March 16th, 2015

This is Part II of a two-part interview with Cihan Uzunçarşılı Baysal on the state of development-induced displacement in Istanbul and civil society strategies for resistance. 

IMAGE CREDIT: Taksim Solidarity- Taksim Solidarity Group at the Gezi Park protests

DRAN: How do you see the emergence of civil society actors in the face of urban transformation in Istanbul? What is the current state of urban resistance against forced evictions and displacement?

Cihan Uzunçarşılı Baysal (CB): Urban resistance in neighborhoods continues with litigation and mobilization against displacement projects. Neighborhood activists visit each other, sharing experiences, documents, and mobilization tactics to find the most effective course of action. Advocates, activists, professional chambers of Architects and Engineers, and initiatives established after the Gezi Park Protests are in solidarity with the neighborhoods that are resisting displacement.

Unfortunately, the central and most local governments have succeeded in dividing the resistance and co-opting it in some instances. The ruling party’s success lies in its loyal following of neoliberalism, turning everything into an asset to be marketized. Consequently, when a project is announced for a neighborhood, some residents, with the same mindset as developers, start making calculations about how much they can earn by selling their homes. In a country where more than half of the population lives on the brink of poverty, giving up one apartment or house and getting more in return seems like a good bargain. However, informal neighborhoods and lower income groups have no chance in this bargain. For neighborhoods expecting renewal projects justified by the Disaster Transformation Law [discussed in Part 1 of this interview] what is awaiting them are forced evictions and loss of their community; but, under the bombardment of win-win advertisements of renewal projects, they choose to believe in them. So, this system based on urban rent and land profit has been promoted not only from top down but bottom up as well.

DRAN: How can we strengthen civil society’s response to housing rights violations in Istanbul?

CB: In a country where right to life has always been at stake, where imprisonment, torture and state repression have become usual mechanisms against dissidents, these issues indeed overshadow all the other violations including housing rights violations. Thus, social and economic rights have not been on the agenda of the civil society in Turkey with the exception of few human rights groups. Another issue has been the stigmatization of gecekondu (informal settlement) dwellers, mostly by middle classes, who perceive gecekondu dwellers to be usurping the state’s land. So there can be no talk about housing rights here.

The breaking point of this divide was the Disaster Transformation Law, which meant even households with official title deeds were vulnerable to eviction – making everyone a potential gecekondu dweller. Then it was Gezi, where “Do not touch my park” was echoed with “Do not touch my neighborhood,” along with the demand for all of the commons. By the time of Gezi, plans for urban renewal and regeneration, with all its violations, had come to light. Almost every week, there was a new project announced and complaints started building up. Neighborhood associations organizing under Urban Movements Istanbul and with the HIC-Habitat International Coalition Network were some of the first groups joining Taksim Solidarity, a coalition of civil society groups, professional associations, and NGOs. What was the Taksim Square project if not a renewal? Thus, through forums both in Gezi and in different parks in its aftermath, urban regeneration and renewal became one of the topics on the agenda.

Since Gezi it has been much easier to talk about the right to housing; but this is not enough. To raise awareness, we need reports supported by statistics and narratives; we need eviction maps, documentaries, photos, all kinds of tools to be able to disclose the whole picture and its brutality.

Besides, the right to adequate housing as pronounced in international human rights mechanisms and in relevant UN conventions need to be taught both to the affected communities and to the population at large.

DRAN: What is the importance of the Gezi Park protest in relation to the emerging grassroots organizations and right to city movements?

CB: First and foremost, Gezi has shaken urban movements from all scales, imbuing life and energy into a fatigued struggle by building hope and self-confidence. Gezi has smashed the opinion that the government can do whatever it plans to do and that it is futile to mobilize and struggle. Solidarity, participation, and the need for cooperation among diverse groups materialized in Gezi. This communal focus – the direct antithesis of the neoliberal city – showed us all that another city is possible. The Right to the City, a passive slogan and not a well-known concept in Turkey before Gezi, has reverberated in almost every protest, rally, and demonstration since.

A new kind of citizen and citizenship emerged after Gezi, one who feels responsible for issues about her or his environment, community, and habitat; one who is ready to struggle and resist, one who is not afraid anymore; one who stands up for self determination. We see this new citizen especially when the issue at stake is one concerning the environment and commons, be it a forest, park or an olive grove as in Yirca. The Gezi experience has made it easier for diverging groups to come together and fight for a common cause.

What is more, we see initiatives and solidarities merging into more united fronts. After Gezi, environmentalists in Istanbul merged into Northern Forests Defense (NFD) to fight against the mega projects like the Third Bridge project affecting the Northern Forest. NFD has also merged into Marmara Defense, comprised of environmentalists, grassroots groups and neighborhood associations in the Marmara region to mobilize resistance all over Istanbul against projects targeting green fields, parks, and groves as well. Gezi has meant that we now see regional solidarities emerging.

Cihan Uzunçarşılı Baysal is a leading housing rights activist in Turkey and spokesperson of Urban Movements-Istanbul. She was assigned by UN-Habitat as local expert of their Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) and participated in the AGFE Istanbul Mission in 2009.