For the sake of its economy, Turkey better learn to embrace us “looters”

The Turkish government must embrace the young who have taken to the streets in protest.
The Turkish government must embrace the young who have taken to the streets in protest.
Image: AP Photo
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It often feels like the entire city of Istanbul, the driver of Turkey’s rapidly emerging economy, is under renovation. I live near Taksim Square, and the adjacent Gezi Park is among the last public green spaces in the neighborhood.

Development plans for the area have always been opaque. There were plans to rebuild a historic barracks with a museum and “a few shops.” Then came talk of constructing a mall and even luxury apartments. Whatever happened, we braced ourselves for the park’s demise and the symbolic razing of a traditionally secular public space.

On May 27, five trees were uprooted as part of a nearby road tunnel project. And the civic hopelessness that had accumulated since the 1980 military coup—and more so in the past decade under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (abbreviated as the AKP in Turkish)—reached a peak. It touched the hearts of thousands of people whom prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed as “looters.”

Apparently, successive governments and the military remain unaware that it is these so-called looters who will carry Turkey’s economy to next level—not conglomerates or gentrification projects. A Quartz piece I wrote six months ago was headlined, “Don’t arrest that protester; he’s a future billionaire: The connection between free expression and economics.” I said then:

Why then do some government deem some forms of creativity favorable and others not so unfavorable, such as artists, political activists, radical scientists and journalists? The answer reflects a market’s maturity and level of economic development.

It is ironic in emerging markets, where social policies are sometimes underdeveloped, that governments favor “mainstream” creative entrepreneurs to create jobs. Meanwhile, they try to restrict or control members of an “unfavorable” creative class. This is a shame because it is the latter who are actually responsible for the cultural soul of a market.

Those words ring even more true today. Because if our leaders lose sight of the country’s potential, Turkey’s economy will slump back into cloning the West —and its mistakes.

Those five beautiful sycamores were the last symbolic connection between us and our city. Now, it feels like everything and anything can be destroyed to make way for yet more commercial space—for the profit of the ruling class. A culture of fear has been created by successive governments on both sides of the political fence and the army over the past 23 years.

Those five trees reminded us to stand up for our future, the first step of the creative process in any economy.

Indeed, on the night of May 28, the park was full of people in a festive spirit, willing to take a stand. That night, protesters camped out. Songs were sung. The next morning, the first police raid came. Tents were burned. Protesters were beaten. Tear gas and water canons were deployed.

Terrifying images of the violence shocked everyone from housewives and students to business people and teachers from all over society. We didn’t imagine the government would react like this over a simple request to save some trees.

What happened next was all the more shocking. Violence erupted. More people got hurt; at least one died.

The next day, I was one of thousands marching united with people of every age, social and cultural group and beliefs. People coming from office wore scarves over their suits to protect them from the endless clouds of tear gas.

On June 1, the police retreated from central Istanbul after Erdoğan’s first public comments on the situation. That was when he dismissed protesters as mere looters. And the destruction of private property only fortified his resolve not to bend to popular opinion. Again, is Erdoğan not aware that these “looters” are the very people who need to be supported in order to save our economy and keep it growing?

The demonstrations were mostly organized over Twitter. The Turkish media either ignored or downplayed the magnitude of the situation. (One exception was Halk TV, a nationalist channel that almost nobody had heard of before.)

There were more than 27.3 million tweets sent by 1.77 million people, with the hash tags #direngeziparki (“resist Gezi Park”) and #occupygezi trending worldwide only on June 1. This caused Erdoğan to criticize Twitter in a television interview with pro-government news channel Haberturk. “Right now, of course, there is this curse called Twitter. All forms of lies are there. This thing called social media is a curse on societies,” he said.

Perhaps Erdoğan is not aware that this free-of-charge “curse” boosts innovation in his own economy. The government’s allocation of $217.4 million to the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, the main body for coordinating national R&D activities, won’t go to waste.

Has the government not seen the map showing the location of the demonstrations, Wi-Fi hotspots, ad hoc emergency rooms and police posted by protesters? Have they not seen the quick-fire innovation and initiative involved in making those maps?

Children in Turkey have grown up heeding warnings from their parents, who kept their own heads down after 1980: Just go to school or work and avoid political trouble. Those kids became highly educated people with few pocks in their personal histories. But they are still afraid. When I teach, I see this fear surface as I try to get them to think creatively.

But there is hope. Those same students Erdoğan called looters have been on the streets this week, expressing their deep dissatisfaction with a society in which they have almost no stake.

Our hopes for our country and young people have slowly been eroded by keeping artists, political activists, radical scientists and journalists—what I called “unfavorable creatives” in the previous Quartz piece—under pressure; by squashing young people’s desires to express themselves; by things such as stricter regulations on the consumption of alcohol and intrusion in long-established women’s reproductive rights by a government; even censoring The Simpsons. But since the economy has been going so very well (for some at least), the government hasn’t needed those unfavorable types.

However, the AKP or similar governments in emerging markets should be aware that their growth models are limited in regards to their attitudes toward national policies and science and technology, law and intellectual property, democracy and government, ecology and the environment, arts and media. In other words, the AKP’s growth model has reached its limits and desperately needs those looters to continue. Just like Wall Street, Turkey has its own Occupy Gezi movement. Perhaps financial ratings firms want to increase Turkey’s investment grade on this basis alone.

I took a walk early Sunday morning to see the streets—tidy, thanks to the protesters’ cleaning campaign. Fresh graffiti from the previous night showed a creativity, humor and intellectual depth among those young “looters”—reflected in few other outlets here except for social media. Like many others, I see, for the first time, huge potential in this country if only it were set free. If this is how Turkey’s youthful imaginations work in the bitter fog of tear gas, just think what they could do if given the freedom to design their own society and economy.