Freedom of speech is not separate from the right to public spaces. Public spaces are where individuals and societies express themselves. These spaces can be physical, like Taksim Square, or virtual, like Twitter.
The freer the city squares, the streets and the parks, the more comfortable individuals will be to express themselves. In Turkey, the most popular public spaces like Taksim Square and Gezi Park are frequently closed off, and this was the case on May 1st, International Workers’ Day. The government has been in conflict with the people for a long time over where this glorious meeting was to be held. Except for the first two weeks of June in 2013, during the occupation of Gezi Park, Taksim Square has been closed off to meetings and protests. The government, or more precisely the party currently in power, has been showing great efforts to lay the area in siege. This siege works with the participation of private institutions. On one hand, the siege of the square by the power constricts politics and opens the area for trade. On the other hand, the private institutions use this opportunity to encircle the city center with their own properties. Let’s study the government-side of this two-fold siege which has been going on in Beyoglu, the district where Taksim is located.
Until the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, the siege architecture that is specific to Beyoglu demonstrated itself in the context of the European Culture Capital and “Istanbul the Cool.” The Municipality of Beyoglu raided the cafés and pubs to remove their chairs off the streets in order to cut the citizens off and to, in a way, discipline them. The police patrol of Taksim began with luxurious cars, and the constabulary did the same with Gingers and electric vehicles. Beyoglu had a heterogeneous utilization of the area, but a construction plan focusing on tourism and aiming to homogenize the visitors was designed. Undercover cops sterilized Istiklal Street of street children and drug-abusers. Beyoglu became a playground of new constructions with the Renewal Project off Tarlabasi, which is a neighborhood notorious for crime.
As this urban planning policy perpetuates itself, a siege by the government in Taksim and the Beyoglu area has been going on since the Gezi Park Protests. This siege is two pronged: there is the overly-active side, where the riot control police with water cannons, light reconnaissance vehicles (the Akrep vehicle, the Scorpion in English) and teargas occupy the public spaces, and there is the passive side with surveillance cameras (MOBESE – Mobile Electronic System Integration). There are thirty MOBESE cameras throughout Taksim Square, Istiklal Street and the Tunnel Square: a line of 1.2 miles. These cameras are suspected to provide more government-security, rather than to increase security for the citizens. It is observed in the last year that when it comes to an allegedly police-inflicted injury the cameras are turned off or away, while when the citizens assert their right to protest (which is actually sacred and protected, according to Article 34 of the Turkish Constitution), the cameras are used as an instrument of oppression.
What do we see when we study the de facto state of emergency? With many spatial interventions, surveillance systems and tactical actions, Taksim probably is one of the most strictly observed squares of not only Turkey, but also Europe.
With the Tarlabasi Boulevard and Cumhuriyet Street intersection moved underground, it is now easier to limit the pedestrian flow to the square, while providing smooth traffic flow when the square is closed off. It also seems to function as a control point. Ataturk Cultural Center, an icon of Turkish culture and a prominent example of Turkish architecture of the 60s, was built in 1969 but has been closed for renovation since 2008. PM Erdogan planned to replace it with a baroque opera house, but it has been used as a police station since the protests in 2013. The Maksim Show Center, an entertainment point built in the early 60s and a prominent icon of Turkey’s night life until recently, is now used as a parking spot for riot control vehicles and police buses. Gezi Park, one of the rare green areas in Istanbul that sparked the protests in 2013, is constantly under surveillance by MOBESE cameras, and is also frequently closed off by the police. The smallest protest gives way to an encircling of the Republic Monument (located in Taksim Square, designed by Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica, honoring the Russian aid during the Turkish War of Independence) by a security cordon.
Gezi Park, just like Taksim Square, is under siege. I’m not talking about just the MOBESE cameras or the prohibition of entrance whenever there is a protest. I am advocating that the government’s understanding of “environment” is oppressive and that just like the public spaces, the parks are also oppressed. After the trees were cut down in Gezi Park, a wall was built in their place: this wall, and the vertical, artificial garden on the wall is an example of this oppressive policy. The oppressive understanding, the farthest possible point from environmentalism, sees landscape design as an exterior and decorative element.
The Yenikapi Square Project is the most visible example of what dangers await should the public spaces be taken over by the government. This square is supposed to provide an alternative to Taksim, where the policies seem to force politics out. Yenikapi Square was created by filling in the sea, completely changing how Istanbul looks from Space. The filling cost around 1.4 million dollars, and the landscape design cost around 3.8 million dollars. How free speech and the right to protest can be executed in such a “square” sticks out like a sore thumb.
The prohibition of the city squares created by the public will, or designing squares of “power,” pose a paradox for the government. As long as there are people who want to go to the squares of their choice, even if the government closes them off, the square is not free from politics. Prohibiting public gathering in squares has just one message, and that is “so-and-so is not governed with democracy.” Even if new squares are built, and if there are no communities who want to protest there, the magnitude of this square is just a metaphor of how far away democracy really is.
How do you think public spaces and free speech are connected?
Original article, originally published in Turkish, here.
Credits: Images by Alan Hilditch, Eser Karadag and Alper Orus. Data linked to sources.