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Opinion Piece, Profile piece

Turkey and the fight for space

Originally published in the Overland Journal, 1 August 2013

I travelled to Turkey in late June to attend Global Power Shift, hosted by 350.org. It was about a month after the start of a nation-wide protest movement sparked by the proposed demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul and I was intrigued to see what was going on. I went in with no idea about Turkish politics and little understanding of the movement. But through talking to activists and seeing it in action, I learnt a lot.

If I could use one word to describe what I saw in Turkey, it would have to be ‘space’. This was a fight about space – whether physical or metaphoric – in a world where that space is being eaten up all around.

Arriving in Taksim Square is quite intimidating. Taksim, and the adjoining Gezi Park, have been the epicenter of the protests. It is here where fifty activists took to the streets late at night to protest the removal of some trees. In so doing, they sparked a national movement.

Taksim is a bare concrete square. At one end sits the Atatürk Cultural Centre, a huge Soviet-style building with three massive flags draped down its edge – two Turkish flags and one of the building’s namesake, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey and its national hero. Gezi is big and lusious – beautiful. But it was surrounded by ugliness: police tape was wrapped around its perimeter and, inside, hoards of police sat, some stroking their weapons, others chatting and laughing. All had one job: to keep the public, or more importantly, the protesters out.

Whilst I thought it Gezi nice, I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. How could one city park spark such a movement? It was only after I started to get to know Istanbul that I understood. It wasn’t just ‘a park’ – it was ‘the park’. Istanbul is amazing, but it is not a city of parks. Buildings, shops, merchants, cars, and people are all jammed in together in a massive metropolis. Activists lamented the growth of the place. Parklands destroyed, they said. Millions of trees cut down for highways, bridges and developments.

And it is getting worse. The government has pushed through plans for a third airport, as well as a third bridge over the Bhosphorus River (which splits Istanbul between the Asian and European sides). I was told that the Bhosphorus Bridge alone would see 1.4 million trees cut down. I could suddenly see why people were so keen to fight over their space. I could see why saving every park was so important.

But the fight wasn’t just about physical a space – it was about a public space.

About a week into my trip I went to Istanbul Pride. As we made our way on the march, the crowd started booing at a grand old building. They were booing because the building had been turned into a shopping centre – an ancient building along one of Istanbul’s grandest streets, sold for private profit.

Suddenly I could put the pieces of the puzzle together. The fight for space was, at its heart, a fight about neoliberalism. Across the city I could see the conversion from public to private, a conversion people simply did not want. Parks turned into shopping centres, historical monuments turned into expensive tourist attractions, old buildings turned into malls. Gezi was just another step in the slow degradation of public space for private profit.

It was almost haunting.

In the foreground, thousands were chanting, ‘We will not be silenced. We are gays and lesbians’. In the background, an ancient tradition, the call to prayer, blared across the crowd.

An odd contrast. A new social justice movement up against a religion seen by many as the most socially conservative in the world. Yet, somehow, it worked.

Falling just a month after the Gezi protests began, Istanbul Pride was a deserved beneficiary of the movement. Queers have played a major role in the protests. The area around Taksim is the queer part of Istanbul, potentially the most queer-friendly place in the country. Gezi itself is known as a gay beat. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is also considered to be quite homophobic. And so queers have been on the front lines defending the park.

You could see that in the march. We didn’t just chant ‘We will not be silenced, we are gays and lesbians’ and ‘You better escape, the faggots are coming’ – but also the catch cry of the Gezi movement, ‘This is just the beginning, the resistance will continue.’ We booed as we walked past Starbucks for they refused to let in injured protesters who were looking for refuge and medical help.

Activists who might not normally have been at Pride turned out in full force. The Gezi movement wasn’t just a fight for space, it became a space in itself – a space for all.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Tayyip has been that he is steering the country towards an Islamic system. Apart from his homophobia, of particular concern has been newly passed alcohol legislation, which significantly increased restriction on alcohol sales and advertising. Many see this as a major shift towards moving Turkey away from secularism.

As 50,000 stood in Taksim with the call to prayer in the background, this issue couldn’t have been stronger. Most of the people in the crowd would have identified as Muslims. But as they marched down the street carrying rainbow flags and chanting the catch cry of the resistance of the movement, they were fighting for a space that was all-encompassing: a space that many feel the government is trying to take away. Of course, I am sure that this space wasn’t always harmonious. But on that day, people young and old, Muslim and non-Muslim, GLBTIQ, men, women and those who didn’t identify with either gender came together to support each other in their fights.

We were told it was only going to last half an hour or so.

With the occupation of Gezi cleared out a couple of weeks earlier, activists turned to suburban parks. Each night they ran general assemblies in these parks. The movement was called #ParklarBizim (Parks are ours), with activists stating that they were showing how ‘real democracy’ works. #ParklarBizim made its way to suburban parks across the country.

We decided to go along to one in Abbasağa Park in Beşiktaş. Beşiktaş became the hub of activist activity after Gezi was cleared out, and each night Abbasağa hosted the largest of these general assemblies.

I think we lucked out. This was no regular assembly.

The assembly rules seemed pretty simple. People held their hands up and moved their fingers if they agreed with something (we call that ‘twinkle fingers’ in Australia activist circles) and would make their arms into a cross if they disagreed with something. A couple of guys facilitated the meeting, but anyone could ask questions, make arguments or move their own motions.

That night, a motion was moved to head back to Taksim, and it seemed as though people were quickly in agreement. Before I knew it, a decision had been made to march there. My heart started beating at a mile a minute. No, wait, the plans had changed.  Instead we would march to a media office close by: the Sabah and Takvim Newspaper, which have been very friendly to the Government. We would do a sit-in, and then march back. Simple.

The choice of a media agency was highly symbolic. Protesters have been highly critical of the media’s coverage of the movement. One of the more humorous symbols of the movement was the penguin, not a symbol you would expect in the summer heat of Turkey. In the first days of the protests, while CNN International was providing a live cross to Turkey, CNN Turk continued their screening of a documentary about penguins. Soon, penguins were appearing all across the city, and merchandise was made with the slogan ‘we are all penguins.’

But it was not the coverage as much as the government’s approach to the media that is the real concern. Tayyip has been accused of being heavy handed with the media and in his time has restricted television content, freedom of speech, freedom of press and internet use. More and more journalists are ending up in jail.

It took about an hour for the march to start. The assembly had to continue with its other business: asking for people to join the Legal Working Group and the Women’s Working Group, talking about education in the movement, making an announcement about the upcoming Pride. As it ended we were told that the police had stationed themselves outside the office with water cannons and ‘scorpions’: a type of police truck used to crush protests.

Now my heart was pounding even harder. The police violence in Istanbul has been well-documented, but getting there you hear shocking stories. The police are indiscriminate in the way they use their weapons – tear gas shot into main streets, hotels, and through the windows of people’s apartments. There were also reports (of course denied) that during the clearing out of Gezi unmarked officers went into the crowds and threw Molotov cocktails – a way to rile the crowd up, and to make them look culpable in the violence. The violence had been one of the major catalysts for the growth of the movement. It seemed as though the government decided there was no space for peaceful protest, and that was clearly not an idea people could handle.

I wasn’t expecting different treatment but I wanted to go on.

In the end we were lucky. The march was peaceful. We made our way loudly the media station, chanted there for half an hour or so as the police watched on, and then marched back to the park. The support we received was amazing. As we walked down streets people lent out their windows and clapped or ­– as had become tradition – banged their pots and pans together. On the main road, cars – and I mean almost every car I saw – beeped their horn in support.

As we marched back to the park I couldn’t help but think that this really represented what people were fighting for, the sort of democratic and open space people want.

After the first wave of protests, the government was quick to make concessions. They offered a referendum on the park, then started re-planting trees, and eventually a court ruled the proposal illegal. On my last day in Turkey I found out that Gezi had been reopened. Yet the protests haven’t stopped.

While this started as a fight about physical space, it is now a fight about a lot more than that. It is about a government that has been accused of becoming more conservative and more authoritarian – imprisoning journalists, taking the country on the road to becoming an Islamic state, violently breaking up protests and transferring public space into private hands at an alarming rate.

Activists are fighting for a democracy that means more than just voting once every few years. As the government becomes more conservative, and more neoliberal, they are fighting for a space for the public, a space for all.

How their fight ends will not only to define the future of Gezi Park but also of democracy in Turkey.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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