On May 27, 70 protesters showed up at Istanbul’s central Taksim Square to protest the demolition of Gezi Park to build a shopping mall -- something that was not as much a shopping mall as a neoliberal agenda of “urban renewal” to replace public spaces with commercial ones. It didn’t take long for the protesters to be responded to with riot police and clouds of teargas, and for more people to respond by joining the demonstrations.
Now, the Istanbul Police Force’s teargas canisters litter the streets around Taksim Square -- normally crowded with western tourists. Ominous clouds of teargas float over the once postcard picture-perfect lights of downtown Istanbul, still romantically glistening in the Bosphorus Canal.
Since the protests began last week, more than 100,000 people have taken to the streets, and the protests have spread from Istanbul to other cities such as Ankara, Adana, Hatay and Izmir, making them the largest anti-government protests that Turkey has seen in years. Up until this point, there have been more than 1,000 arrests and over 100 injuries, all the result of the extensive police violence being used against the protesters.
What is #OccupyGezi and what exactly are people protesting?
To understand what is happening in Turkey, first you need to understand Taksim Gezi Square -- or, as it is has become known on Twitter, #OccupyGezi. Although unassuming in its physical appearance, Gezi Park -- which is in the middle of Taksim Square in central Istanbul -- is incredibly important to Istanbul as a place of assembly, particularly for its history of dissent. Over the years, rallies have been held in the square for LGBT rights and equality, recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Internet freedom, Kurdish right,s and against mandatory military conscription, among many other issues.
However, as part of an ongoing project of “urban transformation” -- which to many translates more accurately as the destruction of places and displacement of people in favor of increasing commercial activity -- the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is planning to uproot Gezi Park to build a shopping center. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan defends this plan by claiming that it won’t be a traditional shopping mall, but rather, a commercial and cultural center that includes a mosque. The reality is that PM Erdoğan’s plan would destroy Gezi Park as it is, making it far more accessible and convenient for vehicle traffic than foot traffic, making it all but impossible to assemble in the square.
Gezi Park as a site of dissent -- where Turks could come to air their grievances and make their voices heard -- would be no more. So, in the spirit of defending Gezi Park as a sanctioned place of democratic assembly, the initial 12 protesters came and pitched tents to stop the bulldozers. As the protests persisted -- and the police crackdowns intensified -- it became clear just how much Erdoğan’s government intends to strip away these very rights.
The protests multiplied, illustrating a deep-seated anger with the leadership and the status-quo.
Who is in the Turkish government? How are their relations with the United States and the West?
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and the Development Party (AKP) describe themselves as conservative, yet pro-Western and pro-American. They are in favor of being part of the European Union and advocate for a free-market, liberalized economy -- naturally, the United States is supportive of this agenda and has claimed that the “Turkish Model” is something that every Arab state seeking regime change should aspire towards
But is Turkey really a democracy?
Technically, Turkey has free and fair elections, with Erdoğan elected by 49.95 percent of the popular vote. However, in many other aspects -- despite the West upholding it as a model for aspiring Arab democracies -- it is very far from the ideal democracy. For one, their police force -- the largest, and one of the most fascist, in all of Europe -- is formidable, using potentially lethal teargas and plastic bullets against unarmed civilians. Journalists are frequently targeted, arrested and sometimes jailed on extremely questionable grounds.
In the case of these protests, the Turkish mainstream media has been almost completely silent, only mentioning that construction of the shopping center over Gezi Park had been postponed. On Sunday, while Gezi Park was engulfed in clouds of blinding teargas and activists were uploading pictures to the Internet of protesters’ faces covered in blood, CNN Turkey was airing a documentary about penguins.
However, this hasn’t stopped independent media -- and particularly the citizen media such as social media, blogs and videos --from spreading hashtags like #OccupyGezi and #DirenGeziParki, or #ResistGeziPark.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has gone so far as to proclaim Twitter “a menace.”
Do these protests have anything to do with seculars protesting the rise of Islamism in Turkey?
Many Western outlets, most notably the “New York Times,” have framed the protests as having sparked in the religious and cultural tensions between the mostly secular population in Western Istanbul and the more Islamist, conservative population in Eastern Istanbul.
However, when looking at the demographics of the protests, particularly the presence of Muslim protesters and Islamic organizations represented, this thesis is quickly nullified. Although there has been discontent with some of Erdoğan’s more conservative policies, such as raising a tax on alcohol if it is consumed in a public place, this is but one of many grievances.
In addition to protesting Erdoğan’s more conservative policies, there are LGBT activists, Kurdish activists and Syrians who have sought refuge in Turkey amongst many others both demonstrating for their rights and showing solidarity with the rest of Turkey.
As one account from Gezi Park pointed out, the protests are a means to fight for the right to keep the Square, one of the precious places known for the people of Turkey as a place to come together, despite their many differences.
What should I keep my eye on? Where can I learn more?
All of Jadaliyya’s coverage has been excellent, thorough and analytical. The New Inquiry also has a valuable reading list of their own. Of course, don’t miss the tumblr of photographs from the front lines, and make sure to follow #OccupyGezi on Twitter.