Istanbul protest is — and is not — about the trees

Protest in Turkey
A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas in Taksim Square, Istanbul May 28, 2013. credit: Reuters, Osman Orsal

This is a fight about trees – or so it seemed at the end of last week. The protests first came to the attention of the world through this image. Before journalists had cobbled together their copy, or before their editors had decided that events warranted any, Reuters photographer Osman Orsal’s photo of policemen firing pepper spray at close range in the face of a young girl acted as a widely shared placeholder for the torrent of analysis that was to follow.

I found the lady in the red dress a problematic icon for the unfolding events in Gezi Park. Not because she was doing anything wrong. Nor was the scene unrepresentative. With the benefit of hindsight her unresisting pose, arms by her side against an ostensibly unprovoked attack by a policeman seems perfectly to have foretold the waves of violence visited on unarmed protesters on the streets of Turkey’s cities in the days since. What troubled me was not the photograph itself but the caption beneath it, which would have its readers believe this was a fight all about trees. This compelling image seemed to be having much success in disseminating the tree narrative. By the 29th of May, the photo was everywhere. In the best tradition of Turkish churnalism, those few who reported the incident reprinted Reuters’ incidental analysis wholesale, even after the protests had plainly grown beyond the issue of the park’s redevelopment.

* * *

Reducing the crowd’s concerns to environmental ones seemed destined to portray these protesters as marginal and weaken their ability to reach a wider audience. Since the prime minister broke cover to address the fact of the protests, this has become an explicit tactic. Both times Erdoğan has spoken on TV about the popular movement growing up in the city of which he was once a mayor, his insistence that this was a spat over a discrete number of trees in a park shows this rhetorical strategy at work: “Nobody has the right to protest against law and democracy, hurting others and increasing tensions for the sake of a few trees,” he said on the 1st of June.

It is true that the protests centered around Gezi Park began seven days ago when bulldozers moved in to rip up the park’s trees in preparation for the construction of a shopping mall. A group of people occupied the space with tents in order to prevent their reentry, and made heavily publicized attempts to replant the uprooted greenery the next day, even as the destruction continued around them.

However, by the time the Reuters photo had spread, what was happening in Gezi Park had become about more than just Gezi Park itself. Those tweeting from within the square and those of us called on to explain the events from outside were keen to emphasise that this was not just an environmental protest. Not only had a wider spread of grievances coalesced around the initial issue, as the police brutality the Reuters picture also showed became the principal focus of anger, but even the very evident and committed tree-hugging in the square was misleading when taken out of context. In a city of nightmare urbanization like Istanbul, determined attempts to replant the uprooted trees of Gezi Park constituted a stand, not just against the city’s 109th shopping mall, but against impunity and corruption and the privatization of public space without consultation. “Trees” didn’t cover it.

* * *

There was undeniably a seed of truth to the tree narrative. More trees were harmed in the aborted razing of the park than in the reporting of the incident: Most of Turkey’s print media chose not to address the topic at all, as can be seen from the cover of the next day’s Sabah, a formerly oppositional paper now controlled by the PM’s son-in-law, which is currently the subject of a boycott on behalf of the protesters.

But it is arguable that trees were not even the initial spark for the protests – or at least not the only one. If this protest needed a trigger, those tired of sublimating their frustrations with the government had several to choose from. May 29 was the day, not only that the bulldozer reentered Gezi Park, but that a demonstration was held against restrictions aimed at both the advertising and the sale of alcohol. The protesters’ reaction was also directed in part at this encroachment by the conservative government on what many see not as a public health issue but as a matter of personal choice.

It was also on the 29th that the PM inaugurated the construction of the third bridge over the Bosphorus. Archival newsprint from the late ’90s shows Mayor Erdoğan calling this much delayed, controversial project tantamount to the murder of the city. We are back, unavoidably, to trees again, but merely the bridge’s infrastructural network requires cutting down 2.5 million of them; something that will irreparably damage both the climate and the water supply of the Istanbul area. 1 More species of flora are native to the threatened green areas around Istanbul than to the whole of the British Isles.

As I write on the seventh day since the arrival of the bulldozers, reports show that protests have spread to more than 60 towns and cities, and it is ever easier to make the argument that the issue of flora has become peripheral. Police violence has generated so much indignation of its own. In the meantime however, I have changed my mind. I have decided to embrace the prime minister’s rhetoric. I do now believe this protest is about trees. And not just the 2.5 million that the bridge will destroy, or the “5-6″ the prime minister has numbered, but one measly tree.

Allow me to qualify my apostasy. The tree I see as emblematic of the protest is the tree that the Turkish news saw fit to print: a tree that was symbolically planted at a ceremony officiated by President Gül and Berdimuhamedov on his visit to Turkmenistan the day immediately following the inauguration of the bridge construction.

That prime minister’s diggers were uprooting trees in Istanbul’s civic centre while the president was planting saplings to much fanfare abroad was not just a grotesque irony, but the perfect articulation of what Istanbullus are angry about. This overly promoted tree is the perfect metonym for Istanbul’s distended, plastic urbanisation. What this government has imposed on the city over the last 10 years is not so much a religious agenda but a savage neoliberalism, hell-bent on appropriating everything messy and particular to the city and offering up a sanitized and often privatised parody in its stead.

Like the foliage Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now promising will garnish the evolving shopping mall/mosque/hotel redevelopment, often these projects pay only lip service to whatever went before. This is true in the center of the city: The protesters point out that with Gezi Park gone Istanbul’s most famous “park” will now be Istinye Park, the fanciest of the city’s many shopping malls, just as everywhere on the outskirts of the city developers are buying up tracts of untouched land and turning them into luxury housing, later boasting in TV advertisements of the “high,” but pitiful, percentage of green space inside them – green space that now sits behind a very high security wall.

And this is true of Gezi Park itself. A public space, whose decrepitude is only evidence of how very “public” it is, is to be replaced by a private development that retains an ornamental garnish of trees. The prime minister’s  protestations that the shopping center will, after all, sit inside a new replica of historical barracks that existed in the square before a previous round of urbanization in the 1940s only goes to prove the point. This urbanisation’s principal technique is appropriation; appropriation gilded by nostalgia. Consultation certainly has no place in it, as the PM’s redoubled insistence on the necessity of this unwanted project in the last few days attests. In the Disneyland Istanbul this government has been gradually foisting on its citizens, cultural heritage is only to be preserved if it can be instrumentalised and turned to profit.

What I fear is that the government is trying to use Istanbul’s most iconic space to legitimate this urban strategy as it strays beyond the replication and into the actual colonization of public and historical spaces. This is already happening nearby, with the recent news that the new seven-star Shangri La hotel on the coast of Beşiktaş has been allowed to expropriate the ornate public ferry station in front of it. Closed now to boat traffic, and to the road traffic that used to go between the hotel and the station, the extra 10 minutes added to the shared-taxi route that went that way affords every commuter ample time to wonder why a private company was abetted in such a feat. This is happening all over the city. A fire in the grand building of the waterfront Haydarpaşa train station last year was accompanied by fears that it would soon go the same way – arson is often the prelude to a sell-off – and indeed subsequently a massive development project aimed at cruise-ship tourism has been announced.

These are particular incidents among countless others, but the emergent pattern of the destruction of Istanbul through its rearticulation in a fake, commercialized form can itself be seen in this frame. After all, the most egregious target of this technique is not a particular location within the city, but the actual city itself. The prime minister has plans to replicate the Bosphorus, the iconic central artery of Istanbul, wholesale, in a canal project with which he intends to inaugurate a “second Istanbul”: “safer,” “cleaner” and under firmer control than the original.

A symbolic tree designed to improve the government’s currency abroad, while the same government is decimating that sapling’s more mature counterparts in this most public of public spaces is therefore bountifully appropriate as a emblem of the protests, and protesters can only be grateful that their prime minister wishes to draw such attention to it. When it comes to the prime minister’s loosening grip on the semiotics of the protest, it is worth noting that May 29 was also the date, 560 years ago, of Mehmet the Conqueror’s conquest of Istanbul. This is no coincidence: Turkish commentators were unanimous in receiving the timing of the bridge inauguration ceremony as an orchestrated attempt to link the birth of Istanbul as the Ottomans’ imperial city with Erdoğan’s own attempt to regenerate the city in an era he sees as his own. But this time the city refused to be conquered. At Gezi Park, it decided to fight back.

* * *

Evidently Erdoğan’s command of his own imagery is not always watertight. Indeed, the prime minister’s  decision to labor the issue of trees may not even have succeeded on his own terms. Rather than marginalising protesters, forcing trees to assume a place at the rhetorical as well as the physical heart of these events has allowed them to become a technique in the arsenal of protesters; protesters who are still making determined steps to encourage each other to resist provocation and stay peaceful, but whose symbolic weaponry is becoming more sophisticated by the day. “Knock down Tayyip, not the trees” became the chant of those assembled today around an old man who had come to speak against the destruction of Gezi Park. If they compare the prime minister to a tree whose time is up, they hold each other up to be more like the sturdy trunks they are defending: the early 20th century leftist poet Nazim Hikmet has a line, “To live! Like a tree, alone and free/ To live! Like a forest in unity,” which can now be seen adorning walls and placards all over the city.

Trees are therefore an inescapable part of these protests’ symbolism, but trees have other qualities beyond the merely symbolic. They can be used, not only as a ploy in a broadcast but to broadcast things themselves. The remaining trees in Gezi Park are now adorned with the names of unaccounted dead from recent bombings in the Kurdish South East: Uludere (Roboski in Kurdish), and Reyhanli on the Syrian border. These trees announce not just the names of the dead, but a sign that something is changing. The paucity of domestic coverage may, thus far, have saved the Gezi Park protesters from the echo chamber of reflections on their own actions, but it has given them ample cause for reflection on something else. What is slowly being realized is that a metropolitan city of 16 million, most of whom will never visit the South East, were getting their news about a 30-year war in the region from the very same media who are refusing now to show the events they photograph, tweet about and see with their own eyes.

This post originally appeared in Bulent Journal.

Izzy Finkel is a writer and translator based between London and Istanbul. She currently co-edits BÜLENT, a quarterly journal which aims to foster new ways of thinking and writing about Turkey.

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