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Report from Turkey: The Revival of Urban Istanbul

Istanbul's Taksim neighborhood turned from Turkey's lush center of culture and leisure, into a major contested site, in a matter of days

Note: Occupy Gezi has exploded. A movement that began with dozens has multiplied into the tens of thousands, spreading to Ankara and others parts of the country. As of yesterday, at least three demonstrators are confirmed to have been killed. Unconfirmed reports describe State violence leading to the deaths of up to 28 people. 

The transformation of the urban environment and our living spaces has become the primary strategy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party and its stranglehold over the government and municipalities of Turkey. 

These new urban policies have become a means of justifying segregation, neoliberal capitalist lifestyle, indebtedness, exploitation, racism, corruption, and a generalized state of exception that violates our human rights. 

The Gezi Park occupation in Istanbul is a continuation of an urban movement that has transformed into a public movement. It is not only about protecting a green space against demolition for a new shopping mall and “reconstruction” of an “Ottoman” military barracks. It is a symbol of being together, of commoning in spite of our differences in Istanbul. 

The month of April saw protests against the demolition of Emek Theater—a historical place that attracted people from different classes and environments over many years. In addition to political organizations, many opposition groups, neighborhood movements, and cultural movements were activated. 

A few hundred people then occupied Gezi Park on 28 May. One of the organizers picked up a microphone and suggested that everyone meet each other. We turned our bodies and offered our hand, told each other our names, and met.

After police entered at 4am with tear gas and started to burn the tents, more people gathered in the afternoon of 29 May. At 5am on 30 May the police brutally attacked the gathering. People began to return at 9 that morning. By 10am on 30 May the public had gathered. 

By the evening, thousands more people had arrived—not only other opposition movements, but even Islamic groups, football fans, and anti-authoritarian groups. The peaceful environment of reading books, singing, dancing, talking, eating popcorn and rice from street food vendors created a total environment of togetherness in spite of our differences. As Carlo Petrini has said, coming together in an unorganized way through meeting, getting know each other, and friendship, is vitally important for starting a movement.

After their brutal attack on 31 May, the police barricaded the park. When the public called for a press meeting to protest the attack and reenter the park, only a few hundred gathered, and I lost hope for a moment.

When we approached the barricade to try reentering, the police used force again with teargas and powerful water cannons. The attack continued until noon, as did the fight back. 

The teargas is made from a strong chemical that disables you and renders you partially blind. Several people were injured. The luxury hotels around the park such as Divan Hotel let the protestors and activists inside and helped them. 

People went to Taksim Square, which was partially under construction by the government to create a pedestrian walkway doubling as high ground for surveillance. The Taksim Square project was criticized and protested several times by many NGOs and organizations within Istanbul. 

The peaceful protest that was only about sitting together at the entrance of İstiklâl—one of Istanbul’s main public streets—was attacked again around 1pm by teargas and water cannons. This time, the police began targeting individuals when they shot teargas canisters. They shot a teargas bomb into the Taksim subway station and closed the doors so that even children and babies in the subway were affected. This was the beginning of the chemical war against the citizens. Media coverage was silent, completely censored. On television you would find a demonstration of how to make risotto. 

The 6th Administration Court of Istanbul suspended the Topçu Barracks Project—known publicly as the planned construction of a shopping mall at Taksim Gezi Park—before 5pm on Friday. We are not still sure what this means. It could mark either the success of our intervention into urban policy or a justification for detaining protesters. Meanwhile, some famous fashion brands and business communities have already announced publicly that they will have no part in any shopping mall built where “blood has been shed.”

Thus the public grew through İstiklâl and nearby districts until by 7pm the numbers reached into the thousands, and had spread to other districts such as the Anatolian side of Istanbul at Kadıköy. Police began again shooting teargas and flew helicopters over İstiklal, Beyoğlu, Tarlabaşı, Harbiye, Şişli. Facebook/Twitter and personal video recordings become the most important means of disseminating information. 

The teargas formed a fog over Istanbul. From 7pm, the police began shooting plastic bullets. Around 10, we were told that more buses of police were arriving to block both parts of İstiklâl and the police were standing by for permission to use real bullets. 

The hotels, hospitals, cafes, high schools, and other public spaces announced that they were accepting the injured. Shopkeepers offered lemon and medicine. All public squares were full until the morning. A public bus driver used his bus as a barricade against the police to protect the people who were attacked. 

From The Guardian: “…amateur video footage showed Turkish military personnel refusing to help the riot police, as well as handing out gas masks to demonstrators. There were also reports that some of the police had switched sides and joined the protests.”

On Saturday morning people began to walk from the Anatolian side of the city by crossing the Bosporus Bridge. Other cities in Turkey rose up in full support of protecting a small green park against an authoritarian government for the right to “breathe” in the city. Cars and buses honked their horns in support. 

The Hilton Hotel managers and staff were proud to host the injured, while its neighbor, the İTÜ Architecture Faculty Taşkışla, closed its doors to its own students. These students were the most active in the occupation of the park by affirming the emancipatory, oppositional role of architects and urban planners in a neoliberal city.

Around 2am people who couldn’t leave home because of children began a protest clashing kitchen tools such as pots and pans from their windows. The sound rose into the sky over the city and become the sound of urban Istanbul’s revival.

This piece was originally posted on E-flux.

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