A decade ago, the Gezi Park protests shook Turkey to its core, leaving an indelible mark on the country’s political landscape. The demonstrations, initially sparked by the planned destruction of a small park in Istanbul, quickly morphed into a powerful and widespread movement challenging the increasingly authoritarian rule of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The spark: planned destruction of Gezi Park
In late May 2013, a group of environmental activists gathered in Gezi Park, located near Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square. Their peaceful sit-in was a response to government plans to tear down one of the last remaining green spaces in the city centre.
The Turkish government intended to replace Gezi Park with the reconstruction of an Ottoman-era barracks or potentially a newly built shopping mall, or even a combination of a shopping mall and a mosque complex. It is difficult to ascertain the precise intention of the government, as their main priority was demolishing a public space and transforming it into a commercial and private area, a pattern seen in previous development projects, which were usually veiled behind a symbolic facade, deliberately crafted to entangle potential critics in an unending culture war.
The small group of environmentalists’ opposition to a government-backed construction project resonated with the frustrations of a broader section of society. The protesters soon grew in number and diversity, encompassing a wide range of grievances against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdoğan.
From local dispute to widespread dissent
What started as a local dispute rapidly gained nationwide traction, as citizens from all walks of life joined the movement, utilising social media platforms to amplify their message. The protests were marked by a sense of unity and solidarity, with people from various political backgrounds standing shoulder-to-shoulder to express their discontent with the government’s policies, perceived authoritarianism, and erosion of democratic values.
However, as the protests swelled in size, so did the authorities’ response. In a bid to quell the uprising, the government deployed heavy-handed tactics, including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. The crackdown on the protesters led to violent clashes and widespread police brutality, which only served to galvanise the movement further. Gezi Park became a symbol of resistance against an increasingly authoritarian government.
Fatalities amidst clashes
During the Gezi Park protests in 2013, several individuals tragically lost their lives. The exact number of fatalities remains a subject of debate and controversy, as there are discrepancies in the official figures provided by the government and the information reported by various human rights organisations and independent sources.
According to the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), which compiled data from hospitals and medical institutions during the protests, at least eight people were killed directly as a result of the clashes between protesters and security forces. Berkin Elvan (15), Hasan Ferit Gedik (21), Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (20), Ali İsmail Korkmaz (19), Ethem Sarısülük (26), Abdullah Cömert (22), Ahmet Atakan (23), and Medeni Yıldırım (18).
These fatalities were primarily attributed to the excessive use of tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as instances of severe injuries sustained during police interventions.
Crackdown on dissent
The government’s response to the protests was marked by a severe crackdown on dissent. Thousands of activists, journalists, and opposition figures were arrested, and charges ranging from organising illegal demonstrations to terrorism were levelled against them. Erdoğan’s administration was accused of stifling free speech and trampling on democratic principles, raising concerns about the state of human rights in Turkey.
The Gezi Park protests lasted for several weeks, with mass protests in 79 of the country’s 81 provinces. While the protests eventually subsided, the movement inspired a new wave of civic engagement, with creative forms of protest emerging in the aftermath.
The Gezi Park protests acted as a catalyst for change in Turkish politics. The following years witnessed a significant realignment of the opposition. In subsequent elections, the AKP’s once-unchallenged dominance was challenged, as the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) capitalised on the momentum generated by the Gezi Park protests.
Gezi as a guiding principle
The Taksim Solidarity Component Platform, commonly known as Taksim Solidarity, recently conducted a press conference on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Gezi protests, which began on 27 May. During the conference, they reiterated the significance of Gezi as their main guiding principle.
“At the 10th anniversary of Gezi, our commitment remains unwavering, just as it was on that initial day of the remarkable resistance that swept across cities, igniting a series of powerful waves. We proudly stood together, united against bans, unjust punishments, oppression, exploitation, falsehoods, and all forms of divisive policies. We transformed our voices into an unstoppable force,” the platform said.
Ongoing struggles: Complex challenges and the path to change
A decade on, the legacy of Gezi Park endures. While the government has sought to downplay the significance of the protests and suppress any mention of them in the media, the memory of that transformative period lives on in the hearts and minds of those who participated and witnessed the movement firsthand. The demands for democracy, freedom of expression, and respect for human rights that echoed through the streets of Istanbul in 2013 continue to resonate today.
Looking ahead, the challenges facing Turkey remain complex and multifaceted. While the full realisation of the protesters’ demands remains an ongoing struggle, the Gezi Park protests stand as a testament to the enduring power of grassroots movements and the belief in a better future.