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Istanbul: urban planning, protests and police brutality

Turkish police’s use of brutal tactics and tear gas to subdue urban planning activists is symptomatic of a government’s unwillingness to engage in public dialogue

Being in the heart of the recent Gezi Park and Taksim protests, our office had no choice but to be involved in the mayhem that ensued. Many office members had already been ‘tree-sitting’, keeping an eye on the contractors when they first moved in, but it soon became clear that it would be impossible to focus on work while such important events unfolded on our doorstep. No one, however, anticipated the extreme violence that would characterise subsequent events.

The opening salvo took place on Friday 31 May. Someone had clearly given the order to pull out all stops on the demonstrators and the whole square was instantly filled with tear gas. The area quickly turned into an urban war-zone, as the world watched in horror and disbelief over the weekend. After an initial burst of activity, the police surprisingly withdrew, and conceded the Taksim area to the protesters. Suddenly there were no police, no gas, no water cannon and the protesters organised themselves swiftly. All streets coming into Taksim were blocked with paving stones, abandoned police vehicles and buses and whatever they could get their hands on. There was a sense that the first battle had been won. An eerie silence and odd sense of elation settled over the square.

As we walked into Taksim on the following Monday evening, what confronted us was an overwhelming crowd, banners, posters, street vendors selling gas masks, and donated food, blankets and tents. It seemed that all of Istanbul was suddenly out here in solidarity, not just watching, but there to show support. Dominating the square, the shell of the previously gutted (for renovation) Atatürk Cultural Centre (AKM) was occupied and covered with flags and banners, its roof precariously filled to the brim with cheering protesters. During the peak of the weekend’s events, the roof began to shake, but possible disaster was averted as a Tweet went out warning everyone to evacuate immediately.

The park was already occupied with encampments of well-organised tents and shelters. Even a Gezi Library, and Museum of the Resistance, had been set up. Our sense of wonder and elation was, however, short-lived. As we moved towards the AKM, I found my eyes burning, and the skin on my face began to itch. There was an initial panic, and the crowd began to disperse. No one could tell where the gas was coming from. We speculated that the police had pumped gas into the metro ventilation shafts, which exit on the square, but this seemed too far-fetched. Nonetheless, having witnessed the ruthlessness of the authorities, no one would have been surprised. We even began to suspect that the helicopters hovering overhead were spraying the whole city. With disbelief, anger and amazement, we helplessly moved away and found ourselves having to jump over the barricades to get out of Taksim. Clearly although the police had withdrawn, they were making sure that we knew they were not far away.

Taksim Square

Taksim Square as it appears today, one of Istanbul’s few public spaces

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The offending proposal to demolish Gezi park, replacing it with an imitation of Istanbul’s long demolished military barracks

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The barracks as it once appeared

Although the events officially started on 28 May this year when the municipality started to remove six trees for road widening in front of the Divan Hotel, this story really began over a century ago. The municipality of the time decided that the already damaged military barracks should be removed and replaced with a park. Now the exact opposite was happening: the government was executing long-standing plans to reinstate the military barracks in the heart of Gezi Park without a clear core function attached to it. The plan seemed to be to build it and then see what it could be used for.

Taksim always had an important role in the life of Istanbul, as a public square, a place for political demonstrations and key transport hub. Gezi Park, Taksim Square and Istiklal Street are the equivalent of London’s Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square, King’s Cross and Oxford Street. At its peak, Istiklal carries up to two million people from Taksim Square to Tünel Square. Taksim, which takes its name from the ancient water cisterns in fact means ‘to share’ out the water that is collected at this high point in the city.

Appropriately, ‘sharing’ is the central issue underscoring the events of the last three weeks. Turkey is a democracy where in the last elections over 50% are known to have voted for the party in power, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi: the Justice and Development Party). Until recently, however, the AKP considered that its overwhelming majority in both central and local governments justified its actions. A nationwide construction boom has been boosted by the ability of the government to take unilateral actions on urban policy, clearing the way for mega-scale developments with little or no public debate.

In the case of Gezi Park, the local government has in fact carried out a consultation within the existing formal legal boundaries, but allegedly stretching the rules along the way to achieve a cross party consensus. It therefore ‘justifiably’ considers that the decision to rebuild the barracks was passed through the local political system with the support of the opposition parties. The evidence as well as the silence of the opposition suggests that this is the case. However, it is clear that urban design experts, academics and many people in Istanbul and elsewhere, who have been protesting over the action of the government, feel otherwise. Indeed, ever since the plans emerged over two years ago to ‘pedestrianise’ the square and rebuild the barracks, NGOs such as the Taksim Platform and Taksim Solidarity Group have been actively questioning the decision, through dialogue and legal process, with little success.

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A hastily assembled stage where protestors gathered to hear speeches. Photograph: Antoine Remize

Genuine public engagement requires a complex and well-conceived action plan that brings together as many issues as possible in a transparent and visible way. The Istanbul municipality, whose authority appears to have been outranked by the government itself in this matter, should define what it sees as the issues, select consultants in a publicly accountable manner and engage them in creating a consultative process of investigation and discovery, to which the public is invited and with which it is visibly involved. The aim would be to devise a brief for an international competition for a redevelopment project that responds to the importance of Taksim Square, Gezi Park and Istiklal Street.

This collaborative process could become the model for the continuing evolution of a rapidly-developing power in one of world’s most sensitive regions. Istanbul needs to enact its growing role as an international city, satisfiying the demands of both local and foreign visitors. Instead, the local authority and central government have chosen to implement stealthy, partisan solutions that lead to wider issues of social division and unrest. The Gezi protests have since evolved in to an all-encompassing outcry against the government’s anti-libertarian policies.

After the police had pulled out, many people visited Gezi Park and Taksim Square. Families poured in from all around Istanbul simply to observe the incredible energy that had built up in a very short space of time. At the forefront were architects, urban planners, lawyers, doctors, academics, students, housewives and office workers; in other words ordinary people. The atmosphere was often reminiscent of a music festival, as people mingled peacefully and enjoyed a moment of satisfied elation at the sense of common purpose. Yet the feeling that this may not last was always present.

Many people are conflicted by the government’s approach, questioning why it is involved in affairs that should really be dealt with by the local municipality (interestingly, the mayor of Istanbul has been very quiet about these events, even though he is clearly a protagonist in the process). The government’s previous successes, which brought Turkey to a position that it could only dream of when it came into power 10 years ago, are unquestionable. Under its stewardship, it has succeeded in making Turkey a hub in the region and a respected player on the world stage. But it needs to rule with an egalitarian approach that encompasses all the population rather than just the 50 per cent that voted for it.

This means creating a participatory process at local levels of decision-making and then withdrawing into the background to allow it to happen. My personal hope is that the energy released from these protests continues to grow and evolve towards a Turkish society that is open and inclusive, becoming a model for other countries in the region.

However, for now, all this appears to be wishful thinking. On the weekend of 8 June protesters were told that the police would not enter the square until the following Monday. Tensions rose again, as barricades were strengthened and more gas masks, blankets, food and tents were brought in. As events unfolded over the following week, and CNN broadcast live the re-taking of Taksim, a sense of hopelessness and disbelief settled over the country. The escalating political rhetoric and increasingly confident actions of the police escalated the protests. Many protesters and police were hurt, some killed, much of the gas released affected innocent bystanders and water cannons were seemingly infused with some form of chemical, which burned skins, as we watched in desperation. On Sunday the doors to my apartment building on Istiklal were set behind the police barricades and no one could enter. Fortunately my wife and I had decided to stay away for the weekend but told staff not to come to the office until the dust had settled.

That week in the Daily News, Verda Özer wrote: ‘The Gezi (Park) protests revealed that the citizens want a new contract to be drafted between the state and themselves. They want to shift from a state-centric state to a human-centric one … The AKP government has to realize the fact that the citizens want to become active participants in the decision-making processes. It has to develop a healthy dialogue and a cooperative relationship with the citizens that reminds us of the concept of “negotiated revolution” coined by George Lawson. Lawson describes this type of revolution as a dynamic process that seeks to build a new order without resorting to violence and coercive control.’

‘Negotiated revolution’ has a good ring to it. But today, Gezi Park has been ‘sanitised’ of all protesters, tents placed in bins, the library dismantled, and all signs of the occupation erased. All that remains as a reminder are the saplings planted by Gezi activists, which mercifully the city has decided to keep as a memory of the event.

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