In the crowded center of Istanbul, there's a little park. It's not much by American or European standards -- a few square blocks of trees, paths, benches, and fountains, all in need of some loving care. Until recently, most local residents just passed through on their way to the nearby bus stop, or perhaps sat for a few minutes on a sunny weekend. But over the past few days, little Gezi Park has become a major flash point -- its threatened destruction the spark for what have turned into nationwide protests, with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in the face of a fierce police crackdown. So what happened?
It's not all about a park, of course -- not even close. But environmental issues, particularly urban planning and the utter lack of public input into how Turkey's cities are taking shape, have been an important element in the growing discontent.
Over the past few years, Istanbul -- by far the country's largest city, and the showpiece for the national government's ambitions -- has begun to feel like one massive construction site. Some of the work, like the extending and connecting of public transportation lines, has been undeniably an improvement. Other projects, however, have seen historical neighborhoods razed, parkland infringed upon by developers, waterfront privatized, and beloved local institutions trampled in the name of "progress." Still to come are changes that would send the city sprawling further northward, into some of the last large green space around, an area that has historically provided much of Istanbul's water supply and remains the "lungs of the city."
Urban Livability on the Decline
All of these projects have been pushed through -- generally not by the Istanbul municipality itself, but by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government in the Turkish capital city of Ankara -- without any kind of public-input process, little public notice, and seemingly without much (if any) consideration of urban livability. Many of them are also believed to be enriching developers and others allied with the government. The process has been especially galling to many in light of the platform of anti-corruption and transparency that Erdoğan's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP, or Ak Partı -- "White/Clean Party" -- as they prefer to be known, in Turkish) successfully campaigned on when it first came to power in 2002.
Still, when bulldozers tore into one side of Gezi Park on Monday, it didn't cause that much of a stir. The park had already been surrounded by construction walls and machinery as part of a massive ongoing project to bring the roads of the adjacent transit hub Taksim Square underground -- a change touted as an environmentally friendly "pedestrianization project" that appears more likely to leave the iconic square a lifeless, hard-to-access expanse of concrete. That project, as well as an announced plan to rebuild an Ottoman-era barracks on Gezi Park and turn it into a shopping mall, had been protested, but to little avail.
"Gezi Park is owned by the public. [The fate of] something owned by the public has to be asked of the public, but that's not the case anymore in Turkey. [The projects were] never discussed with members of the public or the NGOs who represent them," Mehmet Ali Alabora, an activist and head of the Turkish actors' union, told me on Friday morning.
Peaceful Protesters Met With Police Violence
Public attention and concern about Gezi Park only really began to coalesce after the 50 or so people who had gathered Monday to try and block the bulldozers were tear-gassed by police on Tuesday. More protesters began to descend on the park, setting up tents and digging in for the long haul. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the sleeping demonstrators were again attacked with tear gas, and their tents burned. After they returned in still larger numbers, the same thing happened Thursday morning. Erdoğan's defiant statement Wednesday -- made during groundbreaking for the controversial third Bosphorus bridge -- that the protests would do nothing to change his development plans only added fuel to the fire.
By Thursday evening, the park was full of peaceful protesters, gaily picnicking into the night. Signs hung on trees read "This is not concrete, this is nature," "The breath you take is mine," and "Nothing is eternal, nature says the last word."
A Country Wakes Up
The violent ousting of these demonstrators Friday morning -- with what Alabora called "enormous strength" on the part of the police -- proved to be the last straw. With the park barricaded by riot police, protesters gathered in adjacent Taksim Square, where they were indiscriminately tear-gassed and water-cannoned by police throughout the day. By evening, the streets of central Istanbul were filled with demonstrators "armed" with surgical masks, cut lemons, swim goggles, and spray bottles of Maalox mixed with water in an attempt to protect themselves as they surged again and again into clouds of tear gas. The protests raged throughout the night, with entire neighborhoods expressing support by banging pots and pans outside their windows at 2 a.m. and thousands of people walking long miles -- even crossing from Asia to Europe by foot -- to join in.
Over the weekend, the protests spread to other parts of the city, and across Turkey, channeling frustrated anger at Erdoğan's government and its increasingly authoritarian approach to social issues, press freedom, religious minorities, political opposition, and more. Chants of "Tayyip resign" and "government resign" rang out through the city. Though police continued to use aggressive tactics against demonstrators elsewhere, they pulled out of Taksim Square and Gezi Park on Saturday afternoon, leaving the area to fill with jubilant protesters. Though property damage had been done by some, many more rallied early Sunday morning to pick up trash, replant trees, and pass out food, water, and other donated supplies.
As I write this Monday morning, the sounds in my neighborhood, just blocks from the initial protests, are those of roads reopening to cars, people cleaning up the streets, and life returning to normal, at least for now. On Facebook and Twitter, reports continue to pour in about police violence elsewhere. What happens next remains very uncertain. Will this weekend's events turn out to be only a loud, but ultimately empty shout of protest? Or will they be what finally reinvigorates Turkey's largely toothless opposition into a force capable of effectively challenging Erdoğan's vision for the future of the country? If the latter comes to pass, there's a small park just up the street whose name seems likely to go down in history.