Human RightsPress Freedom

From Gezi to the US protests: Police violence, racism and the fight for urban space

Paul BenjamIn Osterlund

For many people that follow Turkey, the arrest of a CNN journalist who was reporting live from a wave of demonstrations and riots in Minneapolis late last month eerily resembled a 2014 fiasco in Istanbul. CNN’s former Turkey correspondent Ivan Watson was detained near Taksim Square as he stood in front of the camera with mic in hand, reporting on the one-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests.

An outburst of unrest spread like wildfire across America in late May following the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Like 2013’s Gezi Park protests, which quickly ballooned throughout Turkey to almost every single province in the country, the marches that have swept through America’s cities are unprecedented.

Conversations in Turkey on these two series of events have converged since the demonstrations in the US broke out nearly exactly seven years after the Gezi protests, which are memorialized every year by thousands of people determined to keep them in the public consciousness.

Given the brash leadership of President Donald Trump, who makes no effort to conceal his authoritarian tendencies, it has been increasingly common to collate the state of affairs in America with those in Turkey, thus leading to an outpouring of comparisons between Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well as the Gezi Park protests with the current unrest in America. It certainly doesn’t help that relations between the two strongmen seem to be quite rosy even as ties between their countries continue to weaken.

Though it may be tempting to draw parallels between what took place seven years ago in Turkey and what is happening in the US today, the two movements are rooted in very different causes and concerns, and one should resist conflating them.

The Gezi protests were an expression of frustration over a government that had been in power for a decade amid a tenure defined by unchecked development, green space swapped for concrete, and a lack of public consultation in profound urban planning decisions. On the other hand, the anger that has engulfed America is the product of a deeper, historic legacy of systemic racism, economic violence and disproportionate police brutality that is most visibly manifested in recent years by the numerous murders of unarmed black men by white cops.

It should come as no surprise that America is witnessing some of the most widespread and intense protesting and rioting in the country’s modern history. Floyd’s killing served as a catalyst that unleashed the combined forces of outrage over racial inequality coupled with the reeling economic effects of Covid-19, which has resulted in 40 million Americans losing their jobs.

Though the majority of the demonstrations have been peaceful, the nationwide upheaval has been exceedingly more violent and destructive than the Gezi protests, and Trump has unsurprisingly opted to exacerbate the situation rather than defuse it, going so far as to imply that looters would be shot on sight in a tweet that Twitter opted to hide on the grounds that it incited violence.

In 2013, Erdoğan famously dubbed the Gezi demonstrators ‘çapulcu’, meaning ‘looter’, which became a source of humor for the protestors who proudly co-opted the term. Trump called protestors ‘thugs’, invoking a word commonly understood to be a way for white people to say the n word without actually saying it.

While the AKP’s sweeping urban development plans have disproportionately harmed some of the country’s most disenfranchised citizens, such as Roma, Kurds and Alevis–who have been displaced from their informally-built and/or low-income neighborhoods that are then transformed into luxurious residential areas and office spaces–racist urban planning initiatives have targeted blacks in America since the at least the 1930s.

The notorious policy of redlining prevented black residents from investing in their lives and neighborhoods by taking out loans to purchase homes or open businesses. Banks drew red lines around predominantly-African American neighborhoods that were deemed unworthy of receiving capital. This practice sped up the decay of these areas as the American manufacturing industry dried up in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The result was the Rust Belt, a vast stretch of urban disintegration that remains visible to this day in some of the country’s once-thriving cities. The black middle class that fueled these economies was irreparably damaged as factory jobs were outsourced to third-world countries offering much cheaper labor.

In the northern part of Portland, Oregon, the redlining of historic black neighborhoods was instrumental in their eventual popularity among waves of largely white creatives and tech industry workers in their 20’s and 30’s, pushing out thousands of African Americans to the city’s fringes, far away from the centrally-located quarters in which they grew up, which now command high property values, and where family homes and dive bars are being demolished to built condos.

In St. Louis, Missouri–once one of the country’s most important cities that has seen a troubling decline in its population over the years and is the murder capital of the country–redlining essentially split the city in two. The Delmar Divide refers to the phenomenon where the south part of the city below Delmar Boulevard is predominantly white and well-off, while North St. Louis is more than 90 percent black, impoverished, plagued by crime and thousands of vacant buildings.

The most dangerous areas of Turkish cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara pale in comparison to those in urban America, the latter of which are often dominated by gangs, riddled by gun violence and open-air drug markets, and deeply lacking in basic resources.

One way in which Turkey is more developed than the US is that even in Turkey’s poorest urban neighborhoods, residents still have access to fresh produce at corner markets and weekly bazaars. In the US, the term ‘food desert’ refers to urban areas that lack a proper grocery store within walking distance, meaning that millions of children grow up eating processed food low in nutrition. Even Washington, DC has food deserts. On June 1 in Louisville, Kentucky, 53-year-old David McAtee was shot and killed by security forces. McAtee was well-known in his neighborhood, a mostly-black area and food desert where he provided an invaluable resource by cooking homemade barbecue beloved by residents.

Racist financial policies like redlining sought to directly sabotage the economic welfare of America’s black communities, while the collapse of the country’s industrial sector created a deep void that filled large parts of the country with despair, hopelessness, recidivism, violence and addiction. While the disparity of the numbers of black and white inmates has narrowed in recent years, the disproportionate incarceration of blacks remains an alarming reality, with the rate of imprisoned blacks per 100,000 people outpacing the number of whites six times over. Meanwhile, the for-profit private prison industrial complex thrives on what amounts to modern slavery, where primarily black and Hispanic inmates are paid mere pennies an hour for their labor.

What role does the American media play in all of this? In Turkey, the mainstream channels and newspapers have been refashioned into PR outlets for the government and critical, independent media struggles to survive amid stifling political pressure and financial difficulties. While Trump has waged countless personal crusades on the media outlets and reporters that he does not like, journalists in America don’t live in fear of being arrested for their reporting or tweeting.

Another noteworthy facet of the media’s recent behavior is how it quickly seized upon the protests as the main item on the agenda, swiftly replacing three months of nonstop corona coverage. The protests themselves indicate that social distancing has taken a backseat to social unrest. Some journalists have pointed out how politicians and health experts who urged Americans to stay at home amid the pandemic quickly reversed their position and voiced their support for the protests.

The Gezi Park protests and the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd occurred at two distinct periods in two countries with different levels of institutional development and systems of governance. A cautious optimist might say that both were and are victorious. The Gezi protests didn’t stop rampant gentrification and development in Istanbul, but they saved Gezi Park from being destroyed, and will be remembered as of the most important events in the history of modern Turkey. The fact that the absurd Gezi Park trial concluded earlier this year, nearly seven years after the protests, reflects the extent to which they shook the government.

The demonstrations in America won’t unravel decades of systematic racism and economic inequality, but after a week of nationwide marches, the third-degree murder charge against Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, was upgraded to second-degree, and the other three officers at the scene were charged for their complicity. The Minneapolis city council voted to abolish its police department, while the call to defund or dismantle departments across the country has become part of the national conversation.

Within weeks, it has become less radical to conceive of cities that police themselves through community efforts rather than armed officers who are trained to shoot and kill. On the other hand, in Turkey, where police have cracked down on practically every type of protest since Gezi, and where the controversial presence of nightwatchmen police is on the rise, such a conversation remains years away from being on the table.