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Of Public Space and Perpetual Motion: Istanbul, NYC, and Elusive Lessons

In recent weeks, a parcel of land that had been vacant for two decades in the southern portion of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was seized by New York City environmental direct action group Time's Up, and converted into what the collective called the "Nothing Yet Community Garden." It was an action that fell within the group's quarter-century history, recalling collaborative work to defend community gardens similarly established decades ago, threatened by developers when leases expired toward the end of the Giulianni era.

At this most recent site on South 5th Street, overlooked by the entry-leg of the Williamsburg Bridge, soil samples were taken, pear trees, flowers, and seedlings were planted, and benches installed. Within a week, the space was bulldozed to make way for the construction of "affordable housing"; a designation of dubious content, if the record for recent affordable development in the neighborhood is any indication. Even its metrics have fallen well short of convincing many onlookers, and one is hard-pressed to discern any class-diversification in North Brooklyn stemming from development. Indeed, rather inverse trends announce themselves on virtually every surface.

The swiftness with which the city swept in to suspend any stirring of community self-organization on South 5th suggests both a fierce determination, and a certain – rather grave – confusion. In the first case, an apparent lack of equivocation about neoliberal constructions of "the public interest", or even a construction of "the public" indistinguishable from developers; an evident State-capture rivaling the feats of northern Mexico cartels, with life beyond consumption and investment waved off as naïve or worse. In the second case, an exception with regard to the Dark Science's fetish for empirical data: As Eric Klinenberg detailed in a New Yorker piece earlier this year, even the federal government is now crafting policy informed by the statistically-significant correlation between community self-organization and improved outcomes amidst extreme weather events. It's a consideration not altogether remote for Williamsburg, situated as it is on the bank of the East River, within the evacuation zone staked out amidst the last two hurricanes. Apparently, returns on investment are not measured in lives, or health, or longevity.

So, when activists took to Istanbul's Taksim Square, refusing its razing in the name of a shopping mall, it was – for anyone paying attention – clearly not merely a matter of trees, or green space, or the retention of a particular urban aesthetic. As activist Jay Cassano wrote just days ago for the website Jadaliyya:

The entire plan for Taksim Square's redesign is part of an overall neoliberal turn that Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) are central to. Istanbul's city center has been undergoing a rapid process of gentrification, especially in the historic neighborhoods of SulukuleTarlabaşıTophane, and Fener-Balat, which housed the poor, the immigrants, the Kurds, and the Roma. The goal of this so-called "urban renewal" is to make room for more tourist attractions, or to—at minimum—"clean up" the neighborhoods, removing working class urban dwellers who might scare off tourists. The idea is that this new and improved city center will attract foreign investment in Istanbul, which is to be further developed into a financial and cultural hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.

If Saturday was any indication, New Yorkers got it. They took to Zuccotti Park, the legendary staging ground of the Occupy movement, in numbers that swelled to four or five thousand at points; numbers unseen since perhaps the days just after the NYPD's violent early morning eviction of the square's encampment in November of 2011. "Without public space, you can't have democracy," said Ben Shepard when I spoke with him at Saturday's demonstration, a veteran of Occupy Wall Street and Time's Up. "When I talk to people in this crowd, they say ‘we want our own space to determine what our city can look like'. It's about self-determination, from Istanbul to New York."

And indeed, Istanbul to New York describes the scene one encountered in Lower Manhattan this past Saturday. A sea of Turkish flags, peppered with signs and banners in Turkish, seemingly driven by a secular refusal of the AKP's stewardship of the country. It was not, as many seem to have neglected mentioning in social media coverage, a revival of Occupy in any conventional sense. Rather, the uprising now spreading from Istanbul has possibly put the tactics associated with Zuccotti in conversation with the aspirations of a local Turkish diaspora, invigorated by images beamed in from the uprising now spreading from Istanbul across the entire country.

For Cassano, a Brooklyn resident with ties to Turkey, the correspondences are hardly insignificant or even incidental. "Occupy Wall Street would not have taken off and functioned the way it did without a widespread activist culture of consensus decision-making, general assemblies, and decentralized organizing." he says. "In the same way, the uprising in Istanbul would not have occurred without the backdrop of the right to the city movements that have been working non-stop for years and fighting battle after battle that they were losing. What I think is consistent is that these movements only take off after there has been a long period of tireless organizing that seems like it's not having an effect."

The question perhaps looming is what might follow battles lost at sites like South 5th Street; whether they're understood as chapters ending, or just beginning. While one could easily conclude that disproportionate retaliation from the State proved a game-changer in both Occupy and Istanbul, the lesson may, in fact, be a matter of persistence in the face of what feels like losing. "Heavy-handed police repression appears to be particularly likely to make movements explode. But we should also remember that police likely wouldn't be trying to suppress protesters if the protesters weren't doing something that threatened the state," says Cassano. "It's incredibly difficult to determine what is the final spark that sets off a mass movement. If we knew that then there would be revolutions all the time."

Originally published on

Joshua Stephens

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Photo of Gezi light brigade in Liberty Square (AKA Zuccotti Park)