The Gezi Occupation: for a democracy of public spaces

“Respect” has become a new slogan tagged on walls all over the cities, and expressing the need for a return to civility and call for politeness in Turkish public life. Gezi occupation reveals to us all, how “public square” becomes literally vital for our democracies.

Nilufer Gole
11 June 2013

Taksim, Istanbul on day 12 of the protests - June 7, 2013. Image: www.showdiscontent.com.

Over the past week, protest movements have spread across Turkey’s largest cities, and appear to become widespread urban uprisings. Despite often violent police intervention, people have not hesitated to take to the streets and block avenues, neighbourhoods, and their cities’ central spaces. Others participate from their balconies, with whole families chiming in to the protesters’ chorus, banging on pots and pans. They have found pacifist means of protest that require no arms or political slogans to express their discontent and frustrations with the Erdogan regime.

This urban movement, started by young people, supported by the middle classes and featuring a strong female presence, has not weakened in the face of impressive displays of force by riot police who use tear gas without hesitation. Clouds of gas cover the sky in town centres, making breathing difficult; but these clouds, symbols of pollution and the abuse of power, have only bolstered the anger of ordinary citizens.

The public sphere has been suffocating for some time in Turkey. Restrictions on freedom of expression and the crackdown on the opposition, particularly journalists who have lost their jobs and the mass media which has changed its editorial line, have put a muzzle on public discourse. The most recent protests in Taksim, which were not covered by the major television stations, are ample proof of this.

Moralizing intrusions into citizens’ ways of life have abounded. The latest regulations, which aim to restrict sales of alcohol and ban all images, advertisements and movie scenes that would promote alcohol consumption were the last straw. Students, merchants and particularly actors, singers and directors came out in fear of restrictions on their individual and artistic freedoms.

Besides his authoritarian and moralizing drift, it is Erdogan’s style and tone of address that have profoundly offended public opinion. He blames his opponents by referring to them in a pejorative manner, as “marginal”, “thugs” (capulcu), or even “drunks” (ayyas). His contemptuous vocabulary is no longer a simple source of mockery in conversations, but has incited collective indignation. He provoked a scandal by naming a new bridge over the Bosphorous Yavuz Sultan Selim, a name that evokes the massacres of the Alevis. “Respect” has become a new slogan tagged on walls all over the cities, and expressing the need for a return to civility and call for politeness in Turkish public life.


Taksim square around 11am on June 11, 2013. Image: www.whatishappeninginistanbul.com.

For the past few years, the mode of governance has seen the personalization of power, not unlike that of the sultanate. Enjoying majority rule with no real political opposition, Erdogan has not hesitated to make major decisions himself, without deigning to consult those primarily concerned, the citizens, nor his own political entourage. By monopolizing discourse, he has undermined the power of others, like the Mayor of Istanbul, who sought to ease tensions during the demonstrations in Gezi Park. This personalization of power is felt in his omnipresence in the public space and is now turning against him and crystallizing in anger directed specifically at his person.

For some, who take the Arab Spring as a model, these protests resemble the occupation of Tahrir Square and demonstrate the population’s anger against the authoritarian political regime. For others, these movements are similar to European activists who protest against global economic powers. The Turkish debate has similar elements within it, but also more specific ones. As in the two aforementioned cases, the Turkish movement has become a public one. However, if the Arab Spring demanded the majority’s voice in democracy, the Turkish movement is rising up against democratic majoritarianism.

In the case of “Occupy Wall Street” and “indignes” in European cities occupying the public squares, protestors, themselves victims of economic crisis, were raising their voices against financial capitalism. In the Turkish case, it is not the economic crisis that triggered the revolts of urban youth, but the greedy development of commercial capitalism.  

It is thus necessary to look for the meaning of these protests in their original context. Defending a few trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park is not merely a pretext for political contestation. The plan to destroy this public park in order to construct a shopping mall has aroused collective anger and a new critical consciousness. The Gezi occupation movement reflects resistance to urban development of the past ten years. In Turkey, capitalism is no longer an abstract term, such as global financial capitalism, that escapes citizens’ control. It has taken a material form, incarnated in the shopping mall, a new and indigenous symbol of global capitalism. Turkish citizens who were enthusiastic about economic growth today express their concern with the insatiability of consumerism which is destroying the urban environment and open spaces for public gathering. In the eyes of residents, razing Gezi Park and transforming it into a place for consumption literally signifies a confiscation of public space by private capitalism.

At the heart of this movement lies the desire for the restoration of public space in democracies. Gezi occupation reveals to us all, how “public square” becomes literally vital for our democracies. More than ever the public square is threatened by forces of private global capital on the one hand and by the disciplinary regulations and authoritarian tendencies of the State power.

Gezi Taksim square in Istanbul, becomes a scene for displaying the openness of the public space to all and its capacity to reassemble, in bringing together men and women, Muslims and the non-religious, Alevis and Kurds, young and old, middle and lower classes. This has allowed a new critical imaginary to circulate, one which focuses on protecting public space in its physical sense, with its capacity for bringing people together in a convivial way.

In the face of state oppression through commerce and morality, citizens have put culture before consumption and respect for diversity before contempt for others. Together they have released an incredible energy of creativity. They turn the public space into an artistic scene inventing a rich repertoire of action, playing with words, changing their meanings, mixing them in several languages, composing new songs and melodies with everyday life utensils, circulating epic images of the civil resistance of youth across the world, inviting the global village to participate to the Istanbul public square of Taksim.

It is when the army is withdrawn from political life, when the taboo about the Armenian Genocide is lifted, when it becomes possible to make peace with Kurdish nationalists that this movement announces the need for a new public culture based on recognition of difference and resemblance.

While it is predominantly a secular movement, it does not embrace old State laicism and animosity against Islam. Rejecting the politics of polarization and stigmatization, the Gezi movement is reuniting people across ancient divides. The future of Turkish democracy resides in the credo of this movement which asks those in power hold their tongues, abstain from moral intrusions and ban violence.

Turkish youth in solidarity with the middle classes defend the autonomy of the public space against the homogenizing forces of ideologies, religions, markets and the State power.  The public square provides a space for the expression of singularity and collectivity, a place for a located, grounded home for democracy.  The soul of this libertarian and unifying movement is best summed up by Nazim Hikmet’s poem: Live like a tree lone and free, live like brothers like the trees of a forest.

This piece was originally published in French in Le Monde on June 6,2013

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