Sunday, June 2, 2013

From Zuccotti Park to Taksim Square: #occupy Gezi/NYC


Last week, I was thinking about the global nature of many of the street  actions we take part in, the push and pull over messages, history, the places we hang out, the streets and plazas in which we meet to build civil society and democracy.  Finishing the blog I received an email from my friend Merve, who I know from cycling and Occupy circles in New York. 

“There has been protests in Istanbul last 3 days against the demolishing of a park (one of the last standing public spaces in Istanbul),”  she wrote.  “It quickly turned into a huge protest with the help of police brutality and reactions to it. as a public space defender it would be great if you can spread the word! there will also be a solidarity protest tomorrow in NYC! thanks so much.”

Scenes from the police raid on Gezi.
Courtesy Occupy Gezi
 Part of channel(s): Turkey Protests 2013 (current event)
Dear foreign friends,
Things are gettin' serious. And Istanbul needs your help, now.

Something brave and significant is happening in Istanbul, Turkey. A late blooming Occupy wave one might call it.

Citizens tired of a bullying government with its corrupt management of public spaces and reckless abuse of land are coming together to protect a public park in the heart of the Istanbul which is under the threat of being demolished so the 94th shopping mall can be built in its place. People are holding in spite of the brutal attacks by the police (today's attack was at 5am in the morning one shall point out! including tear gas bombs, burning the tents, hospitalizing a person...). It is the 3rd day now, more than 10,000 people have gathered in the park!
Meanwhile, public spaces are being sold to hotels, precious ecosystems are being wasted for more industry, power plants, 3rd bridge over Bosphorus! This has become a matter about more than just saving trees. This is an 'I can do whatever I damn well want', fascist mentality that not only supresses but attacks its own people.

Looking at the reports of the police crackdown on the convergence in the space, the treatment of the occupiers looked horrific, but also anything but unfamiliar. Sadly, the conflict over the people’s demand for public spaces vs. the push to put up a shopping mall felt all too common.  The private encroaches into the public all the time.  Today, spaces where we meet are under attackfrom Holland to New York.  In the last two weeks alone, we’ve  seen two community gardens attacked by private developers.  All around the world, we see a clash between those who see public space as a resource for the people, an incubator for democracy, and those who see spaces a s commodity to control and from which to maximize profit.  Conflicts over spaces have ignited movements from People’s Park to Occupy, and wars throughout the ages.

“That's awful. wow... thanks for this. wow...”  I responded to my friend, who concurred. "Its horrible.” She was leaving for an organizing meeting for the upcoming action to raise awareness over the issue. There seems to be media blackout on the issue, she suggested, “social media and international support is the only thing we have. thanks so much again hope to see you soon!”

During the Mayday Occupy actions, we had talked about Istanbul and the ways it was changing.  I have a soft spot for Istanbul after we spent our honeymoon there in the summer of 2001.  I loved what a cosmopolitan multiethnic place it was, the ways people hang out in the wondrous public spaces of the city, the bizarre, the places where people smoke, drink tea, pray, and converge in the plazas in outside the public monuments such as the Hagia Sophia. 

Merve also sent me a invite page to a rally on Saturday to be held in Zuccotti Park, the park which launched the Occupy movement here.  And I posted it.  Zuccotti was our Tahrir Square.  And now this space was launching a solidarity action for a crackdown on a park, morphing into a public space democracy movement on the other side of the world.   The facebook invite included the following message:

To The Member of the Press, International Human Rights Organizations, and the People of New York City,

We are artists, students, intellectuals and citizens of New York City. Together with supporters of Occupy Wall Street, we are here in Zuccotti Park to show solidarity with our friends and brothers and sisters who are occupying Gezi Parki in Istanbul. This is a peaceful event. Our goal is to attract public attention to the protests in Istanbul Gezi Parki and the consequent police brutality of the Erdogan/A...KP government!

Since Monday, May 27th, citizens of Istanbul from all backgrounds have been staging a peaceful resistance in Gezi Park, the city's largest public park, protecting it and its trees from a large gentrification project to transform a public park into a shopping center. The demolition of the park should be understood as another incident of the government’s ongoing appropriation and privatization of public resources.

Since the peaceful occupation started three days ago, The Turkish police have repeatedly intervened, with each intervention more violent than the last. The riot police set fire to the occupier’s tents, and used tear gas relentlessly, causing serious injuries.

Finally on May 31st, the police attacks included rubber bullets, in addition to physically beating and ultimately killing of at least one protester.

Today, hundreds of thousands of people in Istanbul are resisting the AKP government’s neoliberal policies and the brutal attacks on the protestors continue.

This is not the first time protests have been met with state sanctions violence. Most recently, the Turkish police used unreasonable force to disperse May Day protestors again attacking a group of peaceful demonstrators in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The Erdogan government’s excessive force and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protestors is unacceptable, it breaches international human rights criteria and must be stopped.

We are calling on the international community to support the Turkish protestors’ right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. We demand an independent and impartial investigation into the allegations of excessive and unnecessary use of force, to ensure that any law enforcement officials responsible for arbitrary or abusive use of force are prosecuted.


By Saturday the media blackout on the issue was largely ending, with articles in CNN, the Guardian and the New York Times.  And the US State Department chimed in:

Its always rich when our leaders, those who supported the crackdown on the Occupy movement here at home, celebrate the right of peaceable assembly abroad.

Arriving at Zuccotti on Saturday. I was expecting the usual seven people to show up.  But this one was different.  The sun was shining and the park was filled with hundreds of people.  Some displayed the familiar Occupy signs.

Still, it was great to see everyone back here, bringing their messages to the world through this wonderous privately owned public space, which has for so long served as a media echo chamber of ideas and stories.  We need to be in Zuccotti, sharing ideas and information, if only to remind the world that the problem of inequality has just not gone away. And sadly, Wall Street still controls too much of our lives, healthcare, and democracy.

Others carried red and white Turkish flags.   The energy in the space was amazing. 

One man was passing out orange flyers declaring: 

“This is a horizontal civilian platform, which done’ belong to a political party, NGO or association.  If you belong to a political party, NGO or association, we respect that, but please keep to yourself, this is a not the platform for it.

We do not represent anybody.  People represent themselves.  Please act ion line with general civil codes and show common respect.”

Stumbling into my friend Josh, he wondered why authorities ever think that arresting 100 involved in a small occupation, will do anything but invite thousands more.. “Fuck us we multiply,” declared  a sign early in the movement.  It tends to be true. 

Walking through the crowd taking pictures, I ran into my friend Merve carrying a sign declaring “It all starts with a tree.”  That’s really what it was, she explained.  The police cracked down on a few people trying to the city from taking down a few trees in a park.  And the movement caught wildfire, expanding daily.

The same process happened in Oregon in the late 1990’s with Earth Liberation Front and the their tree sits, militarizing a generation ready to shut down the 19990’s WTO meetings, while invigorating a global movement.  Sometimes it does just start with a tree. 

“The guy doesn’t care what people think,” people explained referring to Erdogan.  Yet, resentment is growing.  Walking through the crowd, sign after sign called for him to resign.   

“Sounds like Giuliani…” I responded. 

Others held signs of solidarity between those of us here coping with our own struggle for pubic space, for our own self determination with theirs, noting those in Turkey are not alone. 

“From Zuccotti to Gezi, you are not alone.  We are with you.  Don’t give up Istanbol.”

Is it about pubic space another friend asked me, asking what connected these movements.

Perhaps, but by that I mean self determination about what our cities can and should look like, what our lives, our democracy can look like and how we can shape them.

By Sunday, the occupiers had pushed the police out of the square and Erdogran was on the defensive.  More protests in New York are scheduled for the Turkish Consulate tomorrow.   

According to the NYCGA
3 AM in Istanbol.
Occupy Turkey
Addendum: Message from Istanbol
dear friends,

as you know something is happening in turkey. i am sure if you are reading sources in english, you are probably getting news better than most of the turkish people who follow the main stream television channels. the reason is the prime minister (PM) asked personally to the tv channels not to make any news concerning the demonstrations, and police violence. and they obey so.

make no mistake, this is not the action of a group of oriental people who are revolting against their ruthless sultan. the sentiments might be so, but the facts are embedded into the neoliberal transformation, which the cities have been going through. our european friends could and should draw from these events.

to leave the my usual rants aside, let me go through the facts of what has been going on, and the whole movement have started.

you might have heard that the economy of turkey has been progressing well and have not -yet- affected by the crisis. this is due to the ongoing growth of the construction sector of turkey. if you look at the percentages of the investment and the labor market, it is occupying the first slot. this is a type of economical growth which depends on pumping up the land value, combined with the financial speculation is basically what caused the crisis in spain.

we are not yet at the crisis demarcation, however we are at a point in which the masses which live in the cities need to be either pushed outskirts or disciplined in order to make space for lucrative investments, which the city will increase its value upon. because of this fact, numerous projects have been undertaken, the most controversial one was the transformation of the historic haydarpasha train station into an "entertainment and cultural zone" which basically means commercialization. but set that aside another project which generated public discontent was the transformation of the taksim square which is the most central square of the biggest city in turkey, the old capital, istanbul.

the government indicated signals of how they want to transform this zone, one idea was building a new modern mosque, but currently -as of today- erdoğan indicated that "this is an international guest zone, which multiple conferences are undertaken hence there is an important need for hotels." which ever building will be built, taksim square will cease to be public, but rather be commercialized.

there are two reasons for that, which are not mutually exclusive:

1) increase the value of the city to attract investment into the city.
2) to hide the major demonstrations which usually takes place in taksim from public view, by moving them outside of the city center, hence create the atmosphere of tranquility inside the city.

there is a long history of struggle for the public space for demonstration in turkey, revolving around the taksim square. this goes all the way back to a bloody first of may of 1977. i will not go into detail, but the first official/legal 1st of may in taksim since 1980 was celebrated last year after many years struggle.

this year, the government declared that public demonstration will no longer take place in taksim, and started the conversion/commercialization projects (which ironically they call pedestrianization in turkish). this 1st of may, they used the city/road works around taksim as an excuse and declared that the demonstration will not take place there. the unions and leftist political organizations reacted and tried to enter the square anyhow. hence we had the worst 1st of may in years, probably since 1980s. the mayor decided to close down the whole city, they stopped the public transportation and even the ferries, causing a complete shut down of the city.

to summarize, the clashes last month was not simply about 1st of may, it was about the "right to the city."

--- the part about current events starts here ---

finally last wednesday, the participants of a taksim neighbourhood organization noticed that some trees inside the gezi park in taksim was taken down as a part of the taksim transformation project. a couple of the protested and stopped the machines, since they did not have the necessary permits, and started to take watch, in order to stop any further attempts.

at this point i need to explain that the taksim transformation project is the subject of an ongoing court case, which the organization of the city architects sued. this project is nothing to do the with the taksim commercial center project directly. this project has been approved in the municipal parliament (including the support of the major opposition party members CHP, the republicans). the reports provided by the experts during the court case show that, the project has nothing to do with public good, and should be redrawn.

after the initial stopping of the construction machines in the morning, other activists and the BDP (the opposition kurdish/socialist party) PM of the zone, sırrı süreyya önder(SSÖ) approached the park. wednesday evening, the construction machines reappeared, this time with the police and the security guards of the construction company *dressed up as the municipality police*. with the help of the activist and the SSÖ the destruction of the trees, once again stopped, the event publicized and the occupation of the park started. ***

this was one of the most important point of the whole event, the initial breaking point. from the very beginning we knew that *this* demonstration was different, since it generated a total sense of legitimacy, even though the resistance was started by socialist city activist and a PM of a kurdish party (which is no-no in the mainstream turkish culture).

the most important conglomerate of the core occupy group was as following: (this is my personal opinion and information which is fallible)

the right to city organization of istanbul, their sub organization of *immigrant kitchen* (which organizes food drives and give aways to poor immigrants). their collaborators, the anti-capitalist muslims,, which contributed greatly to the legitimacy of the demonstrators. and last but not the least, the core supporter of the beşiktaş soccer team. they call themselves çarşı and the a is written with the a of anarchy, so you might get the idea.

the following two nights (at about 5 am), police raided the occupy camp without any warning, started throwing gas and subsequently removing the occupiers. this night some civilian looking people burned the tents and the personal belongings of the occupiers. the government refuses that they are the police, but whoever they might be they burned the tents, with the help of the police as clearly seen in the video.***

later, this removal attracted more people the following day. the park was completely occupied and big street party took place in the park, thursday night. following morning, police cracked down the occupiers more brutally. and this time it was documented much better, since the mainstream diffusion caused celebrities to join the occupation and they reported the police brutality (e.g. pınar öğün, mehmet ali alabora)

this incidence caused an uproar. although police secured the park, and put up barricades, the demonstrations grew gradually on friday, climaxing with the re-takeover of the park -with much help of the *çarşı* soccer fan group-. however it is impossible to re-occupy the park, since from friday on the demonstrations and clashes with the police have been ongoing, with the park and the square exchanging hands between the police and the demonstrators.

important developments meanwhile:

* after the public outcry on friday, the government and the mayor refused to back down and indicated that the police attacks will continue. they rejected the allegations that police attacked the occupiers without a warning and the cases of police brutality will needs to be investigated.

* groups of different affiliations joined the core, socialist/anti-capitalist groups in addition to the beşiktaş *çarşı*. after saturday, pictures started to emerge showing beşiktaş fans walking together with fenerbahçe and galatasaray fans -who wear their team jerseys proudly during the demonstrations-, and in addition socialists guarding the nationalist while they are observing their daily prayers during a temporary occupation. the turkish flags and atatürk pictures you see on international news are the evidence that how much an anti-capitalist struggle of the "right to the city" has diffused into the mainstream public.

* the population who did not dare to go to the streets, nevertheless dared to support the protesters in various ways. on saturday, notes saying "protesters are welcome" at the entrance of some apartments around the neighbourhood of beyoğlu was spotted. additionally, the shops in beyoğlu not only aided the protesters, by giving them food and shelter, also some big shops and including commercial centers, converted their spaces into infirmaries. it should be noted, from saturday on big companies declared that they will not open any shop in the mall which will be built in the gezi park.

* on the other hand, the liberals which traditionally supported the -in their words- conservative democratic AKP (justice and development party), has been cynical of the protesters from the beginning. they mocked them as "masses which have nothing else to do but protest for trees and bakeries" (the bakery issue is another situation connected to the gentrification of the city center). on saturday, even they could not mock the protesters any more in the face of the brutal police repression. this is -in my opinion- very important, since these learned liberals have been main drive to legitimize AKP in the eyes of the educated turkish middle-class.

* the refusal of the tv channels to broadcast any relevant news from the streets was both a blessing and a curse. it was a blessing because, we have not seen the usual media distortion of the news *as much*, however since people had to rely on social media this opened a world of possibilities for diversion and misrepresentation of facts, which has been problematic from the beginning.

* as of friday evening the demonstrations have spread into other parts of turkey, official numbers of today (2nd june) say there are 90 demonstrations in 48 different cities. it is especially brutal in ankara as i write this text. hence i will have to finish.

what will come out of the protest, is the big question right now. erdoğan seems to be unflinching in the face of the protests, which means the brutal police suppression will continue even more strong. my only hope is that people would not be hurt anymore, and for that the state needs to wise up soon and see that they are losing legitimacy.

final words to my foreign friends; don't idealize the movement, don't alienate the movement as some oriental revolt. the politics of erdoğan are nothing alien to the politics of the conservative european governments. flexible labor conditions, commercialization of the cities and suppression of public discourse. turkey is now a part of this global struggle.

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