City: Reclaiming the right to the city, reflections on the urban uprisings in Turkey – Mehmet Baris Kuymulu

It has been more than four decades since Henri Lefebvre, Marxist philosopher and theorist of socio-spatial processes, presciently argued that the globalization of urbanization and the role of distinctively urban processes in the accumulation of capital were bringing about a specifically urban crisis that could not easily be subsumed under the crisis of industrial capitalism. This led Lefebvre to highlight ‘the urban’ as a particular locus of resistance and activism for claiming ‘the right to the city,’ understood as a right of urbanites to radically transform the processes that orchestrate the production and use of urban space.


Coined during the tumultuous days that led to the Parisian uprising of 1968, the concept of the right to the city sprung from the ‘cry and demand’ rising from the streets, and had a reasonable explanatory purchase on the practical politics unfolding in many other cities. Amidst urban protests sprawling from Gezi Park—a relatively small urban park in central Istanbul—to Taksim Square and then to the rest of Istanbul and other public squares across Turkey, one is tempted to ask: is this what reclaiming the right to the city looks like?

It is, indeed. The spark that drew Istanbul into a fire of protest and uprising was initially set off by a modest ‘occupy style’ peaceful resistance, staged against the destruction of a historically public park, an urban commons. The demolition of Gezi Park was to make way for yet another shopping mall in Istanbul. It was almost midnight on May 27 when bulldozers entered Gezi Park, without any warning, and it turns out, without any legal permission to take down the trees. In response, activists quickly organized and called more people using Twitter and Facebook to the park in order to stop the bulldozers from uprooting the trees. And they succeeded. For the next three days, the primary aim of activists camping at the park was to prevent the destruction of an urban commons for the benefit of a few capitalists. In other words, early on, the resistance was organized against an urbanism that puts the interests of capital over the interests of ordinary inhabitants of Istanbul, as Lefebvre would observe.

However urban its agenda was, initially, the scale of resistance against neoliberal authoritarianism was confined to the scale of Gezi Park, which did not automatically express itself at the urban scale of Istanbul. In fact, opportunities for jumping scale to stage a wider resistance were already in place. For one, the destruction of Gezi Park for building a mall was never presented as an isolated project by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in government. In fact, destroying Gezi Park for a shopping mall was packaged as part of a larger project of ‘urban transformation’—AKP’s euphemism for gentrification—which aims to radically transform one of the most iconic urban centers in Turkey: Taksim Square. What is more, the AKP government has already passed legislation in 2012 (Karajeski 2012), allegedly for disaster preparation, which enabled the government to demolish and rebuild legally any building at risk in the event of an earthquake—which covers an overwhelming segment of urban Turkey—rendering the whole country legally ripe for gentrification (see note 1 below).

If a specific regime of capital accumulation through real estate construction and gentrification that is hegemonic at the urban and national scales enabled the struggle for Gezi Park to jump scales more easily to the urban and the national, it still received great help from the authoritarian reflexes of the AKP government and the police brutality it inflicted on the people. After successfully defending the park for three days and nights, the activists were woken up at five in the morning on May 30, by what the Istanbul police called ‘operation dawn,’ which saw the police raiding the park with tear gas bombs and water cannons, burning protestors’ tents and other personal property on the way.

This was the breaking point for the protests. In all probability, the AKP government and its police thought their operation at dawn was enough to disperse the resistance in the park for good. Although they had prioritized the defense of Gezi Park against bulldozers, the protestors had to flee the park and regroup at nearby Taksim Square, turning into a spontaneous demonstration. In the span of a few hours, an exceptional act of collective mobilization gathered several tens of thousands at Taksim Square (estimates range to one hundred thousand). This civic mobilization was almost exclusively organized through social media, while mainstream media was cooperating fully with the AKP government and imposing a media blackout of the event.

What ensued was nothing short of a war over space. The riot police used every violent means—from beating unarmed people to close-range shots of tear gas canisters on individuals’ heads—to fend demonstrators from Taksim Square. However, tens of thousands of people flocked the streets not only in Taksim Square, but also in other public spaces in Istanbul and soon spontaneous solidarity demonstrations were held in other cities, leading to full on uprisings across urban Turkey. Pandora’s box was now open.

The initial resistance organized at Gezi Park, then, had a clear urban agenda to reclaim the right to the city of ordinary urbanites who rely on use value in the city and to place it over the right to the city of capitalists, developers and their allies who recast the city as a locus of exchange value and capital accumulation. Contemporary urbanism, which puts the interest of capital over that of the people, and which is remarkably authoritarian and neoliberal in character, was recognized for what it is by the protestors at Gezi Park, who kept chanting ‘Sermaye defol, Gezi Parki bizimdir’ (‘Capital be gone, Gezi Park is ours’).

Ultimately, the authoritarian neoliberal urbanism practiced at Gezi Park desired to transform use values embedded in an urban commons into exchange values through the construction of a shopping mall in the park’s stead. Whatever arguments its proponents put forth to justify the construction of another shopping mall in the historic city center, they could not legitimate building the 94th shopping mall in Istanbul. The city already ranks fifth in the world in terms of the number of shopping malls it houses (Turhan 2013).

As the resistance to neoliberal authoritarianism of the AKP government jumped from Gezi Park to the urban and national scales, its primary political focus shifted from a clear right to the city agenda to civil rights and individual and collective freedoms. In spite of the thick teargas cloud covering much of urban Turkey, this much is clear enough to see. If the AKP government had not ordered its police to violently crackdown on peaceful protests at Gezi Park and had instead withdrawn its project of destroying Gezi Park, the massive mobilization itself, which turned a small-scale peaceful resistance into full-blown urban uprisings across Turkey, would not have taken place. Nevertheless, neither the police nor the AKP government was willing to compromise. With solidarity movements spreading both in and out of Turkey, this mobilization quickly came to embody every grievance people had against the AKP government. This is when the protests took an anti-government turn. Slogans like ‘Capital be gone, Gezi Park is ours’’ were replaced by ‘Erdogan resign, government resign’ and ‘shoulder to shoulder against fascism.’

This turn, in part, was enabled by Prime Minister Erdogan himself. From his first address on television to the last (at the time of writing), Erdogan decisively took the confrontational path, discrediting protestors as looters and a few extremists, asserting on every occasion that the government had already reached a decision, and nothing, including the protestors, could change that. He went on to threaten the demonstrators not only with further police intervention, but also by calling on a million supporters to Taksim Square to confront the protestors. He asked ‘his nation’—Prime Minister Erdogan always talks in the first person—not to join the chapulling (see note 2 below) ‘looters’ and told them to go back home.

Such a recalcitrant and authoritarian language telling people what to do and what to think is nothing new for the people of Turkey. It is difficult to recount every event that turned people from docile individuals into a new militant collectivity. In the span of a year, people in Turkey, especially women, were repeatedly told to have at least three children, not to use contraception, to avoid cesareans, that every abortion was a murder and that everybody who drinks alcohol was an alcoholic. People heard Erdogan declare that he did not want a youth wandering around drunk, and that instead, he wanted a religious youth. He also scolded young couples for kissing in the subway. Those who criticized the government for the ‘operational accident’ that killed 34 Kurdish civilians in Roboski (Uludere)—allegedly mistaken for Kurdish guerillas—also became targets of Erdogan’s spitfire. He told people and the media to stop talking about this ‘accident,’ which was what the ‘terrorists’ wanted. This authoritarianism, drunk on its own power, constantly micro-manages what people should do and how people should think. As such, it keeps a very diverse body of protestors together, for the time being.

As I am writing twelve days into the uprisings on June 8, 2013, police violence is continuing in full force, and no long-term victory has been achieved by the protestors. Except one: The uprisings that caught AKP government off-guard brought together an unlikely body of people from all walks of life for the first time in recent memory. The overwhelming majority of people who regularly take it to the streets everyday now do so for the first time in their lives. The invisible wall of fear that has kept people at home for so long is now superseded by the sheer creative energy released by massive numbers of bodies on the streets. Judging by the stubborn authoritarianism of Erdogan, who still tells people that Taksim will be transformed as planned, it is highly unlikely that uprisings across Turkey will soon lose steam.

However, if this revolutionary energy is to be channeled into a lasting social transformation, the Kurdish movement and the labor movement—historically, the two main motors of Turkey’s democratization—should catch up with the protestors on the ground. Both the Kurdish and labor movements, otherwise well organized, have been criticized for being too slow in jumping on the bandwagon. Yet, there are signs suggesting that this might change soon. The day before, the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (DİSK) joined a public sector strike that the Confederation of Public Workers Unions (KESK) had announced on June 5 (Hurriyet Daily News 2013). Moreover, Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK)—the Union of Communities in Kurdistan—called on the Kurdish people ‘to take initiative in the resistance and to take responsibility for the healthy progress of the process’ (Firat News 2013).

This is not to suggest that Kurds and workers have been absent from the protests. Nor do I suggest that the more organized actors in Turkey’s democratization process should ‘lead’ the protests. The uprising has been decidedly leaderless, spontaneous and collectively led by the principles of direct democracy and solidarity. All of this means that in the days and nights to come, when we are likely to see more state violence, various democratic forces of Turkey will need each and every body they can mobilize against the authoritarian neoliberalism they have been revolting against.

‘The city’ of the right to the city for Lefebvre is shorthand for the urban society—the urbanized globe itself. Especially given this equation, it fills one with hope that the struggle for space at a small urban park in Istanbul quickly jumped scales to the national and international levels to confront its contemporary nemesis, namely, authoritarian neoliberalism.

Dedicated to my friend Lobna Al Lamii, who was shot by a tear gas canister in the head and who is still in intensive care in Taksim, Istanbul.

Diren Gezi Parki, Diren Lobna.


1. AKP’s neoliberal urbanism, fueled by generalized gentrification and real estate development, is only a part of AKP’s larger rampant neoliberalism. During the past decade the AKP governments transformed the legal structures that govern worker rights, length of the working week, pension rights, social security, and many others that turned Turkey’s growing population into a flexible labor force. In this period, massive privatization of virtually everything that makes profit has been the norm. Moreover, Prime Minister Erdogan always looked to promote Turkish capital as a neoliberal force in the global market (see Bektas 2013). Such unhinged neoliberalism is only possible with authoritarianism. In fact, I would argue that AKP’s authoritarianism comes less from its Islamism than its neoliberalism, but I cannot get into detail here.

2. Chappulling is a neologism that comes from the word ‘capulcu’ in Turkish, literally looter in English. Prime Minister Erdogan used it to name the protestors and it quckly got appropriated by the protestors, who now call themselves capulcular. Chapulling is its English transfiguration into verb form, which now means to protest.


1. Bektas, Ali. 2013. ‘The flip-side of the anti-capitalist coin: Istanbul uprising’ Counterpunch 5 June.

2. Çubukçu, Ayça. 2011. ‘‘Operational Accidents’: on the Turkish State and Kurdish Deaths, 30 December. (Accessed June 8, 2013)

3. Firat News. 2013. ‘KCK: Taksim resistance a message for a new Turkey’ 5 June. (Accessed, June 7)

4. Hurriyet Daily News. 2013. ‘More unions to join in general strike amid Turkey unrest’ 4 June. (Accessed, June 7)

5. Karajeski, Jenna. 2012. ‘It will make Sandy seem like nothing: The massive quake coming to Istanbul’ The Atlantic. 2 November. (Accessed, June 7)

6. Turhan, Ethemcan. June, 2013. ‘What is in a park?’, Vol. II, Issue 4, pp.6-10, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. ( (Accessed, June 7)

Mehmet Barış Kuymulu
25 June 2013
Source: City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, vol. 17, no. 3, 2013