Atatürk Cultural Center, Taksim Square, Istanbul, bedecked with banners of left wing groups, Gezi Park occupation, early-June 2013. (Canon G10) (Click on photo to enlarge image.)
This past Saturday night, police once again ran amok in Taksim Square, Istanbul, using tear gas and high-pressure streams of chemically tainted water to drive away protesters. The attack was minor, however, in comparison with the police’s violent ejection of occupiers and visitors to Gezi Park the Saturday before and their night-long violent siege of Taksim five days earlier.
A Change of Banners
During the two-week-long occupation of Gezi Park, adjacent Taksim Square was a locus of protest for left-wing demonstrators, many of them representatives of fragmented parties driven ideologies more than constituencies. As part of the Gezi occupation, a group of protesters took over the long-abandoned Atatürk Cultural Center building, a 1960s structure fronting on Taksim. The steel-lattice-covered facade of the Atatürk Center made a perfect multistory bulletin-board for the banners of revolutionary sub-sects. The first act of the Police upon clearing the Center of occupiers was to remove their banners and replace them with a triptych of a giant prim portrait of Atatürk flanked by two equally immense Turkish flags. This ensemble conspicuously lacked the immense portrait of Turkey’s Prime Minister that is usually hung alongside that of Atatürk at the his outdoor rallies and as a backdrop to his lengthy television addresses).
Atatürk Cultural Center, the morning after a brutal siege by police a week and a half ago. Immediately after the siege, the police removed banners hung by left-wing groups and replaced them with a portrait of Atatürk flanked by two Turkish flags. In an uncharacteristic departure from the usual iconography of of the present regime, a portrait of Prime Minister Erdoğan is conspicuous by its absence. (Fuji X100). (To magnify image, click on photo)
Issues Crystallize Discontents
The occupation, demonstrations, vigils, and battles around Gezi Park and Taksim Square this month provided a political and physical rallying point for overall discontent with the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the Erdogan regime and with its aggressive contempt for that half of the Turkish polity who do not support it. Underlying this broader discontent were several sets of concrete issues that kicked-off the protests in the first place, including the relationship of policy-makers and profit-makers in the urban sphere, and the nature, ownership, and future of the urban landscape (more on this in a subsequent post).
Iconography of Urban Space
A subset of these issues involves the iconography of urban space and urban constructs. For decades, Taksim has been destination and site for political marches, celebrations, and (all too often violently repressed) protests. Taksim, thus is a symbol of both the political cohesion and the political and social conflicts of the Turkish Republic. The present plans of the Erdogan government to replace this meaning-charged open space with a full-sized replica of a late-Ottoman-Empire military barracks razed a century ago speaks volumes about the political, social, and cultural attitudes and intents of the present government, as does the government’s plan to demolish the Atatürk Center, once venue for concerts, opera, and theater, and named after the founder of the modern, secular Turkish Republic. The reconstructed barracks, by the way, is slated to be one element of of a giant shopping-center and mosque complex planned to obliterate the footprint of what are now Gezi Park, Taksim Square, and the Atatürk Center.