and speed of development of the 2000s is unprecedented. He writes that between 2002 and 2007 Turkey’s GDP increased from $350 billion to $850 billion. Moreover, the volume of foreign trade reached $280 billion, a threefold increase, 60 per cent of which was realized in Istanbul. Likewise, flows of foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country grew from $1.1 billion in 2002, to $20 billion in 2006 (95 percent absorbed by Istanbul alone) and to $22 billion in 2007 (again, 89 percent absorbed by Istanbul alone). Islam also notes that between 2004 and 2009, the massive shopping centers reached to 72 (7 times the number in the beginning of the decade). According to a recent report, the total number is 91 for Istanbul (299 for the entire country)

The Gezi Park Resistance emerged out of this moment; moment of creative-destruction or bulldozer neoliberalism which secure the rule of capital by displacing undesirables and placing in their void those that act to secure wealth and status for the elite. The ‘prime-monster’ Erdogan was correct when he referred to the eruption of protests not being about only a few trees. It isn’t. It is about reclaiming spaces and the right to make decisions about these spaces. The response of the government to the ongoing resistance that spread across the country made evident, yet again, that anything is fair game in securing the reproductive capacities of capital by the state in this period: militarization of state security forces, unregulated use of chemical crowd control technologies, unprovoked and disproportionate use of police violence; unlawful detentions and arrests; the suspension the right to peaceful assembly by fencing off of main squares or violent dispersal of people, manufacturing of truth and the silencing of media.”