BENGI AKBULUT with Robert S. Eshelman
In late May thousands of activists occupied Istanbul’s Taksim Square protesting plans to convert a nearby park into a shopping mall. The protest quickly spread to other cities across the country, galvanizing a previously disparate opposition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since then, three protesters have been killed and thousands of others have been injured during pitched street battles with police. In mid-June, Bengi Akbulut, an Istanbul-based activist, spoke with Brooklyn Rail contributing writer Robert S. Eshelman about what caused the uprising, the dynamics of the protest movement, and what impact it might have on broader Turkish politics.
Robert S. Eshelman (Rail): What brought about the occupation? Was this a spontaneous response to the imminent destruction of Gezi Park, which is adjacent to Taksim Square, or did it come about because of deeper, more long-standing grievances?
Bengi Akbulut: It has been going on for about two years and is part of a broader criticism of urban renewal and gentrification taking place in Istanbul and in Turkey. In 2007 or so, the government decided to redevelop certain neighborhoods. The first neighborhoods that were attacked were predominantly Kurdish and Roma. More than 50 neighborhoods are now under threat of eviction and redevelopment. The Taksim Square proposal was the government’s crown jewel before the last general election; they wanted to transform Taksim from a public space into a space of consumption, basically. What is envisioned for the area is a lot of malls, a lot of high-end boutiques, and hotels. They want to close Taksim Square to traffic, which sounds good—but the actual plans are intended to take the square away from a certain group and give it to another group, directing it towards consumption. And the Prime Minister has always said that they want to build a military barracks in the park, in addition to the high-end residences and shopping mall.
There were groups politicizing this issue in Istanbul but they were kind of independent; they were working on specific neighborhoods, separate from each other. But all of these groups—more than 80 of them—came together, including labor unions, groups working on neighborhood issues, and environmental groups, and formed a platform in early 2012 to politicize and to oppose this project. There had been campaigns; there had been press releases; there had been festivals in the park to make this more visible and to build opposition to urban renewal. But nothing had sparked the resistance or large-scale opposition that we wanted until the demolition of the Gezi began. So it had been going on, but the spark that united such a broad group only came with the actual intervention in the park.
Rail: Describe the dynamics within the park. Who’s there? How are decisions being made? What’s the organization like? And what’s the relationship between people taking part in the occupation and outsiders?
Akbulut: When it first started—before all the police violence—it was mostly the groups I just talked about, and also some independent activists who have just recently become involved. So in the beginning it was about 200 of us who were there. But with the increased police brutality the group kind of got enlarged, and the people who were not doing anything about it before started staying in the park as well. Right now (June 10), there are about 15,000 people coming to the park during the day and more than 3,000 staying every night. Some people are not into organized politics at all so they just come and have been politicized through events, going to the open forums, the workshops, and the meetings. These are the ways in which people are working together on a daily basis in the park.
There are some fractions of the left—leftist political parties—but they’re not really campaigning to get people to join them; they are in the park kind of interacting with people. The events have mobilized very different groups, from anti-capitalist Muslims and secular Kamalists to Kurdish insurgents, feminists, and LGBT organizations. So it’s very diverse. There has not been one single party or group that is trying to coordinate the movement or the occupation. Coordination inside the park is done democratically by people from different political backgrounds—people involved in political organizations or volunteers who just began taking part in the occupation. They coordinate security, housing, donations, and food. But other than that, the politics inside the park are not being coordinated by a central mechanism. Everyone is trying to organize and deepen this effort to create a different kind of life that is not commodified, is not commercialized, and is not orchestrated by a central authority like a state.
So it’s based on sharing life, but everyone’s doing it his or her own way and interacting and we try to keep it so that there’s no discrimination: no discriminatory language and no violence, whether discursive or physical. It’s been going okay. People learn from each other. People who have not been exposed to any kind of resistance or opposition like this or who have not been involved in this type of social organizing are learning about basic safety, about respecting each other, and about caring for each other, so it’s been going well.
Rail: During the Occupy movement, there was a vibrant debate about whether the point of Occupy was to establish pre-figurative spaces where new forms of social relations could be practiced among participants, or to make demands of existing institutions around issues of wages, housing, health care, and regulation. Have you issued a set of demands?
Akbulut: Well, there have been demands issued. I’m not very comfortable using the term “we,” though, because I am involved with a group which has been part of developing the platform from the very beginning. But there are other groups within the broader coalition who have just gotten involved in the park and who have just become part of the movement. So there are different “wes.”
The platform has set conditions for the government. We were careful not to call them demands because a demand-based politics is weakening. We believe that broader democratic revolution cannot come by way of demands alone. Democratic revolution is a process. What’s happening in the square is about what we want our lives to be—how we want our lives to be organized. The demands that were made include specific ones, such as the resignations of local government officials and the national Minister of Internal Affairs. There are also broader ones about urban planning and urban transformation. Decisions about Taksim Square, but more broadly about policy making and policy implementation, should be democratized to include stakeholders from all parts of society. So these are demands from Occupy in the sense that there were already people who had experience in political organizing and especially in politicizing this issue and that organizing had been going on long before the occupation of Taksim Square.
Rail: In the U.S., the AKP is primarily described as a conservative Islamist party and criticized for its social program. To what extent is the uprising against it because of anti-drinking laws or requiring women to dress a certain way versus these kinds of neoliberal economic policies you’ve described?
Akbulut: I think the success of the AKP has been to disguise the more threatening project of neoliberalism. Everyone in Turkey who would call him- or herself a social democrat has always paid attention to the AKP’s religiosity and conservatism. But they have never actually had a class, political, or economic perspective on what these guys are actually doing and I think they’ve been a miraculously successful government in implementing neoliberalism until now.
The people in the park I think, again, the group who was there in the beginning, have been opposing AKP politics because of their political economy, their neoliberalism. The people who ran into the streets afterwards have not been primarily motivated to fight capitalism or to fight neoliberal capitalism. I think their fighting was a kind of very brutal, unjustified use of force: an authoritarian, dictatorial government. The legislature recently passed a law promoted by the Prime Minister that puts constraints on alcohol use and consumption. So there was a reaction to this increased visibility of conservatism. But I think these newer protesters have started grasping the class character of the whole project and there is some transformation in terms of that. I don’t think anyone is reducing this whole thing to the character of the Prime Minister or the religious character of the AKP. I think they have started to realize that there is something really unjust happening and it has to do with economic interests and consolidation of an economic project, not a religious project.
Rail: What has the relationship been between occupiers in Taksim Square and the oppositional political parties and the AKP? Is there a relationship? Has this opened up a political space for mainstream political reform?
Akbulut: The main oppositional party in Turkey is the Republican People’s Party. It has been very slow to respond. First of all, it’s tricky because the committee who actually approved the redevelopment of Taksim Square is made up of seven AKP members and five Republican Party members. So the main oppositional party approved that redevelopment project.
The head of the party came to give a speech in the park. We didn’t want to give over the microphone because we did not approve of the politics of that party. We were against them as much as we were against the AKP. Also, we did not want the initiative to be identified with a certain party. We knew that a lot of people felt skeptical about the main oppositional party as well—or any political party for that matter. So the Republican People’s Party has criticized the movement for not giving them the microphone; but they have said they were going to support us. They did call for the government to stop the violence against the occupation.
The other oppositional parties are in the Parliament: one of them is an ultra-nationalist party, which has avoided the occupation and did not do anything for or against it. The Kurdish party has been supportive—not in terms of giving external support but in terms of being there in the square. They were there during the street wars as well and they have been in the park since the beginning. But because of the peace process between the Kurdish people and the Turkish government, I don’t think they have been too eager to criticize the government very openly and very explicitly, which is understandable. I don’t criticize them. I think they have been very supportive. And there have been weird dynamics in the park between some more nationalist groups and Kurdish people. I think they are also learning to tolerate that and kind of question nationalism as well. But no major party has been visible or tried to co-opt it or anything.
Rail: What do you think the lasting impact of the occupation will be on Turkish politics, beyond whether or not the redevelopment proposal is halted?
Akbulut: I don’t know. I mean it has been so unpredictable. I remember the first night there were about maybe 50 tents and 200 of us. We never expected it to be something like this because all this year we had been going to protests and arranging demonstrations. We tried to go out on May 1 and were attacked by the police. We have always been tear-gassed; we have always had confrontations with the police. Our friends were detained and were subjected to violence.
Civil society has always been very reluctant to oppose state authority. There is a very strong state tradition and a very weak civil society tradition in Turkey. That submission is being reproduced in the family, in the school, and in all kinds of state institutions. And this was the first time in a very long time that people, en masse, went down in the streets and opposed state authority. In that sense we are being turned; we are being transformed. We are becoming political subjects, political citizens. I wouldn’t be too hopeful on that, but I don’t think this is something to skip either. This is significant.
What is hard and what is challenging is to keep this going, not in a traditional, organized political way but to keep people interacting with each other about what kind of life they want, what kind of economics they want, what kind of politics they want, and how they want decisions to be made about their lives. So, that’s what we are trying to do at this point.
I don’t know when we’ll be evicted. But until we are, we’ll at least try to get people to get a taste of that, to get a taste of being organized, to have an organized way of voicing demands and fighting for demands, and to be in solidarity with one another’s struggles. That would be—I think—a huge gain.
I am very excited and a little afraid.
ContributorRobert S. Eshelman