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As the former head gardener of Gezi Park for 20 years, Cemal Özay, 68, knows every inch by heart and remembers every tree he planted. “What is it with this government’s love for concrete?” he says. “When I started, this park was a huge garden, green and full of flowers I had grown myself.”
Last year this small area of Istanbul witnessed very different scenes. In what was arguably the largest wave of protests in recent Turkish history, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to contest the proposed demolition of the park to make way for an Ottoman-style shopping centre, a project pushed personally by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"They don’t like trees, because trees don’t generate a profit," Özay concludes. "Even the smallest city gardens and parks are now seen as a possibility for investment."
The government’s uncompromising stance and a heavy-handed police crackdown on protesters led to the protests quickly spreading all overTurkey, turning an initial environmental movement into a revolt against the increased authoritarianism of the country’s leader.
Two weeks after the start of the revolt police forces violently evicted all protesters from Gezi Park. According to the Turkish doctors’ organisation, the protests took a heavy human toll: eight people died, at least four as a result of police violence. About 8,000 were injured, 104 sustained serious head injuries and 11 people lost an eye, most as a result of plastic bullets fired by the police.
Feminist activist Mehtap Dogan, who was in the park when construction workers wanted to cut down the first trees, says that even the increasingly violent crackdowns did not deter protesters.
"Gezi broke down the wall of fear. For the first time, people were disappointed when they were not in the park for a police crackdown. Everybody wanted to be there, and support everybody else."
The Turkish government consented not to build the planned shopping mall, but swiftly proceeded to crush most dissent. Many of those who had supported, reported on, or even tweeted the protests lost their jobs. Some face criminal charges; hundreds are still on trial.
For Mücella Yapici, 63, architect and founding member of the activist group Taksim Solidarity, who stands accused of starting a “criminal organisation” and faces 29 years in jail, the Gezi protests last year were only the beginning: “A new solidarity was born in June, and it’s not over. The most important thing is that the people re-learned how to raise their voices against the crimes and injustices that are being committed against them. Gezi was a lesson in democracy.”
One year later, the spectre of the summer revolts still looms large over the embattled prime minister, who increasingly looks like he might have failed to learn the lesson. In response to allegations of cronyism and mass corruption inside the government, Erdogan has increasingly opted for a strategy of dividing the country into loyalists and traitors. He purged the police and judiciary of critics and passed laws that weakened constitutional checks and balances on the executive. In an attempt to stifle all criticism, the pressure on the media has increased, Twitter was temporarily closed down and YouTube is still inaccessible from inside Turkey.
Yapici thinks that the increased police and state violence, the mounting pressure and repressive laws, are all a sign of fear: “They are afraid because they saw what we can achieve when we all stick together. They lash out against us, and will continue to do so. Very hard times are ahead of us.”
While the government might have agreed to preserve the park, it remains Istanbul’s most contested plot of land, immediately closed down by the authorities at the slightest whiff of public dissent.
Erdogan still accuses “Gezi provocateurs” – schemers both foreign and domestic, according to the prime minister – of plotting against Turkey: “[After the protest started], the stock exchange started to drop, and interest rates went up,” Erdogan said, speaking at an AK party meeting this week. “They vandalised the streets. They pretended that terror reigned everywhere in Turkey. The opposition poured gasoline onto the fire. MPs took on an active role and distributed provisions and money. They insulted the police. Partisan media wrote lies to push people to protest. Employers, employers’ organisations and unions made irresponsible declarations. For what? For 12 trees!”
But for many of those who participated in the Gezi protests, the lessons learned are invaluable.
"We now have a taste of what it is like to go out in the street. We are now a society that got a taste of what it is like to challenge our government. That never existed in Turkey," says anthropologist and journalist Ayse Çavdar. "Gezi fundamentally changed the foundations and the language of politics. This is new because Gezi doesn’t suggest any power practices. Quite the contrary – Gezi is a certain outlook on life, it’s the practice of judging power. It suggests ethical guidelines for all of us."
Yapici agrees. “Gezi created an awareness of urban renewal processes, of solidarity with victims of gentrification and displacement, and awareness for our city. We don’t accept any more that decisions concerning our living spaces are simply forced down our throats.”
Çavdar stresses that one of the main achievements of the protest movement was to shatter the narrow identities imposed by state discourse: “Gezi brought down the walls between conservative Muslims and secularists, nationalist Turks and Kurds, Alevis and Sunnis, men and women. Everybody started talking. Why should the state tell me what to think about Kurds, about Alevis, or about my neighbours? I’ll decide that myself. They should worry about healthcare, education, maybe sidewalks.”
Feminist activist Dogan says that this dialogue also did much to challenge sexist, homophobic and transphobic stereotypes: “People even stopped using expressions like ‘faggot’ and ‘whore’ in their protest slogans when they realised that LGBTs and sex workers, too, were with them in the park.
"We also realised that conservative women and women wearing headscarves share many of our problems: domestic violence, equal pay, access to abortion. This created much wider solidarity networks between women."
Dr Incilay Erdogan, a member of the Istanbul Chamber of Medical Doctors’ human rights commission who volunteered in makeshift clinics throughout last June, at the height of the unrest, thinks that the Gezi protests taught people in Turkey more solidarity across ethnic, religious and class lines.
"When we used to do press declarations on the lack of work safety and workers’ rights, there were usually a few dozen people, if at all," she says. "But after [the mine disaster in] Soma, there were several thousands, and all of them had come despite knowing that they would get teargassed for it.” She beams. “I think we owe this to Gezi.”
According to Dr Erdogan, a much wider group in Turkish society is now aware of how arbitrary police violence can be, and that criminal justice in Turkey is not necessarily just: “Everybody saw how ordinary people demanding more rights were called ‘terrorists’ by the government. Everybody saw how the mainstream media are used to peddle the government line. We have learned to approach authority with much more caution.”
Social movements and ideas of how to challenge power certainly emerged from the June protests in Gezi Park – neighbourhood forums, politically motivated squatting, and volunteer election observers are just a few of the social experiments now under way in Turkey.
Çavdar thinks that those who complain that Gezi did not create any tangible change do the movement a disservice.
"It drives me nuts to hear people complain that Gezi did not produce any alternative: Gezi produced the mother of all alternatives. Many parties and groups will yet emerge and compete with each other. We won’t have to decide between the AKP and the [main opposition] CHP. This political status quo is finished."
Walking through the sunny park on a late afternoon in May, gardener Özay is optimistic that the Gezi spirit will prevail: “I am hopeful. Things will get better again.” He smiles. “In the end the good people always win. People who only think of profit will lose in the long run. Who will support somebody who does not love trees?”