The Gezi Protests: Local Struggle, Global Struggle

Mirko Van Pampus –  June 7, 2013Domestic Policy

 Now that we are on the twelfth day of the protests in Turkey, the most basic facts are well known. An initially small urban protest quickly gained a lot of support, which only grew further after the police interfered with heavy force and material.

After two days of intense clashes, the police retreated from the central areas of Istanbul and since then the protesters seized the park and the adjacent Taksim area again. The park and square have been cleaned, kitchens are being build and supplied with food by sympathisers and neighbours, there is a small library for the ones in need of further entertainment and there are several info-stands to coordinate it all. The whole area is a constant stage for tens of thousands of people, either led by conviction or curiosity, and they are singing, dancing, shouting slogans, or bursting into spontaneous applause at random moments and places. It seems that a historical moment is indeed in the making.

Beyond the appearances though, this article will look a bit further into the nature of these protests. It is clear that different media and analysts, both in Turkey and abroad, are struggling with the framing of these events. Is it a “Turkish spring” where the suppressed masses are rising to a repressive regime? Is it the old Kemalist elite that is rebelling to settle old political disputes? Or are they just vandalising and looting hooligans? In this article I will focus on the origins of these protests and try to explain how they should be understood as part of a global struggle, albeit firmly influenced by local conditions. 

It must first be understood that Turkey is a country which is currently in a process of radical neoliberal transformation. In economic terms this process is visible by observing for example the large rounds of privatisation of public assets, the ongoing flexibilisation of the labour market and the focus on private profits as driver and mediator of society at large. In addition, this process has a spatial component, where space is shaped and organised by the underlying logic profit-seeking capitalism that needs a specific infrastructure for the sake of profitable production, continuous consumption and economic growth. Of course this process can be seen all around the world, however in the Turkish case it is particularly extreme in both its speed and scale. In Turkey it manifests itself by the construction of profitable infrastructural projects (e.g. a third Bosporus bridge, a third airport, a second Bosporus canal, the Galataport cruise terminal) and an urban spatial reorganisation to facilitate business, consumption and tourism by building luxurious apartment complexes, expensive hotels and countless shopping malls. The removal of residential areas, cultural spaces and natural reserves that happen to be in the way of these plans, is at best considered to be collateral damage, if considered at all.

It was exactly this indifferent attitude towards the public interest and the apparent inevitability of this neoliberal construction mania, that led to a series of smaller protests in the last years. Examples include the demonstrations to preserve the natural reserves on and around the planned construction site of the third Bosporus bridge, the campaign to stop the demolition of the landmark Emek cinema that had to make way for yet another shopping mall, or several projects and protests in the Tarlabaşı neighbourhood which had to be demolished in its entirety for the purpose of new expensive apartment and business complexes. The initial occupation of Gezi Park as a protest against its demolition and the wider commercial restructuring of the historically and socially important public space of Taksim, can be seen in the same tradition of urban resistance.

As such, on the night of Monday the 27th of May a small group of just a handful of activists spend the night in Gezi Park. In the following days the protest gained both support and numbers quickly and by Thursday night the park was filled with thousands of sympathisers. The violent eviction by the police that followed next morning invoked a lot of public indignation and the ball that already had started rolling before was now out of control. One week afters its inception, hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets in more than seventy cities throughout Turkey.

The initial small group of urban rebels had been joined by many different other groups with as many different objectives. Kemalist movements have come to the streets in great numbers,  shouting slogans and waving Turkish flags and as such expressing the frustration about their lost hegemony. Political parties and movements, different in perspectives and size joined in the protests to oppose the arrogant and confrontational politics of the ruling AKP government and to oppose the fact that they are hardly heard or even represented in the decision making process. Exuberant youngsters came to drink alcohol in the streets while mockingly toasting on Erdoğan to express their fury about the revanchist cultural war against their more liberal lifestyles, which included an alcohol ban and other legislation based on conservative values.

It would of course be incorrect to claim that all these groups are fighting under the same banner against neoliberal urban regeneration. However, what unites all these various groups, is that they consist of angry citizens. Their frustration and fury is directed towards ongoing repression, repression in the form of police violence and of the arrogance of the central power. They are angry about their marginalisation, angry about the apparent inevitability of undesired processes and angry about the impossibility of dissent. In this way, the initial protesters and occupiers have touched upon a very sensitive and fundamental frustration which was recognised by many.

Moreover, the eventual occupation of Gezi park and the surrounding Taksim area is representing more than would appear on first sight. The square was taken to express a variety of frustrations and wishes, but on a more fundamental level the square was taken for the sake of the square. Space to express anger, space to facilitate dissent, space for public instead of private interests. A manifesto[1] issued by the original occupants of the park on the 3rd of June, says it as follows: “The struggle for Gezi Park and Taksim Square set a new definition of what public space means. Reclaiming Taksim has shattered AKP’s hegemony in deciding what a square is supposed to mean for us citizens, because Taksim is now what the Resistance wants it to mean: our public square.” In other words, on the surface spatial reorganisation might by now not be the central issue in the mass protests any more, since many issues specific to the current state of the Turkish society took over. However, the underlying resistance against the global process of neoliberal restructuring of the society, has never lost its relevance.

The often heard and logical question now is, what will be next? In the light of the unpredictable and organic nature of popular dissent, it is very hard and perhaps not even so relevant to answer such a question. A safe guess would be to state that the current situation of the basically anarchically run city centre of Istanbul defended by improvised barricades, will not be tolerated for much longer by the authorities. Not because it is not functioning – streets are being cleaned, shops have opened again and even the tourists returned – but because a state, and especially the Turkish state, needs to make its presence felt. Whether this will occur by the protesters leaving the area or, more likely, by the police making another attempt to clean the whole area has to be seen.

On a very practical level we can point at the manifesto of the occupants of the park. They above all want to continue to occupy the park until their demands are met. These demands include the immediate release of all arrestees, the resignation of the mayor of Istanbul, the head of police and the minister of interior affairs, a stop to the commercial redevelopment of the Taksim Square and the opening of the square for public manifestations again.

To conclude, the prospects of overthrowing the AKP government can be safely disregarded for now. It will probably first need a serious implosion of the Turkish debt-led and jobless economic growth model, before the masses of the working class will terminate their cultural and conservative  alliance with the AKP. In that sense it is not appropriate to speak of a “Turkish Spring” here. Tempting as it may seem to elegantly classify these protests in an almost orientalist discourse of oppressed masses waking up in resistance to a horrible dictator, this is simply not the case now in Turkey. However, that does not mean that these protests are insignificant or to be dismissed altogether. On the contrary, these moments have been and continue to be of great historical significance. By marching the streets, by conquering a square, by breathing teargas for two weeks,  by collectively fighting a common enemy, by all the aspects that the collective and symbolic struggle for Gezi park encompassed, the people involved got politicised and this cannot be taken away or made undone. Or to conclude with the words of the earlier quoted manifesto: “We can sense our collective might against the dispossession of our commons because we got a taste of what resistance feels like. […] The resistance for Gezi Park ignited the collective capacity to organize and act between us common citizens. […] And now all of our experiences are part of a collective memory which will run through its veins like lymph, so that we may always remember one simple fact: we can choose our own fate through our own collective action.”

Mirko Van Pampus, Deputy Editor, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey)

Please cite this publication as follows:

Van Pampus, Mirko (June, 2013), “The Gezi protests: Local Struggle, Global Struggle”, Vol. II, Issue 4, pp.21-24, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (