To international media that love dramatic footage, the eruption of protests about the fate of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park – and the government’s violent repression – seems overblown. Tear gas and gunfire over some trees and greenery?
Of course, the occupiers of the park have much more on their minds: the preservation of public space for democratic life. Imagine how far the Occupy protests in the US would have gotten without a public space for their encampment. Democracy needs places for citizens to meet and talk – a way to publicly express themselves. This is precisely what the Turkish government would like to shut down. Far better to turn everyone into consumers. It wants to turn Taksim Gezi Park (see photo below) into a huge shopping mall.
The Turkish government’s militant crackdown is being waged by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Guardian (UK) characterizes the AKP as “a conservative Muslim bourgeoisie” that uses “the politics of piety to gain a popular base and to strengthen the urban rightwing.” The party has eagerly adopted a neoliberal economic stance to promote “development.” Enclosing one of the last great commons in Istanbul makes perfect sense for its agenda.
The government probably didn’t count on the pitched protest from occupiers or the viral international protest that has ensued in only 24 hours. On the popular website Reddit’s worldnews subreddit, posts on the Istanbul protests have been the top stories. Tweets on the incident have also been trending worldwide, especially at #occupygezi – or, in Turkish, #direngeziparkı.
A year ago I visited Istanbul for a conference on the commons at Istanbul Technical University, only blocks from the park. One of the presenters, Pablo de Soto, was from a group, Mapping the Commons, that named Taksim Gezi Park as one of the city’s key commons. It even produced a six-minute video about the park.
As the project wrote on its website:
At the moment, there are a great number of large-scale projects transforming public coasts [in Istanbul], squares and parks into demolition and construction sites in short-term and turning them into private lands in the long-term. Taksim Gezi Park is one of these common sites, where the former barrack building on site is planned to be re-built from scratch in order to house privately controlled cultural and commercial activities. Taksim Square, one of the most important places for public appearance, is now a construction site since November 2012, to be transformed into a large empty space devoid of public density.
While in transformation, common memory of the citizens for these places is permanently destructed and erased. For example, the public life of Taksim Gezi Park and the image of Taksim Square as a political scene for large demonstrations are already on hold due to the long-term construction works, and will hardly exist after the planned spatial changes. Similarly, Haydarpaşa Train Terminal where one entered Istanbul and enjoyed its large public stairs is closed at the beginning of 2012 to be turned into a hotel despite public opposition.
Richard Seymour of The Guardian elaborated on these themes today:
…..years of rapid neo-liberal gentrification under the guise of urban improvement has seen swathes of the city transformed. Most recently the go ahead was given for the third Istanbul bridge which is due to see the city transform into an enormous monster spreading up towards the black sea. Many commentators see this as the death knell for Istanbul. In the city centre the central working class neighbourhood of Tarlabasi is currently being decimated while projects such as Galataport and the redevelopment of the Kadikoy train station see historical parts of the city flattened and redevelopment as global investment opportunities leading to soaring prices and the replacing of large parts of the city with shopping malls and luxury apartments.
At this stage, it is unclear how this intense political struggle over a major commons in Istanbul will play out. Does Taksim Gezi Park mean enough to commoners in Istanbul that they will continue their fierce street resistance? Will international opinion tame the ruthless tactics of the government? Will this protest have serious ramifications for the rest of Turkish politics, both domestically and internationally?
As one blogger put it, this protest “has nothing to do with trees.” That’s the thing about so many commons – they are not just about "resources" in a physical sense. They are about a people’s identity and culture, social life and democracy. No wonder the protesters are fighting so fiercely.
Update: Since writing this, the situation has gotten far more polarized and violent. Here is a commentary by a Turkish blogger, Mustereklerimiz, from a commons perspective.