Best Drupal HostingBest Joomla HostingBest Wordpress Hosting

World Policy Journal is proud to share our weekly podcast, World Policy On Air, featuring former Newsweek On Air host David Alpern. Click here to subscribe on iTunes!



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]

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly. If you have a Gravatar account, used to display your avatar.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image. Ignore spaces and be careful about upper and lower case.


Around WPI

Jihad in Sub-Saharan Africa 

This paper, “Jihad in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenging the Narratives of the War on Terror,” examines the history of Islamic movements in Africa's Sahel region to contextualize current conflicts.

World Economic Roundtable with Vicente Fox 

In this World Economic Roundtable, former Mexican President Vicente Fox discusses his current quest to make his country a hub for technology. 

Intern at World Policy

Want to join our team? Looking for an experience at one of the most highly sought-after internships for ambitious students? Application details here.


Al Gore presides over Arctic Roundtable 

As the United States prepares to assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, this inaugural convening of the Arctic Deeply Roundtables launches a vital conversation for our times. 


When the Senate Worked for Us:
New book offers untold stories of how activist staffers countered corporate lobbies in the U.S.

MA in International Policy and Development
Middlebury Institute (Monterey, CA): Put theory into practice through client-based coursework. Apply by Feb. 1.

Millennium Project’s State of the Future 19.0: Collective Intelligence on the Future of the World


To learn about the latest in media, programming, and fellowship, subscribe to the World Policy Weekly Newsletter and read through our archives.

World Policy on Facebook