The protests in Turkey: urban warfare in ‘rebel cities’, by Bulent Gokay and Farzana Shain


These are democratic protest movements in societies experiencing rapid change where the public’s demand for better services and more democracy at local as well as national levels grow at a faster pace than their governments’ ability to provide.

(Demonstrators on an overturned vehicle during the protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, Istanbul June 2013. Demotix/Akin Aydinli. All rights reserved.)

Many mainstream accounts of the recent Taksim-Gezi park protests have made references to the so-called Arab Spring events in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries.  Many asked the same question: Are the Taksim protests Turkey’s Arab Spring?

The protest in Taksim started small: its initial aim was to stop developers from building a shopping-centre that was to be housed in a replica of a military barracks building demolished sixty years ago. For the protestors the development meant the destruction of much of Gezi Park, one of the last green spots in central Istanbul.  However, the character of the protests changed when the Turkish police attacked protesters with considerable violence, and what started as an environmental protest in Istanbul quickly turned into a nation-wide political demonstration against the policies of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his government.  The protests rapidly gained support from a cross-section of society in Istanbul and other urban centres and became diversified.  However, the protests were led and dominated by young middle class professionals and their demands for access, freedom and a new kind of urban living.  Despite the expanding scope of demands and expectations, issues related to the city and its quality of life remained at the heart of the protests.

It is no coincidence that the demonstrations began and were concentrated in Istanbul, the largest and the most developed urban centre in Turkey.  Istanbul has been the centre of large-scale urban transformation and regeneration over the past three decades.  It was in the 1980s, soon after the military coup in Turkey, that the city witnessed the beginning of the neoliberal transformation and the celebration of property rights, in a similar fashion to other metropolitan centres, like New York, London, Madrid, etc. In this sense, the Taksim-Gezi protests share a common ground with a great many diverse social movements focusing on the urban question, from India and Brazil to China, Spain, Argentina and the US.  This analysis is in line with David Harvey’s reworking of Marxist political theory which places the cityfirst and foremost, in terms of its position as a generator of capital accumulation, as opposed to the factory/work place. Harvey, distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography, discusses how urbanization plays a key role in social conflicts of today.   This is justified by an economic argument around the importance to capitalism of land, rent and speculation more so than straightforward production.  “Over the past 30-40 years, where cities try to brand themselves and sell a piece of their history. What is the image of a city? Is it attractive to tourists? Is it trendy? So a city will market itself.” (Interview with David Harvey: Rebel Cities & Urban Resistance Part II, 7 January 2013)  Just a week before the Taksim-Gezi protests started, David Harvey was speaking about the urban origins of the social movements and referring to Istanbul, saying that “What do we see in Istanbul? Cranes, everywhere. “ (Spiegel Online, 21 May 2013)

(For the full article see openDemocracy, 26 August 2013)

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