Friday, May 31, 2013

Taksim Occupied

This week Istanbul's central Taksim Square has been the site of peaceful protests against plans to turn its public green space Gezi Park into a shopping mall.  This morning, police launched a crackdown that injured a dozen:
Demonstrators, reaching as many as 5,000 on Thursday night, have been keeping watch at Gezi Park, where the ─░stanbul Metropolitan Municipality is planning a project to rebuild an Ottoman barracks that existed at the site at some point and a shopping center. The demonstrators occupied the park for the past four days and nights in order to stop bulldozers from removing the park's trees, and the police have been using tear gas and pressurized water to disperse them. However, the already tough approach reached a new peak on Thursday and Friday morning, when at least 12 people, including a deputy, were seriously injured, according to figures from the Istanbul Chamber of Doctors.
The police, during their intervention on the early hours of Friday, destroyed tents put up by demonstrators and used pepper spray, seriously injuring a 23-year-old protestor. The protestor was kicked by police officers while holding onto a tree trying to regain his balance after being disoriented by pepper spray.
Many civil society organizations and intellectuals condemned the use of excessive force against the demonstrators, who have remained peaceful.
I don't think you can really understand what led to these developments without either being on the ground in Istanbul or being immersed in Turkish media, and I am neither.  My suspicion, however, is that it arises out of long-standing opposition to the moderately Islamist AKP government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political allies in the municipality on the part of largely secular Istanbulis, an opposition brought to the level of protest by the plans for Taksim Square, the heart of secular Kemalist Turkey where stands the monument commemorating the foundation of the modern, Kemalist republic.

Another thread to this is the AKP government's ongoing privatization of public assets, which has led in Turkey to the rampany privatization of public space, something scholars call "neoliberal urbanism."  Many former public beaches in southern Turkey have been turned into private property for the hotel industry, and turning a park into a shopping mall would fit the same pattern.  Recreating the Ottoman barracks on this site is also a symbolic stab at the heart of Kemalist Turkey, which was founded, at least ideologically, as a repudiation of the Ottoman system.

The Taksim protests, especially after this crackdown, may bring the tensions between the AKP and its secular statist opponents out to the open streets for what might be the first time.  If the government simply crushes this opposition, it will, in the eyes of many, join the ongoing intimidation of the media as an example of how Erdogan is setting up a party dictatorship under his auspices.

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