Mayhem in Taksim: It's not just about the park

Friday, May 31

Everyone is talking about the massive police attack on demonstrators that took place today in Taksim's Gezi Park.
For those of you who haven't been following the story, the government in Ankara has decided that a shopping mall should be constructed in Taksim (Gezi) Park, in the center of Istanbul.

To tell you the truth, I've never really liked this park, which is pretty scuzzy (I used to call it "broken condom park" back in the 1990s because that's one of the first things I ever saw there). It was never the sort of place where I'd go and hang out--other than the cool little tea place that looked over the Bosporus.

Nevertheless, it's one of the few greenish areas in Istanbul. Some people would go there, mostly poor families who needed to picnic but had no place better to go.

Protesters have been occupying the park the last few days, ever since the company building the shopping mall began cutting down trees. They call themselves an "occupy" movement. Occupy Broken Condom Park.

The protests aren't just about a park. I don't think anybody loves Gezi park very much, even the folks who spent time there. I doubt that many of the protesters have spent much time there, either. Why would they?

But that isn't the issue.

Instead, I think the protesters see the park protest in much bigger terms. For them, the destruction of the park and the construction of another shopping mall constitutes a symbol of an authoritarian administration.  The type that forces Turkish citizens to bend to unpopular decisions like the construction of a mall on the park's grounds.

Money is also an issue here. The gradual transformation of Istanbul into a shopping mall archipelago has been a big story in recent years. The Gezi Park plan in Taksim comes on the heels of a number of similar stories regarding the destruction of local neighborhoods and sites, and their replacement with new buildings, often shopping centers. Just this year the beautiful 1909 Emek Theatre on Istiklal Caddesi, also in Taksim, was demolished in order to create yet another shopping mall. A couple of years ago the Sulukule neighborhood, one of the oldest Roma neighborhoods anywhere in the world, was the target of a massive gentrification program that created buildings selling for ten times the cost of the ones that were torn down.

That, in my opinion, is what this largely boils down to: a protest against what some people see as the authoritarian-big capital sympathies of Turkey's AKP government.

So no, I don't think that this was just about people being upset about losing their "beloved" park. It's much bigger than that.

The location is also important. Taksim is an entertainment center. There have always been lots of bars, cinemas, and places to go and have fun. There also used to be a number of theatres around, as well as the Ataturk Cultural Center, which has been 'under renovation' for several years now during AKP rule.

Back in the 1990s, some elements within the Refah Party (current prime minister Erdogan was the Refah mayor of Istanbul back them) tried to have a mosque built on Gezi Park. The fight back then was over the soul of Taksim: should it be an entertainment center (with lots of drinking), or should it host an enormous mosque?

Now, instead of a mosque, we have a shopping center. Actually, this is a completely suitable way of distinguishing the AK Party from its predecessor, the Refah Party. Whereas Refah leader Necmettin Erbakan was clearly an inspiration for Erdogan's politicized piety, if anything the Refah Party seemed almost anti-capitalist at times. Refah was the party that built itself, in part, by speaking up for the people who had been economic losers during the 1980s and 1990s, the folks who had not prospered during a period of economic expansion. The Refah Party had gone out into the slums and the gece kondu neighborhoods to organize the desperate and poor. The party prospered not only because of its stance on religion in the public sphere, but also because they were willing to speak up for the folks who had been largely forgotten by the mainstream Turkish Left.

That, I think, is the biggest difference between Refah and the AKP. Erdogan's AKP is different from Refah in that the AKP is a very capitalist party with lots of wealthy supporters who today play a large role in the Turkish economy. They might be pious, but they're also rolling in cash.

And, oh yeah, one reason why Erdogan gets on so well with Obama whereas Erbakan was shunned by Clinton is that, for some strange reason, American presidents seem to be more supportive of foreign leaders who embrace capitalism and markets. In this respect the AK Party is something new: it combines the support for Islam in the public sphere championed by Erbakan and Refah with a strong pro-business approach that makes Americans and European leaders smile.

It kind of turns the idea of "Kemalist elites" on its head, right? Kemalists may have been part of the cultural and political elite for many years, but they never bothered to get rich in the process. They created a statist economy that was often sclerotic, but which nevertheless kept a hegemonic economic class from forming.

The protests against the mall in Broken Condom Park are about these issues, not just saving a scuzzy park. The protests are about public dissatisfaction with an economic-cultural-political model that many people in Turkey have long since had too much of.

Within the police response to the protests, captured below, there was also a message: Don't get any ideas about "occupying" anything in Turkey. 
As much as I enjoy going to Taksim, I avoided it today. As I write this (11.11 pm, Turkish time), battles between police and protesters are still raging. The fight has spread to Cumhuriyet Caddesi in Harbiye. Here's a picture, apparently, of the area around the Hilton Hotel:

Glad I opted against staying at the Hilton


It might be tempting to dismiss all of this, and there's a good chance the protests will come to nothing. In the late 1990s, there was the "make noise to end the silence" protests against the Susurluk scandal. People banged drums, honked their horns, etc, for a little over a month before the defiance petered out. Maybe that will happen again. 
But what's interesting is this: Susurluk was actually a huge crime. People are definitely not in the streets just over this park. It's other stuff, too.
How many areas have been destroyed by development in recent years? Those events didn't cause protests like this. The fact that the direct issue is relatively minor makes me think the protest might actually have legs.
And if the protest has legs...well that's where things get complicated. As anyone who has followed the Ergenekon drama knows, it's not as if the AKP has major allies in the military. Student protests combined with angry/fearful officers has led to sudden, unexpected events before in this country. Just ask the Menderes family. 
For now, we'll have to see where things lead.

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