Dr. Can Erimtan (İstanbul) – The refurbishment of the wider Taksim area has been continuing for nearly a year now. In spite of popular discontent with the plans to turn the whole area into a pedestrianized cement garden, with cars and buses confined to underground tunnels and trees and other forms of vegetation banned from sight, the works continue unabated. This new Taksim area would consist mainly of tiles, bricks and stone and cement. This ambitious project is part of a wider government-sponsored Urban Transformation project, started on 5 October 2012 – a scheme which includes the demolition of 3,900 buildings at 75 locations in 35 individual cities using explosives and bulldozers.
The Taksim Project aims to transform the area between the districts of Harbiye and Tünel into a pedestrian-only zone, or more realistically speaking into a giant open-air shopping mall. The scheme will begin with the construction of a tunnel connecting Cumhuriyet Caddesi and Tarlabaşı Bulvarı. Eventually, there will be five tunnels, one for each approach to the Taksim Square, with the obvious exception of İstiklal Caddesi – arguably the heart of the open-air shopping mall aimed at by the project. For more than 100 meters in every direction service roads will be transformed into pavements. It seems more than just ironic that the “project is being criticized by architects, urbanists, and activists on grounds that it will block easy pedestrian access to the square once finished”. In addition the Gezi Parkı, which occupies the area north of the spot which till recently functioned as a bus station, will be replaced by a replica of the 19th-century Topçu Barracks. The original barracks were torn down by the İstanbul authorities in 1940. The replica barracks will house a state-of-the-art shopping mall, undoubtedly similar to the recently opened Demirören shopping mall on İstiklal Caddesi.
And now, popular protests have broken out, initially in reaction to the scheduled removal of the handsome trees straddling the park. These protests quickly got out of hand, with the police liberally wielding its force to pacify the crowds. The Guardian’s Richard Seymour writes that on Friday morning, “Turkish police surrounded protesters in Taksim Gezi park, the central square in Istanbul, blocked all exits and attacked them with chemical sprays and teargas”, somewhat hyperbolically adding that an “Occupy-style movement has taken off in Istanbul. The ostensible issue of conflict is modest. Protesters started gathering in the park on 27 May, to oppose its demolition as part of a redevelopment plan. But this is more than an environmental protest”. Seymour rightly opines that these Gezi Park protests have “become a lightning conductor for all the grievances accumulated against the government”. Political scientist and Gezi Park protester Koray Çalışkan told the international press the following: “We do not have a government, we have Tayyip Erdogan”, adding that “They are not listening to us . . . This is the beginning of a summer of discontent”.
On Friday, the human rights’ organization Amnesty International issued the following statement: “Turkish authorities must order police to stop using excessive force against peaceful protesters in Istanbul and immediately investigate alleged abuses, said Amnesty International after more than a hundred people were injured during an ongoing peaceful demonstration in a city centre park. On 30 and 31 May, police officers used water cannon and tear gas to disperse a peaceful protest against the destruction of Gezi Park in central Istanbul. More than a hundred protesters are reported to have been injured during police interventions. Some suffered head injuries and at least two people had to receive emergency surgery”. In fact, we should not forget that it was but four weeks ago that the police in İstanbul also used excessive force to disperse May Day demonstrations trying to reach Taksim Square, the traditional centre for public gatherings.
In contrast to these concerned international voices, Turkish officials continue to issue statements relating how well-intentioned citizens have been duped into supporting the Gezi movement while vowing to continue with the planned refurbishment of the Taksim area. Speaking at the 20th Meeting of the Council of Turkish Exporters (Türkiye İhracatçılar Meclisi or TİM) on Sunday, the popular yet polarizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned citizens “to stay away from the provocations of illegal organizations’”. Tayyip Erdoğan continued his words as follows: “In connection with the Gezi Park [refurbishments], certain actions are being done in the course of the past few days. What is the reason? First, trees are being cut; [and] secondly, in accordance to its original the Topçu Barracks are here being re-built. A shopping mall is being built here. Look here, my friends, the [protests] that are taking place in the Taksim Gezi Park area have nothing to do with the Topçu Barracks. We are going to build the Topçu Barracks. The [re-building of the] Topçu Barracks is not a project that just came down from heaven in a basket”. In other words, the Prime Minister is not shy in voicing his determination to continue his plans for re-furbishing İstanbul, the city of his birth and the locus of his political and emotional heart. All the same, now the Gezi Park protests and the disproportionate police response are continuing in tandem.