Urban social movements in Turkey


Dikmen Bezmez is currently assistant professor of Sociology at the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Koҫ University, Istanbul. She specialises in Urban Studies and Disability Studies. Her recent work focused on disability rights in Istanbul from an urban citizenship perspective. In an interview with Open Citizenship, she spoke to us about the civil society engagement in Turkish cities.

Where do you see the origins of the recent uprisings around the Taksim Square?

At first glance, the Gezi uprisings appear to be related to the government’s plan to replace the only remaining green spot in the city centre – Gezi Park – with a shopping mall. This is true insofar as the incident sparked the protests. One night, as several trees were cut down, resistance started, first with a small group of people, then growing at an unprecedented rate.

However, the uprisings are the result of a much more encompassing, long-term accumulation of different tensions, of which urban politics constitutes just one very important dimension. It seems that the current government conceives the construction sector as the foundation of economic growth in Turkey. As such, the role that Istanbul is expected to and can play is immense. However for years, as the government has welcomed the demands of the global, two approaches in particular have created major tensions among Istanbul’s residents. First, decisions were largely made without the incorporation of Istanbulites into the process. Second, the city was opened up to global capital so intensely that many residents were displaced by urban regeneration projects and the city turned into an overwhelming concrete block, where no room is left to breathe.

Thus for the longest time, Istanbul had stopped belonging to its local residents, who felt that their voices were not being heard.

I do not remember who said it, but someone described Istanbul as “the city, which sold its soul to capital”. This might be a bit exaggerated as a statement, yet it summarises the recent dynamics shaping the city quite well. Simultaneously, the origins of the Gezi uprisings go beyond urban politics and in my view this explains the unprecedented and unexpected growth of the resistance. The current government’s approach to people’s individual freedom and rights in diverse spheres of life had been creating tensions for some time. Statements concerning how many children women are supposed to have, the right to abortion, introduction of new legal frameworks concerning the use of alcohol and restrictions on the media and freedom of press had been leading to societal tensions for quite some time. The Gezi uprising is also related to such tensions. When such restrictions confronted a new generation of young people, who had long been introduced to and internalised ideas of individual freedom and were born into the age of the Internet, confrontation was inevitable. In short, the Gezi uprisings are the consequence of long-term accumulations of diverse tensions and represent a multidimensional struggle for democracy.

What strategies do people in Turkey use to influence the development of their cities/urban politics?

Here, I think of the Gezi resistance as a turning point. The Gezi uprisings emerged as an effort on the part of Istanbul’s residents to get back their right to the city. It was not only about a right to the city, but such rights constituted an important part of the resistance’s demands. In these urban struggles we see a new and very young generation of people who are resisting in a bottom-up manner, with a strong emphasis on peaceful demonstration, passive resistance, creativity and a great deal of humour. This in many ways was unprecedented in Turkey. Thus, in my effort to respond to this question today, the first image that I have in my mind is the Gezi uprising. The Gezi protests exemplify a rights-based resistance.

…two approaches in particular have created major tensions among Istanbul’s residents. First, decisions were largely made without the incorporation of Istanbulites into the process. Second, the city was opened up to global capital so intensely that many residents were displaced by urban regeneration projects…

I am inclined to argue that thinking of urban politics and people’s strategies to influence the development of their cities, in the context of Turkish history, can be divided in two: before and after Gezi. In the short run it might lead to some repressive repercussions on the part of the current government, but in the long run Gezi represents one of the most important steps in the struggle for citizenship.

Yet, if you would have asked this question before the Gezi resistance, I would have prioritised other dynamics. In short, these would highlight relationships of dependency between the state and the people, where relationships of patronage and give-and-take would be dominant. In other words, instead of positioning people in a confrontational manner in the face of the state, such relationships try to render “citizens” devoted beneficiaries of state actors. For instance in my own research, I found that many people I interviewed who were working under the roof of municipality were ex-NGO representatives. Obviously this does not mean that there were no resistance or social movements before. However these were often weak and divided.

Istanbul is home to many minority communities, some of whom are excluded from participating in traditional decision-making processes. Do these communities demonstrate any conspicuous form of urban citizenship?

Urban citizenship often refers to the contemporary urban struggles of those marginalised by conventional conceptions of modern national citizenship for their rights to the city. Within this framework, when I think about Istanbul, the first example that comes to my mind are the struggles of those communities displaced due to urban regeneration projects. This struggle in Istanbul has become increasingly visible since the turn of the millennium. Initially resistance to such displacements has been rather limited. However as it became clear that what regeneration actually meant for local residents was displacement, resistance grew. This is an effort on the part of Istanbulites to reclaim their city – thus it is a struggle for citizenship. However, I think it is fair to argue that these local resistances remained rather disconnected and therefore often incapable of successfully resisting the demands of global capital in Istanbul.

In this respect, I see the Taksim Square protests that took place last June in Istanbul as a very important turning point. It would be simplistic to argue that these protests were just about urban citizenship, for the resistance was much more complicated, encompassing and multidimensional then that. However, the discomfort felt about urban politics was a major and significant part of it.

Istanbul’s topography is famously varied, making areas inaccessible for people with disabilities. What does Istanbul do to promote the rights of these excluded citizens?

Accessibility practices remain ad hoc: audible lights and elevators for people with disabilities are often broken and stay so.

It is true that Istanbul’s topography is varied and clearly this makes it harder to render the city accessible. However, I would refrain from attributing too much importance to topography. For in Istanbul local governments often use this argument as an excuse to legitimise their districts’ continuing accessibility problems. For instance, when it comes to topography, in my view Vancouver is at least as difficult as Istanbul. Yet it is one of the most accessible cities for people with disabilities, as far as I can tell. Thus, local/national governments’ approaches, local politics, dynamics of power matter most. Accessibility issues and disability politics came to the agenda of local policy makers in Istanbul at the turn of the millennium. Since then, there has been relative improvement in the city. Yet Istanbul remains a city with major problems of accessibility and disabled people are largely invisible in the public space. Accessibility practices remain ad hoc: audible lights and elevators for people with disabilities are often broken and stay so. Instead, we see that district and metropolitan municipalities often promote charity-based rather than rights-based approaches to disability. In other words, instead of pushing for accessibility in the city as a right of citizenship, they often distribute wheelchairs, medical devices, etc. Accessibility might be presented as a citizenship right at the discourse level, yet in practice I believe that there is still a long way to go.

Is the rights-based model of citizenship useful for us to understand urban citizenship when considering inequality, such as people with unequal bodies?

I think this is the case for two reasons: first, people’s bodily differences have often been used as an excuse to exclude them from the urban space across different geographies and times. In my research this happens to be the case for the disabled body. The disabled body has been excluded from both decision-making processes concerning the urban space and the use of it. One can make similar arguments for the woman’s body, the queer body, etc. as well. Thus based on the aforementioned definition of urban citizenship, I believe the concept is promising to open up a space to highlight the rights of bodily different people to the city.

Second, it is not only that conceptions of urban citizenship can present new openings for bodily different people, but also the other way around – the increasing visibility of people with unequal bodies can also make it easier for us to think of ways to come up with alternative forms of citizenship, in this case urban citizenship. For instance, at the moment, when the visibility of the disabled body in public space can become more of a norm, conceptions concerning who is the citizen will be transformed as well. So there is a two-way relationship.

In one of your recent articles you speak of the “local trap”. What do you mean by this and how does this expression relate to the concept of urban citizenship?

Urban citizenship draws attention to the potential of the local to host more democratic interpretations of citizenship at the scale of the city. The term “local trap”, as developed by Mark Purcell and many others, suggests that one should be cautious about developing a priori assumptions about the local being more democratic, for the local exists within dynamics of neo-liberalisation and globalisation. The local can be more or less democratic depending on the struggles among different actors in different contexts. I referred to this debate in my own research, since I believe that such a cautious approach is meaningful to understand disability politics in Istanbul as well. The fact that disability has increasingly become a local policy concern does not necessarily mean that it is a harbinger of more citizenship rights for Istanbulites with disabilities.

Do you believe the internet and social media have made urban space more or less significant for urban citizenship and decision-making? Has new media aided those communities excluded from mainstream public decision-making processes?

Starting with the second question, I believe that the internet and social media have contributed to excluded communities’ effort to claim their right to the urban space immensely. Before the Gezi uprisings I would have been more hesitant to make such a strong statement. However the role that the internet and social media have played during the Gezi protests has been very clear.

This role can be conceived in two ways. First, we are going through a period when freedom of press is extremely limited. As the Gezi resistance was at its peak, the mainstream media was showing a penguin documentary. Thus, social media was one of the few ways – perhaps the only way – to receive news. Of course there is the problem of attaining reliable news, the question of confirming the accuracy of the news source, etc. Still, it was through social media that news about the resistance was spread. Conventional media failed people.

Second, people got organised over social media. This means that people informed each other about which street the police were gathering on, which way was the safest to get out of the police circle, which apartment would provide support to the resisters: give them a place to rest, eat and sleep. It was rather common to see people looking at their smart phones in the middle of gas bombs. If we remember that, among many things, the Gezi protests were also about the shaping of Istanbul in accordance with the demands of global capital and how the city excluded its own residents, we can easily argue that the internet and social media were extremely important for the practice of urban citizenship. Related to this point, I can respond to the first question rather briefly: no, I do not think that the internet and social media make the urban space for urban citizenship less significant. The significance of the urban space continues and social media is used to facilitate local communities’ rights to this space.

Image: Gurcan Ozturk/AFP/Getty/ The New Yorker