How the Gezi Park struggle sparked an uprising, and why it could happen in Vancouver

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Photo credit: Chara Berk

On Monday hundreds of people, including many Turkish Vancouverites, gathered outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in solidarity with the ongoing protests in Turkey. Addressing the broad anti-government protests in Istanbul and throughout Turkey, speakers at the VAG condemned the Turkish government’s undemocratic tactics, police brutality against the protests, media blackouts, and religious fundamentalism.

Some organizers drew attention to the original event that sparked the movement. “What started everything was a public space, Gezi park in the city centre…The government decided to turn that into a shopping mall and that wasn’t even a lawful decision. There’s a court decision against it,” said Ozgur Sapmaz, a volunteer organizer of the rally at the VAG.

“People occupied the park to prevent construction machinery from getting in there, which was about to start chopping down the trees. There were about 100 protesters there, who started sitting in, setting up tents. Cops came and tried to kick them out, and they used really brutal force…It started getting attention from the artist community. It became this massive resistance against the construction effort.”

Despite the distance between Vancouver and Turkey, the events in Gezi park bring to mind local history. There was the fight to save the entrance of Stanley Park in 1971, the Crab Park occupation in 1984, the successful UBC student campaigns from 2007 – 2009 to stop the privatization of the centre of campus and the UBC Farm, the Olympic Tent Village, Occupy Vancouver, and many other squats and tent cities. If the destruction of Gezi Park — a seemingly innocuous and unexceptional event — can spark such an uprising in Istanbul, could the same not happen here?

The Gezi spark

Many have wondered how and why the movement to save Gezi Park set off the uprising. Was the threatened destruction of Gezi Park simply the final straw in a series of government blunders, or was it more than that — the place of multiple overlapping contradictions. How was the struggle for Gezi Park capable of explosively symbolizing a mass of issues and grievances?

Sapmaz says it was no surprise that Gezi Park protest could spark the uprising. The shopping mall plan “touched a nerve,” he said. “It was really the tipping point. The area was one major factor. It was a gathering point for students, youth, artists, people coming together to put on plays, art events. It was a really symbolic place. Also people are fed up with shopping malls and the neoliberal agenda. Everywhere it’s shopping malls. It’s crazy.”

The original Gezi protesters belonged to the groups Taksim Solidarity and the Taksim Gezi Park Protection and Beautification Association. These in turn are part of the growing Right to the City movement, whose 2012 manifesto states: “We, as the signatories to this call, would like to announce our commitment henceforth to pursue an organized resistance against urban renewal, gentrification and transformation projects, aiming to turn İstanbul into a brand city catering to global capital and property markets but not to the needs of its citizens.”

These words resonate in Vancouver, a city quietly yet quickly in the process of being transformed into a resort for the wealthy — but not without a fight from low-income Vancouverites, marginalized communities and renters.

Sapmaz says that there is a growing understanding that corporate cronyism and oligarchy are driving the rapid gentrification of Istanbul. “In the grander scheme of things, there are a lot of guys who have become really rich under this prime minister’s government over the past 10 years — lots of major contractors, kind of similar to Vancouver in that regard, how major contractors tie into government. They are known to support the ruling party’s political campaigns during election time,” he said. The ruling party of Turkey also controls Istanbul’s City Hall.

The Gezi protesters’ analysis runs deeper than support for the park and opposition to the shopping mall. “Many of the Turkish public think that we are here as environmentalists to save our sycamore trees,” said one Turkish demonstrator, Seyfettin Sabaz. “But that’s not it. We are here to stand up against those that are trying to make a profit from our land.”

In recent years, a large movement has grown to oppose gentrification of the urban core, which is displacing poor and minority communities who are re-settled into suburban mega-developments. The Right to the City, for instance,  wrote a petition staking its position in this movement. It opposes “mega projects…which aim for profit and rent rather than public good…Projects which, by demolishing our neighbourhoods and causing forced evictions and displacement, not only ruin our living spaces but also our lives and habitats together with the decades old social networks and solidarity bonds we have built through years…Projects which also violate the housing rights of the most vulnerable groups of transformation areas, namely those of the renters, by leaving them to streets.”

“Together with renewal projects,” the petition continues, “the privatizations of state schools, state hospitals and public spaces for flagship projects of the brand city, make it impossible for us to survive in the city. The gates are shown to us.”

It is within this context of neoliberalism and rampant privatization that the Gezi protesters gathered the courage to fight the government in the centre of town’s tiny park. “To resist for the sake of a single tree,” reads a placard in Istanbul’s Taksim square, “is more honourable than to beg for a barrel of oil.” The park was small, but the analysis of, as Cemal Burak Tansel puts it, “state-driven privatization projects which fulfill the double enactment of surplus absorption and the closure of public spaces” was big. And hundreds of thousands of people were ready to fight to make that point.

On the one hand, it is true that police brutality caused the protest to become widespread. It is not enough to say, however, that the brutality itself was the spark. The fact that the government responded with such force to the events in the park also suggests that they recognized it was a symbolic place worth fighting for.

Is it possible that the struggle in Istanbul is, at a deep level, connected to struggles in Vancouver, with poor people and renters displaced to enrich the corporations and their corrupt governments?

Sapmaz described the general economic environment in Turkey as “privatizations everywhere, everything has been sold. As people are protesting right now on the street, the government passed a law and gave foreign oil companies the right to search in forest lands. This is only two days ago, and parliament got together and passed this law at midnight. No one could even discuss this.” Significantly, he noted that the Vancouver-based mining giant Goldcorp is active in Turkey.

Neoliberal housing reforms from Istanbul to Vancouver

Many attribute the current social crisis to the bulldozing efforts of the Turkish Housing Development Administration (TOKI), which has pursued decade of aggressive neoliberal housing reform. TOKI was established in 1984 with the purpose of building affordable housing, but it’s role in the development of housing was insignificant until the election of the neoliberal AKP government in 2002. At that point, TOKI’s was adapted to serve private interests, and in a short period it’s national production share of new housing supply rose dramatically, from 1 % in 2003 to 18% in 2012. In Istanbul alone, TOKI has now built over one hundred thousand new units (no count of how many have been demolished in the process).

The problems now surfacing with TOKI are many. None of the TOKI units are built at public or social housing rates, despite TOKI’s claim to the contrary. According to an unpublished report by urban researcher Aslı Sarıoğlu, “about 80% of TOKI’s construction projects in the greater Istanbul area are built for high income groups,” and many of the developments are high-end luxury.

Ozan Karaman writes in a paper entitled “Urban Renewal in Istanbul: Reconfigured Spaces, Robotic Lives” that the majority of TOKI’s mass housing projects amount to nothing less than market rate homeownership programs. He adds that compared to other developing countries, “Turkey stands out as having the least state intervention in provision of affordable housing. Crucially, Turkey has never had public housing policies.” For its part, Canada is headed in the same direction with the expiry of the federal housing plan and aggressive pursuit of market models for the delivery of “social housing.”

TOKI buildings are financed through Public-Private Partnership schemes whereby TOKI sells state-owned land at less than its actual market price to private developers. “This works as a hidden subsidy to the developer,” writes Ozan Karaman. In turn the developers are able to sell the units for “less than its competitors in the market,” allowing the developers to make a handsome profit while failing to produce systemic affordability.

In short, all the factors of recent housing policy in Turkey are present in Vancouver: the transfer of public land to private developers, state subsidies for those developers, and an overall policy that claims to build “affordable” housing while in reality constructing market units.

In addition, most of the TOKI projects entail the demolition of existing low-income and affordable housing to make way for market units. Often, entire communities are destroyed and displaced to make space for TOKI condominiums in gentrifying parts of Istanbul. Those displaced by TOKI developments are offered to buy apartments in new buildings at “affordable” rates. However, the new units are often far away from the residents’ current communities, and if residents fail to make payments on time ownership is transferred back to TOKI. TOKI has also induced a process of financial speculation on its own mortgages, and has “recently taken steps to securitize these debt obligations and sell them in secondary markets.”

A similar relentless pattern has emerged in Vancouver, where the demolition of affordable low-income housing makes way for luxury housing, producing a net loss of affordability. If the people of Turkey can see the connection between these various forces, perhaps we can too. Corporate cronyism, gentrification, speculation, eviction and displacement, racism, environmental destruction, top-down decision-making — these are all part of daily life in Vancouver, the city with ever-worsening poverty and the lowest corporate tax rate in the world.

People in Vancouver are today found looking to Turkey for an effective collective response to neoliberalism. And there is much to see. Shivaun Corry, who has friends and family in Turkey and will be returning to do solidarity work this summer, told The Mainlander outside the VAG: “It’s beautiful to see all the peoples of Turkey — Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, Jews, Armenians, Greeks — all coming together to expose the fact that Erdogan has just been using religious rhetoric to cover-up his neo-liberal agenda.”