Why we should care about #OccupyGezi

The Turkish government is tearing down the only park in Istanbul city centre to build a shopping mall. People have been occupying the park to resist. They have been tear gassed and brutally attacked by riot police. People have been seriously injured and there are emerging reports of a death.

A protester is tear gassed in Gezi Park. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal

A protester is tear gassed in Gezi Park. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal

- By Burcu Baykurt

In fall 2011 when I was witnessing the rise of Occupy Wall Street in New York City, one of the recurring questions in my mind was this: When would Turkey have its own #Occupy moment? “We are the 99%” slogan had spread from the Zuccotti Park to other cities in the U.S, taking its inspiration from square occupations in Egypt, Greece, Spain and Britain. Some of those movements fizzled out, and some of them kept on. But Turks had not jumped on that Occupy bandwagon for a really long time

. Why? Because the PM Erdogan insisted that “the crisis will pass at a tangent to Turkey”? Because the Middle East was boiling in the aftermath of Arab Spring while we were enjoying our unique model of Islamic democracy? Because Europe was in a shambles with austerity policies and harrowing unemployment rates looming large while Turkish economy was ostensibly booming to the envy of others?

Things were not all rosy and peaceful in Turkey though. Last summer a report prepared by the Solidarity with Arrested Students Platform pointed out that there were currently 771 students in jail in Turkey. Then in fall 2012, almost seven hundred inmates went on a hunger strike to break the impasse in the negotiations between Kurds and the Turkish government. Turkey’s press freedom situation has reached a crisis point, concluded a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in October 2012, since the country assumes the world’s top spot for the number of journalists imprisoned in its jails. The use of pepper spray in each and every protest became unquestionable for Turkish police, and went beyond the reasonable levels.

The park in the centre of Istanbul

The park in the centre of Istanbul

Since May 28, however, one could hope that Occupy ethos has finally been extended to Turkey when a peaceful sit-in at Taksim Gezi Park kicked off. Protesters are occupying Gezi Park because the PM has already made up his mind that it should be demolished only to be replaced with yet another shopping mall. But the protest is not solely about protecting trees and one of the few green public spaces in Istanbul. As the daily Radikal’s Elif Ince insightfully reports from the park, #OccupyGezi is an urban uprising against the Turkey’s conservative political elite and their neoliberal policies. One of the protesters explain to Ince that the shut down of Inci Pastanesi was not about profiterole, the protests against closing down of Emek Theater were not solely to preserve historic buildings, and solidarity at Gezi Parki is not just for and about trees.

Protestors are camping at the park because the city belongs to, and should be governed by, its people, not the capricious decisions of one political leader and his disciples in the government.

I assume many people might not expect the occupation at Gezi Parki to last long or become important, but the public anger ignited by the police’s dawn raid must, and does, draw the attention of the press across the world. Since Turks cannot rely on their own mainstream media any more to get key and objective political news, the international journalists should keep their eyes fixed on Taksim Gezi Parki. Whatever happens next, Occupy Gezi is sending a message to the Turkish public and the rest of the world: the “people” are still here, in the shadow of the gigantic construction projects of shopping malls and bridges, and they are beginning to dream wildly.

And, hopefully, they will not go away quietly.

- Burcu Baykurt is a a PhD student at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. This article was originally published on her blog, and is republished with permission.

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You can also help by calling the Turkish Embassy in your country. Ask them why the police are gassing peaceful demonstrators in Taksim. Ask them if Istanbul is still safe to visit.

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