Articles

Urban Heroes of Istanbul: It’s About Public Space

by Jesse Honsa on June 10, 2013

Protesters jump over one of the many barricades that currently protect Taksim Square from the Police’s crowd-dispersion tanks. (photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

Protesters jump over one of the many barricades that currently protect Taksim Square from the Police’s crowd-dispersion tanks. (photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

ISTANBUL — Last Monday night, the word on Twitter was that the police tanks were coming back to the Square from the southeast. Thousands rallied, adorned in their bike helmets, swimming goggles, and bright smiles underneath their gas masks. The crowd mobilized along a series of barricades heading out of the square: the first an overturned police vehicle; the second and third were birds-nests of material brought from a construction site; and the latter two just piles of pavement stones, less heroic but perhaps the most efficient to block the water cannon-equipped panzers from getting to the Square. Somewhere beyond the last blockade, clouds of the white gas spread. The crowd booed and slowly moved back, singing songs in defiance, relieving their burning eyes with fresh milk and talcid.

The events leading to this moment have been incredible. A week earlier, these young, educated Turks would have been shopping, clubbing or playing games on their iPhones. Now, they contribute their collective bodies to defend a space that has become almost sacred, in a Dionysian ritual of defiance that has become routine in Taksim Square, Istanbul.

Unintimidated protesters slowly move back from police teargas. (photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

Unintimidated protesters slowly move back from police teargas. (photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

A Territorial Victory

For too long residents of the city have sat by as their government incrementally destroyed Istanbul, the beautiful ancient seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Forced evictions clear the way for tabula rasa urban renewal in historic districts, the Turkish housing authority (TOKI) is building luxury gated communities in infinite quantity, and a new bridge and airport in the forest to the north will write the death certificate on the city’s source of oxygen. This resistance has been less of a political demonstration and more of a territorial battle: citizens physically defending their beloved city of winding streets and charming old facades from the global forces that want to turn it into a Dubai, a commodity of glass and highways. Equally, the police’s response was a manifestation of Erdoğan’s bulldozer approach to opposition.

A billboard advertisement promises a new, gentrified neighborhood of Tarlabaşı near Taksim. Forced evictions cleared poor ethnic minorities to make way for luxury residences. (Photo: Christian Pichlkastner, used with permission)

A billboard advertisement promises a new, gentrified neighborhood of Tarlabaşı near Taksim. Forced evictions cleared poor ethnic minorities to make way for luxury residences. (Photo: Christian Pichlkastner, used with permission)

If you have been reading international news about the protests that started in Istanbul and have spread across Turkey, you may be under the false impression that this is an ideological battle between a secular piece of society and an Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, sparked by an insignificant event, the occupation of a city park. But the role of space in these outbreaks cannot be underestimated. As part of a project that would pedestrianize Taksim, Istanbul’s main square, the adjacent Gezi Park was to be demolished to build an Ottoman-via-Las Vegas Mall. The protest was an effort to save a park by occupying that very park; it was not a symbolic or ideological demonstration like the Occupy Wall Street movements, but a primal struggle between human bodies and bulldozers, that made the political discourse all the more potent.

Taksim is also the first place where protests have historically occurred; the planned pedestrianization of the square would have cut off the avenues where protesters could enter, effectively a vasectomy of its power as a commons. In Erdoğan’s own absurdly ironic words, “We want to stop traffic in Taksim, give the square to the people, pedestrians so that everyone can walk there freely.” This space of dissent, the last vestige of democracy reserved for moments in time when politicians have refused to listen to their populous, was itself under threat.

Taksim Square in construction, victim of the government’s pedestrianization scheme that will render it impotent as a space for political demonstration. Roads leading to the square will become tunnel entrances, making marches impossible and defense by the police easy, as we witnessed in this wave of protests. (Photo: Christian Pichlkastner, and used with permission)

Taksim Square in construction, victim of the government’s pedestrianization scheme that will render it impotent as a space for political demonstration. Roads leading to the square will become tunnel entrances, making marches impossible and defense by the police easy, as we witnessed in this wave of protests. (Photo: Christian Pichlkastner, and used with permission)

Friday, just outside my apartment in the area of Cihangir, a hip neighborhood near Taksim Square full of cafes, clubs, and yoga studios, was the front line of an epic night-long battle. It was predominately locals: men and women would go to the front lines clapping and shouting, return with pale skin and red eyes squinting in pain, have a beer outside a bar, and return into the gas clouds. As the night raged on and the police started aiming their gas canisters at people’s heads, protesters retaliated with projectiles, ripping street bollards out of the ground to chuck at the tanks, as the sound of clanging pots and pans swelled from every window in support. Let me reiterate that these were not impoverished peasants, these were worldly middle- and upper-class citizens, with their lives and careers ahead of them, risking everything in defense of their urban territory.

The battle raged on until the following afternoon, when tens of thousands of urban dwellers approached the square that the police had taken hostage, and finally the foot soldiers and tanks fired their last rounds and retreated. Taksim has been in the hands of the people since last Saturday and they are not about to give it up.

If you have been following international news, you might be thinking that it is an awful place to be, with violent clashes and anarchy, and Mad Max-like images of blazing fires and destroyed property. But is it more like a utopia: food, drink, books, and entertainment is shared, and a great cross-section of society is united with the common objective to occupy the space peacefully and blockade the tear-gassing monster that lurks beyond. Without any police presence it is crime-less: people are on their best behavior, convinced that peace is necessary to preserve the legitimacy of the occupation.

Occupy Gezi Park. (Photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

Occupy Gezi Park. (Photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

Gezi Park has become the birth of an urban movement. Already occupiers have transformed the park to their own liking: a free library was built from stones that were to be used in the government’s project; an exhibition of photographs from Friday’s “revolution” has graced the interior of a contractor’s office onsite. In defiance of the forces that want to promote passive consumerism and suburbanization, occupiers farm vegetables, do yoga, and read in an exhibition of urbanity.

Baptism by Water Cannons

Protesters escape from one of the police’s panzers as it fires water and pepper spray liberally. (Photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

Protesters escape from one of the police’s panzers as it fires water and pepper spray liberally. (Photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

The Occupy Gezi Park protest started to grow on May 29, when demolition crews moved into place on Gezi Park, and several days of growing numbers of people and government-inflicted violence finally climaxed on Friday, May 31 when the police brutally took control of the entire square. I was coming from Harbiye to the north, on a wide avenue full of thousands of protesters, when I got my first taste of fear. Within seconds, the poison clouds in the distance enveloped us, and a panzer emerged blasting us with pepper spray and high-pressure water. Everyone hit the facades of buildings as the tank drove by, and we fled for protection down a narrow side street as gas canisters soared past us in the sky. All efforts by the more experienced protestors to calm the crowd were lost when two officers fired rubber bullets, and a hellish panic consumed us as we ran over parked cars and each other.

Later that evening the initial fear wore off as I and others around me realized that we had survived this assault unharmed, emboldened with the liberation from intimidation. That moment of empowerment gave us the strength to stand up to an oppressive authority. It was and still is a moment of unbreakable solidarity amongst everyone. The smell of tear gas became a bat-signal, calling us to join our brothers and sisters wherever gruesome clashes with the police continued to take place.

In one of the most memorable and dramatic events from the battle in the district of Beşiktaş, protesters pursued the police in a construction excavator. (photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

In one of the most memorable and dramatic events from the battle in the district of Beşiktaş, protesters pursued the police in a construction excavator. (photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

As the weekend came to a close and we all expected that the situation would return to normalcy, we received tweets that the protesters would move to the HaberTurk news agency’s headquarters. The mainstream media, deep in the pocket of the government, had forsaken the people with their complete blackout of the entire protest from day one. Shouting “We want a live broadcast!,” the crowd made it clear that this movement is not going anywhere soon. The government must feel that it has created a monster on the loose, as protesters move from target to target with precision and speed.

Occupiers celebrate in Gezi Park. (photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

Occupiers celebrate in Gezi Park. (photo: Nazim Serhat Firat, and used with permission)

I should say that I am a foreigner who considers Turkey my home. The Turks have impressed me beyond measure, and I think they have even impressed themselves in their stunning courage against the forces of oppression. Those who fought have been baptized by water cannons, this could be the beginning of a new, defiant, and just era.

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