As many of you all have heard recently about Istanbul in the last several weeks, there has been a large protest movement that began in Taksim Square . But, what many people may be unaware of is this movement began as a reaction against the development of a shopping mall designated to be built on Gezi Park, located alongside Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
Below is a recent publication by the Turkish 2006 Nobel Laureate writer Orhan Pamuk describing his experience concerning the recent protests:
In order to make sense of the protests in Taksim Square, in Istanbul, this week, and to understand those brave people who are out on the street, fighting against the police and choking on tear gas, I’d like to share a personal story. In my memoir, “Istanbul,” I wrote about how my whole family used to live in the flats that made up the Pamuk apartment block, in Nişantaşı. In front of this building stood a fifty-year-old chestnut tree, which is thankfully still there. In 1957, the municipality decided to cut the tree down in order to widen the street. The presumptuous bureaucrats and authoritarian governors ignored the neighborhood’s opposition. When the time came for the tree to be cut down, our family spent the whole day and night out on the street, taking turns guarding it. In this way, we not only protected our tree but also created a shared memory, which the whole family still looks back on with pleasure, and which binds us all together.
Today, Taksim Square is Istanbul’s chestnut tree. I’ve been living in Istanbul for sixty years, and I cannot imagine that there is a single inhabitant of this city who does not have at least one memory connected to Taksim Square. In the nineteen-thirties, the old artillery barracks, which the government now wants to convert into a shopping mall, contained a small football stadium that hosted official matches. The famous club Taksim Gazino, which was the center of Istanbul night life in the nineteen-forties and fifties, stood on a corner of Gezi Park. Later, buildings were demolished, trees were cut down, new trees were planted, and a row of shops and Istanbul’s most famous art gallery were set up along one side of the park. In the nineteen-sixties, I used to dream of becoming a painter and displaying my work at this gallery. In the seventies, the square was home to enthusiastic celebrations of Labor Day, led by leftist trade unions and N.G.O.s; for a time, I took part in these gatherings. (In 1977, forty-two people were killed in an outburst of provoked violence and the chaos that followed.) In my youth, I watched with curiosity and pleasure as all manner of political parties—right wing and left wing, nationalists, conservatives, socialists, and social democrats—held rallies in Taksim.
This year, the government banned Labor Day celebrations in the square. As for the barracks, everyone in Istanbul knew that they were going to end up as a shopping mall in the only green space left in the city center. Making such significant changes to a square and a park that cradle the memories of millions without consulting the people of Istanbul first was a grave mistake by the Erdoğan Administration. This insensitive attitude clearly reflects the government’s drift toward authoritarianism. (Turkey’s human-rights record is now worse than it has been in a decade.) But it fills me with hope and confidence to see that the people of Istanbul will not relinquish their right to hold political demonstrations in Taksim Square—or relinquish their memories—without a fight.
The heart of this issue shows the importance (and necessity) of community involvement in Urban Planning for both successful implementation of development projects and a nation’s functioning democracy.
I was fortunate enough to visit Gezi Park where thousands of people had established a large protest camp for several weeks before bulldozers had destroyed a large portion of it. This was done through the forceful removal of the protestors by police using chemical water cannons and American made tear gas. What I witnessed while visiting the park during the peaceful occupation was nothing short of remarkable. An atmosphere of joyful independence and festivity filled the air. During this period, Gezi Park had become the ‘center of the universe’ for the international/global revolutionary movement.
What followed was the forceful removal of this camp by the police under the direct orders of the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. What had developed from several weeks of peaceful public protest and organization, the Gezi Park peace camp was completely leveled and is now currently under police occupation. (Many jokingly remark that the police now get to enjoy the park while everyone else is forbidden entry).
While it may seem simple to place blame on the police force for the cruelty and violence against the protestors, the police themselves have become victims of the Prime Minister’s unyielding force. Police officers and agents have been forced to work and live under extremely harsh conditions during the state’s effort to maintain ‘control’. When walking around Istanbul there are busses scattered around the city filled with exhausted officers attempting to catch a few minutes of sleep before their commanding officers force them back to duty.
At least 4 police officers have committed suicide due to such harsh conditions.
I’ll be posting more information concerning all this Istanbul soon inclusion some poetry and more about the protests soon. Keep posted!