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Fragile Utopias: From Zuccotti Park to Taksim Square

By Sam Frizell

GEZI PARK, Turkey—After the police withdrew from Gezi Park and thousands of discontented Turks re-claimed a stake in the nine-acre plot in central Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a defiant speech at the EU-Turkey conference in Istabul last Friday. He defended the police crackdown on protesters in Taksim Square, comparing it to New York City police officers’ treatment of Occupy Wall Street protesters, where he said 17 people had died.

While Erdogan got the facts wrong (no one was killed at Occupy Wall Street, unlike in Turkey, where several thousands have been injured and three protesters have died), the Turkish prime minister’s comparison between the protests in Gezi Park and Occupy Wall Street was unwittingly astute. Like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, the demonstrators in Gezi Park are fueled by a newfound sense of political purpose, and their identity is tied to the public space they occupy. They also share a weakness with Occupy Wall Street: the absence of a coherent political message. With Erdogan maintaining a defiant tone, the protesters in Gezi are unlikely to bring about meaningful political change unless they adopt a specific set of goals to challenge the prime minister.

About a week after the police withdrew on June 1, Gezi Park glows with the same sense of festivity as Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan nearly two years ago. Gezi Park is a leafy plot of land in the northern corner of Taksim Square crossed by walkways and a fountain in the center. Though the protesters in the park are under siege by the police who are expected to arrive at any moment, they sing and play guitar, argue and laugh with companions. Bodies cover every spare inch of the park that their tents did not, and protesters smoke cigarettes and eat donated sandwiches people had donated.

“It’s not my revolution if I can’t dance,” says Garo, a member of socialist party Halklarin Demokratik Kongresi, as we stand under a tent on Saturday night. Nearby, a crowd dances in the orange glow of the bonfires and street lamps that light Taksim Square.

The protesters are a diverse group with a range of goals. Leftist groups set up tents on the south end of the park immediately across from a group of Kurd nationalists. A range of political parties joined in, from social liberals to more conservative occupiers. It’s no surprise then that the occupiers haven’t articulated a clear vision for the future or political platform, besides their rejection of government plans to turn Gezi Park into a shopping mall, the original impetus for the occupation. One protester calls the Gezi Park occupants “anti-capitalists” and the police “capitalists,” and another says he wants to help shape a firmer democratic tradition in Turkey. Occupants of the park complain about new alcohol restrictions, Erdogan’s ambitious urban development plans in Istanbul, and the increasing influence of Islam in Turkish politics, but by and large, there isn’t much tangible to ideologically unite the protesters outside of a general discontent with Erdogan and anger at brutal police handling of the protests.

Repeatedly protesters emphatically told me that any definite form of political organization is anathema to the movement. “This is a kind of an awakening. We always thought we were just separate individuals thinking about the same ideas. This organization is natural, it’s in ourselves. Political organizations are outcast here,” says Onur, a 35-year-old filmmaker.

"Everybody here has something to say," says 29-year-old Duygu Levi. “Everybody is here for different reasons.”

Nonetheless, protesters organized under the umbrella group Taksim Solidarity submitted a list of seven demands last week, which included the restitution of the park and the resignation of several officials involved in the police crackdown. I ask 39-year-old Ali, a committed and well-informed protester who kept updating his Facebook page on developments in the park, what the protesters’ demands are. Ali only lists two or three—even with the help of his friends.

Erdogan said he doesn’t know what the protesters really want. He has blamed the protests alternately on international influence, financial profiteers, and terrorists. “He’s used to attacking individuals to find a target, but this time there is no target,” Onur says. “There’s a crowd, just a big crowd.”

Without a coherent political agenda, the demonstrators rely on Gezi Park itself as the source of their unity and political potency. They have created a self-contained world, and like Zuccotti, Gezi has regular food distribution, a self-organized garbage collection system, and a library. There are even makeshift medical bays set up around the perimeter of the square. People say they see the park as a utopia perpetuated by the spontaneous goodwill of fellow occupants, separate from the rule-bound world under the control of the police. “I cannot believe this is happening in Turkey,” says Kristen, a 31-year-old anthropology student. “It’s such a foreign thing for the Turkish political imagination to be in such a space. … It’s like a grand festival of civil society organizations that don’t necessarily come together.”

Erdogan has called the protesters unlawful squatters, while the protesters claim the park as public property and protest their prime minister’s ambitious building projects and incursions into public space. “We just want a bit of green,” says Baderhin, a journalism student from Istanbul who declined to give his last name. “This is our country, our Taksim republic.”

This rhetoric of being outside of normal politics should be familiar to anyone who followed the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it does not bode well for the future influence of those in Gezi Park. According to an October 2011 survey, occupiers in Zuccotti Park overwhelmingly said they had no political affiliation, with only 27 percent identifying as Democrats and 2 percent as Republicans. As a group, the occupiers did not endorse politicians or field candidates of their own, nor did they recognize viable representatives or leaders. Though some have argued it changed the conversation on wealth distribution in the United States, the movement accomplished few tangible victories. The Occupy movement in the United States was synonymous with its home in Zuccotti Park and the political forum people had created there. Occupy Wall Street largely lost the public’s attention when protesters were finally evicted from Zuccotti Park, and with the loss of the park, there was little tangible to hold the movement together.

On early Thursday morning, Erdogan offered the protestors a referendum on government plans to turn the square into a mall, on the condition that the protesters evacuate Gezi Park. It’s too early to tell what will happen if the protesters decide to remain in the park, but it is likely they will be forcibly removed. The police have already used tear gas and water cannons to retake Taksim Square once, and they are preparing to clear protesters from Gezi Park. On the other hand, if the occupiers choose to abandon the square in favor of a referendum, they lose their bargaining leverage, but more importantly, the one focal point of their heterogeneous movement. With the police poised to descend on Gezi Park and the protesters unlikely to draft a set of specific goals or form a political party, the fate of Turkey’s largest protest movement is in jeopardy.

Nearing midnight, I left Gezi Park for the last time, following the steep downhill road to the north of Taksim Square, where people prepared for the police to arrive. Grim-faced, they pulled goggles over their eyes and reinforced the barricades of sheet metal, discarded fences, rebar, and mesh piled up to defend against the police. Nervous laughs rang out among the young men guarding the barricades. 

I asked one man if he was afraid.

“Look around,” he said. “Can you see that anyone is afraid? No.”

Two days later, the police bulldozed the barricades. Taksim Square was once again showered with tear gas and high-pressure water cannons, scattering protesters. But the occupiers returned, and Gezi Park remains nearly untouched by the police for now. Whether the protesters decide to evacuate the square could define the outcome of this nascent movement. Unless the disparate groups can come together with specific demands, the movement needs that physical space. Right now, Gezi Park is all that unites them.

*****

*****

Sam Frizell is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

[Photo courtesy of Sam Frizell]

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