Almost two years ago, Justin Wedes was one of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street, as well as one of the first to be arrested in Zuccotti Park. Now, he is witnessing the birth of another occupation of public space at Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. He took some time out of the world-in-creation there to answer a few questions for Waging Nonviolence.
How did you end up in Taksim Square this week?
I was in Paris last week at the OECD Forum 2013 on Jobs, Equality and Trust. When I logged on to the computer to check in for my return flight to JFK, I saw that a protest being dubbed #OccupyGezi had started in Turkey and that police were cracking down on these peaceful, brave young people who had come to protect the trees from over-development and ambitious urban gentrification. By the time I had read through a few reports, I was changing my plane ticket to Istanbul. I’ll be here for a week, and I’m live-tweeting and blogging whenever possible on @justinwedes and on JustinWedes.com.
What do you think what’s happening there is building toward? What do people there want to accomplish?
The protest began to save the park, but it quickly escalated into a full-out popular referendum on the legitimacy of the Erdogan administration, a religiously conservative and increasingly autocratic government. While broadly popular for its economic gains, the government has been increasingly scrutinized by groups that see it infringing more and more on people’s secular rights: a recent decree banned drinking in public places after 10 p.m., and women’s rights have been curtailed. At the same time, Erdogan has been pushing forward a very ambitious urban gentrification program, and Gezi Park — the “life center” of Istanbul according to a cafe owner I met here yesterday — was the last straw, for many people, in the over-development program. As in many cities around the world, over-gentrification leads to a squeezing of the working class and higher and higher pressure for job growth and salary increases, which aren’t keeping pace.
Now, the demands of the protesters have broadened with their numbers, and they’re calling for Erdogan’s resignation. They’re also calling for a more democratic government, a fairer media, and a whole host of other environmental and social demands. The protests are incredibly non-partisan, with youth in Gezi requiring people to put their political party flags away when entering the park. The only flags that remain are the Turkish ones, and many calls for “one united Turkey.”
Do you think it’s realistic? Do they care?
I honestly don’t know. Nobody seems to be talking about realism right now. The unpredictability seems to be the key tactical advantage of the protesters. The president seems to be fumbling with his official responses, attacking the protesters and calling them “extremists” and “radicals” even as the public support on the streets grows. That the police are backing off of Taksim Square around Gezi — they’ve escalated repression in neighboring cities and provinces — was a major victory for the protesters. They re-fortified their barricades last night and are digging in even as some of them head back to work today. The next 30 hours will be critical.
Does it remind you of the beginning of Occupy Wall Street at all? What tactics are people using?
Absolutely! Gezi Park really looks and feels like Zuccotti, with an autonomous/self-organized feel to it reminiscent of 15M/Indignados, Greece, Tel Aviv and many other Occupy protests of late. There are various medical stations, food being served and neighbors donating all kinds of items to the park. It’s more intense than Zuccotti though, as the police repression of last week really radicalized many of the youth, who come out at night and fortify the barricades. Last night, when they heard about skirmishes in neighboring Beşiktaş, young men took to the high places in the park to call out to others to “go home and bring back more material for the barricades. They pushed through barricades 10 times this size in Beşiktaş.” The makeshift barricades have been made mostly with wood from the halted construction site and burned-out government vehicles.
At the same time, it’s amazing to note the restraint of the young people. The only smashed windows on Istaklil — the main commercial artery out of Taksim — are foreign-owned shops, and I’ve seen absolutely no looting. When I tweeted a picture of a broken Burger King window, people responded angrily that I had mis-characterized the situation: It was broken into as a medical station for injured protesters fleeing the tear gas. A local bakery store owner told me he gave shelter to fleeing protesters behind his windows, which were not even painted over with graffiti like many others. When I asked him why nobody had vandalized his store: “Same side. No problems!”
Are you seeing anything happening — tactically, strategically — that you want to bring back to the United States?
The organizing model in Gezi is very interesting. There’s no “General Assembly,” but many small clusters of people interact with each other organically. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be any brain or central decision-making body, and for sure there are political parties that are organizing the space. It’s really a raw energy that’s being stirred by many marches and soccer-style chants, and the engagement with regular people is broad and growing. When I talk with “organizers” on the ground — though I’m not sure they would call themselves that — they speak of tight coordination of media and tactics over SMS and Twitter, but it’s all very real-time and dynamic. I think it’s too early to assess how it’s growing.
I’ll be here until Saturday. Follow along with me on Twitter, Facebook and the blog! #OccupyGezi!