Turkey: “It is still early to write the history of Gezi” An Interview with Mücella Yapıcı
Mücella Yapıcı is an architect and activist, known for her work against urban renewal projects and environmental destruction in Turkey. She is the secretary and spokesperson of the activist group Taksim Solidarity, which was one of the leading organizations during the June 2013 Gezi Park protests. MERIP editorial committee member Elif Babül spoke to Yapıcı on June 22, 2018 in Istanbul at the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, shortly before the 2018 presidential elections took place. The interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
What are the broader circumstances that led to the Gezi Park protests in June 2013?
Turkey’s economic and social policies underwent a serious transformation starting from the late 1970s. What are known as the June 24 decisions, that were announced right before the September 1980 military coup, foresaw the reorganization of the Turkish economy according to neoliberal principles. This transformation, which was pushed by the World Bank, led to a specific urbanization process triggered by the conversion of urban and agricultural lands into real estate.
The neoliberal restructuring of the Turkish economy continued after the AKP came to power. Under the guise of urban renewal projects, historical neighborhoods such as Tarlabaşı and buildings such as Emek and Majik cinemas were all being demolished to erect shopping malls. These shopping malls would all have underground lots. Taksim is a protected urban area where you cannot dig underground but the AKP government issued law 5366 to overcome those barriers.
All of a sudden in 2011, we heard talk of rebuilding the artillery barracks in Taksim square as part of a larger project to pedestrianize the area. We got together with a group of architects, engineers and city planners to examine the project and concluded that they were trying to open up underground service roads to benefit the new shopping malls they planned to build in Sıraselviler and Gümüşsuyu streets. When the plans were finally declared in February 2012, we gathered with representatives of the Chamber of Engineers and Architects and the Chamber of Urban Planners and decided to take the project to the court.
In addition to the lawsuit, we organized an information meeting and invited a wide range of civil society organizations, neighborhood boards, unions, political parties and individuals. No one from the AKP showed up. There was already a group called the Taksim Platform, composed of architects and intellectuals who lived in the area and were organizing campaigns to protest these projects. We spent a long time debating and discussing together.
In our meeting, we sensed something special happening and wanted to give it a form. We decided to call ourselves Taksim Solidarity and started working on a declaration. We formed a coordination committee and elected two secretaries. I am still serving as one of the secretaries and the spokesperson for Taksim Solidarity. We decided to arrive at decisions via consensus. We did not want to vote on anything. We wanted to talk through any objections and give everyone the chance to persuade others. It took 15 days to write a half page document because we wanted to compose something that everyone could agree upon.
We declared the manifesto and invited everyone who agreed with it to come join us. We stood guard in Taksim every evening for the whole year. We explained to people what was going on and collected over 100,000 signatures in person—not on the internet. As a result of all this work, a network was formed. In the meantime, the lawsuits were all going well and we were feeling very positive. The May 1 gathering was held in Taksim, even though Erdoğan tried to ban it at first. An amazing crowd showed up, joined by LGBTQ people and others. It was an extraordinary time of organizing.
How did the actual protests begin?
Although we won a number of lawsuits, the company started construction even though the court decision did not allow them to touch Gümüşsuyu and Sıraselviler streets, nor Gezi Park. Suddenly on May 27 we received a phone call at the Chamber informing us that bulldozers had arrived at the park. We all rushed there. They had already started taking down the trees. We asked the workers to show us their permit and of course it was missing. They shut down the bulldozers and went away, but we spent the night at the park because they might come back at any time. The workers came back around 10 am the next day but by then, we had already formed a large and strong network. We tweeted the news and asked people to start gathering at the park. We tried to explain to the workers that they could not take down the trees without a permit.
All of a sudden, 30 or so men appeared out of nowhere and lined up in front of us with their backs turned. Afterwards, someone brought vests to make them look like municipality officials. Eventually, the police showed up and started pushing us, spraying us with teargas. We started hugging the trees, climbing on top of the bulldozers, all the while being gassed. They shut down their equipment and left. People started to set up small tents to spend the night. Around midnight, we woke up to a very violent police raid where they started burning down the tents. That was the start of the Gezi events. Everyone poured down to the park.
We were already organized and connected, but while we were occupying the park, an amazing natural organization sprang up. There were 2,500 people responsible for cleaning the park. We started holding solidarity meetings every night open to everyone who wanted to join. We again arrived at decisions by consensus, by persuading one another. We started holding forums which spread to the surrounding cities. We started to get the decisions of those other forums and took them into consideration.
To sum it up, it was the most colorful, non-hierarchical organization that I have ever witnessed in my life. Everybody listened to one another. It is not common to see groups so different from one another coming together to defend a public space. Nobody tried to dominate the platform. There was a spokesperson, on whom everybody agreed. We all agreed on the declarations we made. Turks and Kurds came together for the first time, because it was all built on trust; there was no hierarchy. Our only job was to facilitate the discussions and to make sure that all decision-making was done properly—in a peaceful, lawful and anti-violent manner. Those were the principles that we all agreed upon. People from all over the world came to witness it. It was wonderful.
Were there any meetings or negotiations with the state?
When the protests first broke out, the state claimed that there was no one to talk to. After discussing among ourselves at Taksim Solidarity we said that we are here. We asked for an appointment with the president, who at the time was Abdullah Gül, and said that we had demands we’d like to communicate to him.
Did Taksim Solidarity ask to meet with Erdoğan?
We did not ask to meet with Erdoğan, who at the time was the prime minister. He got furious when the Gezi protests first began. He declared that he personally gave the orders to demolish the park, and he kept saying that he would build both a shopping mall and the artillery barracks there, no matter what. Afterwards, his office invited some select individuals to a meeting. Some people who were in Taksim Solidarity went to that meeting in their individual capacity.
We demanded a meeting at the level of the president and we ended up meeting with Bülent Arınç, the deputy prime minister. We communicated our demands, which were very clear and concrete. One: We demanded Gezi Park remain a public park. An official statement must be made to ensure that no construction efforts, including the artillery barracks project, would be pursued in the park. Two: Demolition of the Atatürk Cultural Center must be stopped. Three: All officials—including the governor and police commissioners who prevented people from using their democratic rights and caused hundreds of injuries and two deaths, who gave oppression orders, who executed these orders and who caused several injuries—must resign immediately. Four: The use of gas bombs and related materials must be banned. Five: All those who were detained across Turkey during protests must be released immediately and an official statement must be made to ensure that they will not face any prosecution. Six: All public demonstration bans especially in Taksim and Kızılay Squares, but also throughout Turkey, must end. All obstacles against freedom of expression must be removed.
Arınç made some elusive comments and it became clear that it all depended on Erdoğan’s will. Nothing would happen if he did not agree.
From where we stand today, it is important to remember the scale and significance of Gezi. It spread everywhere across the country except for the city of Batman. It was incredible. We lost eight of our children in the meantime. Ali İsmail was beaten to death in Eskişehir. As far as we know, 8,900 people lost either an eye or another organ. 36 people lost an eye. Many people got sick because of teargas.
One of the most important developments attributed to Gezi was the formation of a new political repertoire and a new generation of political subjects. After five years following the Gezi events, where can you see the effects of that repertoire and subjectivity?
We see the humorous tone of Gezi currently on the campaign trails, winning followers to the Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate Muharrem İnce; the power of humor, laughter, joke, togetherness, love. We see today that some CHP followers say they will consider voting for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) for the parliamentary elections, or some Kurdish friends consider voting for the CHP’s candidate for president. Gezi changed the way people from the two geographies look at each other. People came together and organized for the first time for a park, for a space that was not their personal property, a place that they may never visit in their life. They came to the realization that the symbolic value of the park was much more that those three trees. And I believe this had a lasting effect that continues today.
Right after Gezi, everybody was wondering what would come out of it. A party? A revolution? But no, this was a completely unique kind of event that was very loosely organized, nonhierarchical, where everybody could express themselves, and everybody could stand together. People learned how to do that in peace, love and empathy for one another. As they learned to shout “everywhere is Taksim” together, they also realized the necessity to shout “everywhere is Lice” too. When people involved in Gezi saw how the mainstream media misrepresented them, they started questioning how the media may have misrepresented the Kurdish issue. They learned to open their ears and hearts to the Kurdish regions. The Kurds, too, realized that not everyone here is their enemy. They realized that there are people here who can feel their pain. A group called the anti-capitalist Muslims also came into being. I think Gezi had a huge effect on the religious groups.
If you ask me, it is still early to write the history of Gezi. We see the remnants of Gezi everywhere, but it will take a while for it to take form.
At the current moment, an individual solution is not possible for any country. This is a global situation, not just a Turkish problem. The world has shrunk. It does not take long for the world’s oppressed, precarious, laborers and intellectuals to find one another. The unabashed violence of capital is ruining the ecology of the planet. This is not only a matter of humanity anymore. This is an issue of the soil, of the water, the fish, the climate: There is crisis everywhere. That is why fascist governments keep coming to power following capitalist crises. But I truly believe that this is the darkness before the dawn. Just like in the saying—the darkest hour comes before the light. I believe that the world is at the verge of the dawn. I am hopeful, maybe not for myself, but for the younger generation.
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Featured image: By Fleshstorm – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26669700