Thousands of people have gathered in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey, organizing under the hashtag "Occupy Gezi" and broadcasting scenes of brutal police violence to the world. But why are they there? What are they protesting? And do I need to care? Let's figure it out.
What is Occupy Gezi?
Occupy Gezi, or Diren Gezi Parkı (though most participants appear to be using the English name in their tweets and blog posts), is an ongoing protest, consisting of thousands of people and taking place in Gezi Park, a small green space in Taksim Square, one of Istanbul's largest public spaces and a focal point of the modern part of the city.
Why have I been hearing so much about it?
Late last week, after four days of occupation, hundreds of police entered the square, burning tents and firing tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons at protesters. The crackdown was brutal, and way out of proportion to the protests, which were entirely peaceful; at least 12 were hospitalized with head injuries, and images of protestors, bloodied and battered by pressurized water and tear gas canisters, flooded the international media.
I think I saw some of those photos.
You probably did—though be careful. One photo of "protestors" was actually of last year's Istanbul Marathon; some of the photos from the widely shared Occupy Gezi Tumblr were from other protests—one in Boston, one in Italy (they appear to have been removed). There's been an unfortunate and worrying amount of fake photos and rumors being circulated by protestors, or by people claiming to be protestors, including one false rumor that Agent Orange (the internationally banned chemical weapon) had been used by police.
Do I need to care?
Yes. Turkey is a huge and quickly growing country with borders along Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia; it's an important power at the intersection of several important regions. Also, you care about international news! Because you are a citizen of democracy!
What are they protesting against?
The occupation of Gezi Park began last week, as developers removed trees in the first step of a major development plan that would transform Taksim Square and replace Gezi with a mall (itself inside, subtly, a rebuilt Ottoman-era barracks. But tasteful, I'm sure!). Gezi, though small, is among the only public green spaces in Istanbul, and the protestors have objected to what they see as a unilateral government decision to eliminate it.
Seems pretty big for a protest about urban planning.
The planned elimination of the park is only the latest in a string of development initiatives undertaken by the country's ruling party, AKP ("The Justice and Development Party"). Under AKP and its popular prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, the city's oldest movie theater was demolished for a mall; ground has been broken for a third bridge over the Bosphorus, named for a Sultan famous for slaughtering the religious minority Alevi Muslims; and an enormous canal through the city's western side has been proposed.
But, yeah, it's about more than urban planning. Since its beginning on Monday—and especially since a violent crackdown on the occupiers by police on Thursday and Friday—the protest has evolved into something broader and more generally anti-Erdogan.
Why do they dislike Erdogan?
For a variety of reasons! Erdogan is a center-right religious conservative, disliked by many of the generally more secular Istanbullus, and the aggressive development is seen by protestors as symbolic of an autocratic, forceful leadership style. More than that, it's seen by many as representative of the changes to the rapidly growing city in the years since Erdogan took power.
What do you mean?
Istanbul's population growth has been driven in part by a religious middle class moving from rural Turkey to new developments sprouting up around the city. Their religiosity represents a threat to Istanbul's secularism, just as Erdogan's mild Islamism is seen as a threat to the national secularism imposed, often by force, by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Well... is it a threat?
Heh. This is a hard question! Turkey's secularism laws were for a long time much more stringent than those in the U.S.: For the bulk of the 1980s and 90s, for example, women weren't allowed to wear head scarves in government jobs, or in some cases on government property like public universities. From an American point of view, it seems like not much of a threat to secularism in the abstract to let Muslim women wear headscarves on campus, an issue Erdogan campaigned on in 2007.
On the other hand, AKP recently effected the passage of a law banning alcohol ads, and the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. And while this is generally mild (compared even to some U.S. state blue laws), it's more than enough to make the Turkish secular elite think their fears of an Islamist state are coming to fruition.
And that's why they're protesting?
Partly. Erdogan's policies and leadership are authoritarian and repressive, and there's no question that resistance to that authoritarianism is at the heart of Occupy Gezi. But it's also unclear that he's in particular worse for the average Turk than the last century's worth of secular, often military leadership—which has been similarly authoritarian and repressive. Given that, it's maybe easier to understand the religious-vs.-secular divide less as a pure conservatism-vs.-liberalism split and more as one of the major vectors of the broader split between Istanbul and much of the rest of Turkey brought that Occupy Gezi brings to light—as when an International Relations professor tells The New York Times that Istanbul has been "invaded" by "uncultured" "Anatolian peasants."
That's not a very liberal sentiment.
No, and it's worth noting that Occupy Gezi isn't—yet—a broad-based political protest, drawing its strength mostly from the educated classes that make up Turkey's waning secular elite. (As Zihni Ozdil points out, the opposition party CHP—the secular mirror image to the neoliberal, market-friendly AKP—has seized on the protests and is seemingly welcomed by protesters, even though CHP approved of the Gezi development plans.)
But even if Occupy Gezi's not perfect, Erdogan is clearly the aggressor here.
Oh, absolutely. Erdogan is wrong, and this kind of brutal crackdown should give a great deal of anxiety to Erdogan apologists
Will the protests change anything?
It's way too early to tell. Erdogan, dictatorial though his police action may seem, is a democratically elected leader, and even though the AKP-driven urban development Occup Gezi is protesting pushes out blue-collar citizens and immigrants in Istanbul, he retains high approval ratings from the poor and working class across Turkey, including in its secular bastions.
But the protests have lasted a week now, and expanded to other cities, forcing reticent Turkish news outlets to give them coverage, and Erdogan, who pulled back police forces over the weekend, may have realized he'd overplayed his hand, especially after violent labor protests on May Day. In a press conference over the weekend, he denied that a mall would be built, and claimed that trees were simply being moved to widen the pedestrian walkway (a clear contradiction of his own words from a year ago).
I got in touch with members of Çarsi, the leftist fan club of Istanbul’s Besiktas soccer team; I’d written about them for the magazine in 2011. They had come up with a new slogan: “Give us 100 gas masks, we’ll take the park.” I asked Ayhan Gÿner, one of Çarsi’s senior members, what he had to say to New Yorker readers. “Çarsi is the last barricade. Çarsi keeps alive the hopes of the people in the resistance of Gezi Park,” he told me. “This resistance has inspired the leaders of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe”—rival Istanbul soccer clubs—“to come together. Damn American imperialism to hell.” Fifteen minutes later, I got another text: “Pepper gas is the Besiktas fan’s perfume. Nobody can intimidate us”; and, shortly after that, “We are the soldiers not of the imam, but of Mustafa Kemal” (referring to Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic).