by Simone Ros
The demonstrations that took place in June 2013 at Gezi Park, Istanbul triggered a debate far beyond Turkey’s borders. In late May, the authorities began to demolish the green space of Gezi Park to prepare for a massive restoration of ancient Ottoman barracks and the construction of a shopping mall. However, a group of fifty people tried to prevent the destruction, by staging sit-ins and protesting. The police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
Erdoğan, a powerful and successful leader of an economically booming country, has very often been depicted as paternalistic, Islam-oriented and conservative whose primary concern is a gradual de-secularization of the ultra-secularized Anatolian society. However, there are facets of Gezi Park events that the mainstream media narration failed to address.he demonstrations that took place in June 2013 at Gezi Park, Istanbul triggered a debate far beyond Turkey’s borders. In late May, the authorities began to demolish the green space of Gezi Park to prepare for a massive restoration of ancient Ottoman barracks and the construction of a shopping mall. However, a group of fifty people tried to prevent the destruction, by staging sit-ins and protesting. The police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
The maturity of the protest and its multifaceted composition have been described by two witnesses, who were recently invited to a conference in Vienna to shed light on what the protests meant to the Turkish citizen and what could be the fruits of this extraordinary mobilization.
The Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC) organized a public meeting with two protagonists of the Gezi Park mobilization in the central library (Hauptbucherei) on 23th October 2013. The title of the meeting was Gezi Park. Breakthrough into new Turkey?, and the speakers were Demet Dinler and Ece Kocabiçak. Dinler is a political scientist with a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of London, who has also cooperated with the construction workers’ trade union in Istanbul. Kocabiçak is a researcher at the Sociology Institute of Lancaster, and the head of a socialist-feminist collective that took part in the protests.
Their charisma and contagious passion were effective in bringing a revolutionary spark to Vienna and in heating up the debate with the public, a majority of whom were Viennese Turks. We should not forget that in June, exactly in the same days, a huge pro-Erdoğan demonstration took place in our city that ardently supported the man who was the target of protester mobilization in Istanbul.
According to Dinler, the protests aren’t finished. Even though the park was retaken by police in June, “street Parliaments” have been organized in several Turkish cities in order to carry on the discussion in these brand-new forums. The actors have been incredibly heterogeneous: hardcore nationalists, anti-capitalist Islamists and old-fashion socialists. She points out that one should examine the construction sector to discover why Gezi Park was suddenly such an important symbol.
The construction workers suddenly realized that they were completely voiceless and obliged to work without decent insurance, whereas the big companies were co-opted by the powerful government network. This is the harsh reality that the poorest sectors of the society must face: even if they are part of it, they only marginally profit from the ongoing Turkish economic miracle. It has, without a doubt, contributed to the overall welfare of the society, but it has also been accompanied by a right-leaning tendency of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The government started to question abortion and to ask women to give birth to more children. At the same time, the urban green spaces were being erased and the political and economic inequality reached the peak.
Dinler tried to elucidate the mainstream narration, as it seemed to say that only the cultivated middle-class defended Gezi Park. She observed that there were many people from the poorest sectors of the society who had never built a barricade or even participated in a political demonstration in their whole life. This is the added value of the Gezi Park movement that should not be thrown away. “People understood that they should not be afraid of the government,” she said.
Kocabiçak’s contribution to the debate was less explicit, and was primarily based on feminist rhetoric. Nevertheless, her personal ideological vision of the facts was the very basis of her involvement in the protests. “We have said it loud: we are women who resist, we do not stay at home, in the kitchen,” Kocabiçak declared. Their main reason for action was the patriarchic mindset of the Turkish society, embodied by Erdoğan.
Additionally, she also denounced the shortsightedness of the opposition: “We are between two contradictory pressures. They expect us to stay at home, but at the same time to be more active and to work more!” She did, however, recognize the unexpected organizational weakness of her own collective, but she finally observed, “Alone, we are only a solitary tree. Together we are a forest.”
One should look beyond the trees and the presumed bourgeois character of Gezi Park protest. Behind these legitimate post-materialistic ecological claims, a fight is going on about older, more traditional as well as newer values: equality as political citizens, economic participants, and between genders. Today, as in the past, the challenge is always the same: to find the right balance between the richness of few and the welfare of all.
Workers and women, represented by the two activists, were just two “actors” among many others in this broader demonstration. Nevertheless, the message was rather clear: there was much more at stake, much more to defend, than some trees. It was above all a protest against a certain way to rule the country, staged by the ones who are ready to denounce the dark side of a rapid and uncontrollable economic development.