The Gezi Park Occupation: Confronting Authoritarian Neoliberalis

Cemal Burak Tansel / adamdavidmorton.com

This is the ninth addition to the Thesis Pieces series made up of contributions from my past and present PhD research students. This blog post from Cemal Burak Tansel raises awareness of what he calls the ongoing “double enactment” of surplus absorption and the closure of public spaces in Istanbul under the increasingly authoritarian form of neoliberalism unfolding in Turkey. The occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul is the latest in a series of attempts to confront the authoritarian neoliberalism of the AKP.

On May 28 an impromptu occupation began in Istanbul’s central Gezi Park following the news that the metropolitan municipality had sent bulldozers to demolish the park. The park was doomed as it sits on the pathway of a new urban restructuring programme which included the transformation of the green zone into another superfluous shopping complex. Largely ignored by the outlets of the corporate press, the news travelled quickly on social media, followed by the appearance of a number of protesters at the scene. Four days since the initial mobilisation, Gezi Park has witnessed a continuous influx of protestors who have organised sit-ins and public talks in a largely carnivalesque atmosphere. On May 30, Al Jazeera reported that ‘unconfirmed reports suggest more than 10,000 people are currently gathered in Taksim’s Gezi Park’. But the increasing number of bodies gathered at the location could not make a dent in the AKP government’s commitment to ‘urban renewal’. On the contrary, the government responded to this unexpected public resistance by repeating a time-honoured act of histrionics in Turkish politics: ignore the public, if that does not work, terrorise them.

In four days, Turkish police appeared twice with their familiar marching orders and their valiant donning of ‘riot gear’ against the seemingly ‘dangerous’ crowd occupying the park. Hundreds had to flee the relentless bombardment of tear gases, leaving their tents behind, only to see them destroyed by police. A student denounced the disproportionate state response in resignation: ‘Gas, gas, gas, it is the only way they deal with problems.’ But for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, there was not even a concrete problem to be addressed. Speaking at the initiation of another controversial construction project—the third bridge over the Bosphorus Strait, which Erdoğan himself regarded as ‘murder’ back in 1995—the PM retorted with his usual machismo and imperious demeanor:

The decision has been made and we will proceed accordingly. You cannot do anything about it. If you [protestors] are concerned with history that much, go and read the actual history of Gezi Park. We will revive history [and] we are doing this for our people.

Besides Erdoğan’s problematic reference to the Ottoman past, the AKP government attempted to shift the terrain of discussion to the relatively ‘safe’ zone of environmental politics. Erdoğan expertly recounted the number of trees the government has planted during his term (2.5 billion apparently) and Forestry and Waterworks Minister Veysel Eroğlu promised that they will plant ‘a hundred times more trees than are cut’ in Gezi Park. The protection of Gezi Park as ‘one of the few remaining green spots in downtown Istanbul’ is essential, but the meteoric rise of the occupation and the subsequent public outrage against the government signifies discontent with a broader trend that underpins the AKP’s reign since 2002: authoritarian neoliberalism.

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