Atatürk's Republic

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Gezi in the Greater Context

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I recently watched the documentary Urbanized with my aspiring city-planner spouse.  Toward the end of the movie there is a segment on the Stuttgart 21 project, a highly controversial urban renewal project centered on Stuttgart’s central train station.  The purpose of the project to improve ties with the greater European transportation and economic networks through a major renovation and expansion of the Stuttgart train station.  Those opposed to the project centered their attention on the project’s destruction of a public park and the 100 year old trees it was home to.  The movie featured video from a police intervention during one particularly large protest:  tear gas, water cannons and fleeing crowds.  Seeing the eerily familiar images of the anti-Stuttgart21 (S21) protests led me to consider what now seems like a glaringly obvious hypothesis: Gezi belongs to a wider phenomenon of public-space centered protests in democratic nations.

Analysts and journalists have been struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to relate Gezi to other recent protest movements.  Especially at its onset, Gezi was often falsely categorized as part of the “Arab Spring.”  As the ongoing crisis in Egypt most dramatically demonstrates, Gezi’s relationship to other recent regional protest movements is superficial at best.  Despite what some would argue are Erdogan’s desires to the contrary, Turkey remains a largely stable democracy.  In Turkey, there were vociferous calls for the “dictator” Erdogan to resign, but only the most naive considered this to be a serious possibility.  In contrast, the leaders who were the target of the Arab spring were true autocrats who, with the exception of Assad, many but not all of whom were eventually ousted as a result of the protests.  In a historic change, the unrest in Turkey also failed to materialize any serious calls for a coup.  For better or worse (and I would strongly argue the “better” outweighs the “worse”) Turkey’s civilian government has simultaneously stripped the military of its former political power while building up its own authority.

In the first few days of the movement, the Gezi protestors began to adopt the terminology of the “Occupy” movement that began in New York in 2011.  Although the association of Gezi with Occupy is more accurate than the Arab Spring, the two movements in some ways also make a strange partnership.  Despite their signature tactic of “occupying” a space, the Occupy movement was largely a protest about wealth inequality and government coddling of the banking industry rather than the destruction of public space.  In contrast, Gezi began a movement to save a public space and morphed into a protest against government repression and authoritarianism.  As varied as the motivations of those who joined in to the Gezi movement were, there was a distinct lack of economic complaints.

Of the large-scale protest movements that have captured the world’s attention in the past 3 years, the recent events in Brazil are the most clearly analogous to Gezi.  Both center around a lack of public input into large scale construction projects and government encroachment on public spaces.  The anti-Stuttgart 21 fits this pattern as well.  Throughout the democratic world, there have been a number of largely overlooked local protests aiming to curb construction in urban public spaces.  Defining Gezi as a public-space centered movement, as opposed to anti-government movements like the Arab spring or economic protests like Occupy, allows us to locate it within a greater context and compare it to similar protests.  The anti-S21 protests provide a particularly useful example for comparison as it is slightly older than Gezi and therefore its impact has had more time to solidify.

One of the most superficial conclusions we can draw from the pervasiveness of public-space centered protests is that city dwellers are increasingly opting for quality of life and community over economic development.   Even those in low income areas or informal settlements who are most likely to be the victims of development are increasingly able to express their discontent through the use of new media.

Though they are more likely to have their voices heard than in the past, protesters are at a distinct disadvantage when attempting to stop planned construction projects.  This is true in both developing and more mature democracies.  In Stuttgart, the S21 project had undergone a public review and approval process for a number of years before the protest movement began.  The government therefore countered the protests with the assertion that the public has already been given the chance to weigh in on the project.  In the case of less mature democracies such as Turkey and Brazil, the government is less likely to seek public approval prior to beginning a project but will subsequently use an appeal to majoritarian politics and sheer force to “argue” their case.

Despite their de facto advantage, governments often feel threatened by these protests, especially when they draw large crowds, and tend to use excessive force in attempts to break up demonstrations.  This is true even in a “mature” democracy like Germany, though notably the forceful suppression of the anti-S21 only happened on one occasion as opposed to the dozens (and counting) police-protester encounters related to Gezi.  I would posit that the violent government reaction stems from the fact that these type of protests threaten state monopoly over the control of public space.  Public space provides a home for dissent (through protests) as well as less “desirable” and more volatile elements of society such as the poor, the homeless and young people.  Protests against building up and “sanitizing” such public spaces are therefore not just a threat to the viability of an individual project but existentially to the government itself.

It unfortunately appears inevitable that a modern state will need to reassure itself that it maintains a “monopoly on violence” and from time to time end up acting against its own people.  The test of a true democracy is if there are consequences for doing so.  In the case of S21, the party that had championed the project was summarily voted out of power in the next local election and took a major hit in the state elections as well.  The political consequences of Gezi have yet to be seen and most likely will be small initially.  However, as I have previously argued, I believe that largely young supporters of Gezi will soon begin to make their mark politically and change Turkish politics for the better.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

August 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm

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