Celebrating 50 years of publishing a Radical Journal of Geography, 1969-2019
The 2013 uprising in Turkey commenced with a call by a handful of activists to guard a park located adjacent to Taksim Square – the most centrally-located public square in Istanbul – from the Istanbul Municipality’s bulldozers. As a part of the redevelopment plan for the whole square, the PM Erdoğan and the Istanbul mayor had repeatedly informed the public of their decision to redevelop Gezi Park into a building complex, to contain a parking garage, museum, shopping mall, and high-end housing. The demolition team arrived on the night of May 27, but was not able to proceed thanks to the resistance of the activists on guard, some of whom lay in front of the bulldozers. The following day the bulldozers were accompanied by a substantial police force, which brutally quashed the protestors through extensive use of tear gas and brute force. A small portion of the Gezi Park was demolished that day.
The authorities’ zero-tolerance response was not that surprising. After all they must have figured that this gathering of fifty people could easily be repressed by the same style of police brutality, which “successfully” crushed peaceful demonstrations for women’s rights, and various environmental causes, against the neoliberal university, increasing precarity, workplace insecurity, and numerous urban renewal schemes. Indeed, during the initial waves of attacks against the peaceful crowd, one could almost sense an air of brazen assurance in the way that the police pepper-sprayed the activists one by one as if exterminating uninvited insects, and burned their tents and possessions in a bonfire set in the middle of the park. The apparent expectation was that the protestors would be silenced, as they had been in many previous cases, and any potential supporters or sympathizers would be intimidated. But something unprecedented happened. With each wave of police assault – which eventually claimed the lives of five young people – the crowd multiplied, and the stage was set for the most extensive popular uprising against the AKP1 government during its eleven-year rule.
Following the rapid massification of the protest, and its spread to other cities, almost everyone (the protestors and pro-AKP people alike) was in agreement that this was a movement against the authoritarian rule of the PM Erdoğan, his neoliberal policies, attempts to intervene in all aspects of social life along an imagined Sunni-Islamic morality (including limitations on the sale and consumption of alcohol; attempts to limit abortion rights; and a generally patronizing attitude towards women and those with secular lifestyles), and insistence on the utilization of extreme repressive measures and massive amounts of tear gas even at the most modest, peaceful protest. Erdoğan and his supporters, meanwhile, were promulgating conspiracy theories, explaining away the unrest by suggesting that ‘external forces’ were cooperating with ‘internal collaborators’ with the obvious goals of destabilizing the economy and eventually bringing down the democratically elected government by a military coup.
There is a general agreement that the police brutality against the defenders of the public park opened the floodgates of public outrage. For many it is more or less a happenstance that the ‘park issue’ was the instigator of this social irruption.2 There is no denying that the circumstances were ripe for such a spontaneous outburst, and the conflict over the park space was just one of the overdetermining factors. Still, in this intervention, I will stay clear of any retrospective certainty ascribed to the event. I don’t intend to deny the necessity of the uprising; yet I would like to treat it as the product of accidents themselves that unpredictably came together to produce a counter-hegemonic space.3 Taksim Square and its environs are, arguably, the foremost meeting place of anonymous bodies in Istanbul (and, indeed, all of Turkey). The struggle for Gezi Park further intensified and diversified unscripted encounters, transforming a public park – through the collective work of anonymous urbanites – into a commons (cf. Harvey 2012: 73). The more or less seamless overlap between the spatial strategies of the struggle and the spatiality of commoning – both relying on the production of a common space – gave the uprising an unmatched potency.
Commoning Against Discipline
The rebellions caught many by surprise. After all, unlike other recent scenes of massive public outcry such as Greece, Spain, the US or Egypt, Turkey’s economy has been perceived to be relatively stable. One of the main pillars of AKP’s economic ‘success’ has been the real estate and construction sector. Urban renewal projects implemented all across Turkey have amounted to displacement, dispossession, and forced marketization for the precarious urban poor (Karaman 2013). In accordance with the hegemonic neoliberal creed, these Haussmanian operations have been carried out through carrot or stick urban governance tactics, with the authoritarian facet becoming increasingly dominant. In recent years, the decentralization tendencies of the early AKP period have been reversed, to the degree that Erdoğan himself is directly and actively involved in the decisions regarding public spaces in Istanbul.
Similar creative-destructive spatial dynamics are noted across the urbanizing world. Evoking the urban revolution that Henri Lefebvre foresaw more than forty years ago, many urban theorists now acknowledge that urbanization has become part and parcel of the surplus value generating circuits of capital. This has many facets such as the disappearance of the urban-rural interface, increasing integration of land markets into finance, and the commercialization of the urban experience. Under these conditions, urban social movements that aim at “reclaiming the city from its bourgeois appropriation” are as relevant as those fighting to liberate “workers from the travails of class oppression in the workplace” (Harvey 2012: 120).
The Turkish uprising started as an urban struggle, and, notwithstanding the rapid diversification and surge of the revolt, the urban character remained dominant. It was spearheaded by Taksim Solidarity – an alliance of trade unions, political parties, trade associations and activist groups, united specifically to oppose the Municipality’s scheme to redevelop the whole square – a site which, for decades, had been a contested terrain between trade unions and state authorities4 – into a pedestrianized commercial-tourism zone.
The Taksim project has to be contextualized within the broader objective of re-crafting centrally located quarters of Istanbul to maximize their potential for retail, high-end housing, and tourism. The imperative is to bring these potentially disruptive (and disrupted) spaces into the fold of urbanization-driven capital accumulation. This rests on the simultaneous operations of incorporation and suppression.5 With the former I mean both the full incorporation of ‘underutilized’ land into the circuits of rent accumulation, and the incorporation of symbolic and material elements of the urban commons – elements that are produced collectively by the people largely outside of the logic of market exchange (see Harvey 2012: 67-88; Hardt and Negri 2009: 249-260) – into the hegemonic logics of space production. Suppression defines the mode of incorporation itself. Here unpredictable, unruly elements of the commons that are incompatible with a calculus of commodity exchange, or that cannot be translated into the universalizing (normalizing) script of the state, are violently suppressed. Take the renewal of the historic Roma neighborhood of Sulukule, which effectively resulted in the displacement of an entire community. While the newly constructed development invoked images of a historic ‘Ottoman neighborhood’ (incorporation), the officially-stated mandate was to “clean away the monstrosity” (suppression). The Taksim project incorporates the centrality of the square and the larger district (Beyoğlu), namely, in Lefebvrian terms, their status as a place of exchange between differences. Yet as the mayor of Beyoğlu points out while everyone is welcome to Beyoğlu, there needs to be more “quality” in the area for attracting tourists. Yaşar Adanalı has documented the disciplining of the streets of Beyoğlu over the last few years through restrictions placed on sidewalk bars and cafes, street artists, and activists. Small shops and independent bookstores are squeezed out by shopping malls, hotels, high-end retail stores, and art galleries sponsored by major banks.6 Incorporation–suppression amounts to a qualitative devaluation and reduction in the reproductive capacities of the commons; yet from an authoritarian-capitalist urbanization perspective, it is a necessary operation to render spaces easily readable, moral7, and ‘safe’ for mass consumption.
On June 1, after three days and nights of clashes between the police and the ever-growing masses, the first group of protestors broke the police line and entered the park. Soon after the whole square and park were occupied by bodies. Barricades were constructed to guard the park and the square from possible police attacks. The capture of Gezi Park and the retreat of the police forces further emboldened the protesting masses in other major cities across Turkey. A defiant Erdoğan brushed them off as “looters” (çapulcu), and indirectly threatened to release his own supporters to the streets. From June 1 until the big police raid of June 15, Taksim Square, Gezi Park and their environs were free from police forces. For two weeks the most prominent public space in Turkey remained “destatized” (Atayurt 2013: 29). Hundreds of residential tents were set-up in the park. Groups representing a variety of causes, including environmentalists, feminists, Kemalists, socialists, communists, anti-capitalist Islamists, pro Alevi, pro-LGBT, and pro-Kurdish rights, and football fan groups based themselves in different sections of the park and the square (Atayurt 2013). A sizable segment of the camp’s residents had no pre-existing affiliation with any political cause; the majority had no prior experience of public demonstrations and police confrontation. A highly communal life was quickly established. Signs reading “money is not valid” could be seen next to collectively-operated food stalls. An infirmary, nursery, library, communication office, and vegetable garden were established and run collectively. Through meetings, forums, workshops, and, perhaps most importantly, spontaneous encounters, the productive wills of anonymous urbanites were brought together, which drastically enhanced the capacities of the commons. One can only imagine that the scene in Taksim and Gezi – a highly heterogeneous mix of young people, mostly with secular backgrounds (hence no gender segregation), and no visible leaders – was Erdoğan’s worst nightmare…
It would be unrealistic to expect a coherent anti-capitalist initiative to emerge out of this motley crew of political agendas and individual expectations. The Gezi uprising was surely not a ‘proletarian uprising’. Yet it was precisely this unscripted co-presence of differences in space, and the day-to-day urgency of collectively holding the commoned territory that enabled intense “revolutionary connections in opposition to the conjugations of the axiomatic [of capitalism]” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 473). It was the territoriality of the Gezi struggle that enabled the ‘taking hold’ of otherwise ephemeral encounters between different bodies and desires, and turned accidents into necessities. It was also directly out of the Gezi experience that local popular assemblies emerged in dozens of parks all across Istanbul, and in a number of other cities in the wake of the massive police raid on June 15. Some commentators rightly pointed out the similarities between the popular assemblies in Turkey and those that emerged in other contexts (Greece, Spain, the US, and so on) in reaction to the crippling of popular will vis-à-vis authoritarian neoliberalism. Perhaps what made the Turkey case particularly striking is that through the commoning of Taksim (that is, its ‘enclosure’ against the state), and collective production of space, people were already actively producing a different kind of urban life. The Gezi struggle therefore was not simply about the conservation of an existing commons, but the defense – through production – of a future urban commons. The occupants of Gezi Park were not just carving a breathing space protected from the imperatives of capitalism, and repressive state apparatuses; they were also actively discovering other ways of co-producing space. It is precisely due to this open-endedness that the Gezi experiment might contribute to a common repertoire of strategies in the expanding fight for future commons.
I am grateful to Sinan Erensü for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this intervention.
Althusser L (1969) For Marx (trans B Brewster). London: Penguin
Atayurt U (2013) Demokratik cumhuriyetin ilk 15 gunu [The first 15 days of the democratic republic]. Express 136:26-29
Deleuze G and Guattari F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans B Massumi). Minnepolis: University of Minnesota Press
Hardt M and Negri A (2009) Commonwealth. Cambridge: Belknap Press
Harvey D (2012) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso
Karaman O (2013) Urban renewal in Istanbul: Reconfigured spaces, robotic lives. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37:715-733
Shmuely A (2008) Totality, hegemony, difference: Henri Lefebvre and Raymond Williams. In K Goonewardena, S Kipfer, R Milgrom, C Schmid (eds) Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre (pp 212-30). New York: Routledge
1 Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (‘Justice and Development Party’).
2 For a counter-commentary arguing that the uprising was in fact about the park: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/12259/it-is-about-the-park_a-struggle-for-turkey’s-citie
3 As Althusser famously argued: “The necessity is established at the level of the accidents themselves, on the accidents themselves, as their global resultant: so it really is their necessity” (1969: 120)
4 During the ‘bloody May Day’ celebrations of 1977, dozens of people were killed by bullets fired from a hotel room overseeing the square, and in the ensuing stampede. The perpetrators of the massacre were never found and brought to justice. The response of the state authorities was to ban May Day celebrations in the square. It’s only in the last few years – and after years of struggle by trade unions – that Taksim Square has been open once again for May Day celebrations. Yet using the ongoing renewal project as a pretext, the police blocked off the square for the May Day celebrations of 2013. From that point onwards, a de facto demonstration ban had been implemented for the whole district. See also http://bianet.org/bianet/toplum/146923-taksim-eylemine-yine-mudahale
5 The following arguments on incorporation-suppression have immensely benefited from discussions with Christian Schmid, Tammy Wong, and Naomi Hanakata. Shmuely (2008)’s related discussion on incorporation was also helpful.
6 As one twitter activist put it very aptly, Gezi Park is pretty much the only non-commodified place around Taksim – the only place where one can “spend time without spending money”. In the nighttime the park also serves as a place of meeting and exchange for LGBT people. See https://twitter.com/myriamonde/status/340310838856531969
7 It was revealing that one of the questions posed to the governor of Istanbul upon the re-opening of Gezi Park after weeks of unrest was “Will I be allowed to kiss my husband in the park?”. See http://gundem.milliyet.com.tr/gezi-parki-nda-opusebilecek/gundem/detay/1733944/default.htm