The Halil Connection: The Story of Gezi Park

06/17/2013 07:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013

For the past two weeks Turkey has been experiencing what could best be described as a movement somewhere on the spectrum between "Occupy Wall Street" and the "Arab Spring."

The movement will not result in a popular revolution of the government, nor will it be remembered for achieving nothing but attention. Since Tuesday May 28th, when the Gezi Park movement started, over 4,300 people have been injured, 47 of them seriously, at least four people have died, protests and/or riots have broken out in 67 cities across the country, and thousands have flocked to Taksim Square to show their solidarity with the idea that Prime Minister Erdogan ought to resign or change his policy regarding Gezi Park.

Gezi Park is a small public park located just north of Taksim Square. Taksim is famous for its night-life and for its long streets with high buildings on each side, making it a perfect location for parades such as the annual New Year's Eve Parade, or in this case any large public demonstration. The actual word "Taksim" means division or distribution. It got this name because Sultan Mahmud I (r. 1730-1754) used the height of Taksim to collect water there, and then from there be dispersed accordingly. Gezi Park is located just north of Taksim, yet most of the clashes between the police and protestors have been in Taksim Square.

Gezi Park was once home to the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks, and it is these barracks Erdogan hoped to rebuild in Gezi Park, in addition to building a few new other buildings. The barracks were built in 1806 during the Ottoman period and were largely destroyed in 1909 in the confusion of the "Young Turks" revolution. The Barracks' namesake, Halil Pasha, although of no relation, shares the name with another famous Turk: Patrona Halil. Patrona was a hamam waiter who in 1730 led a revolt against Sultan Ahmed III and successfully replaced him with Mahmud I, the very same creator of "Taksim." It is ironic that the very same building meant to be rebuilt, and which started the protests, shares the name of a revolutionary who sacked the leader of, then-Turkey; replaced him with very the person from whom "Taksim" derives its name. Also since the objective of many protestors is to overthrow Erdogan, many can see themselves as "Patrona Halil's."

On May 28th, about 50 people stayed in Gezi Park to not allow the planned government construction to take place. The most likely reason is that they simply liked the public park, it is centrally located, and one of a few. Hence they did not want to see the park they cherished so much be converted into a shopping center, which was the original plan. Truth be told, there is a massive shopping center located only 30 minutes by bus from Taksim in Beşiktaş called Akmerkez (google it, it's huge). However, although these protests probably would have died out pretty soon, it was the way the police acted so aggressively towards them that moved thousands of other Turks to come to their aid. So what once started as a peaceful protest has sparked into a massive demonstration against the government all across Turkey.

Timur Kuran, himself a Turk, is Professor of Political Science at Duke University. He has, by far the best explanation of why massive social movements happen so quickly and without planning. In his journal article "Now out of Never" Kuran argues that everyone in society has a threshold at which they will rebel against the government. Usually this threshold is pretty high, which is why so few revolutions occur. However, if the government has done certain things to either lower the general standard, or if the original standard gets closer to being met, then revolution becomes more likely. Also, there will always be different people in society, and hence people with different thresholds. Thus 50 people may act over something so small as Gezi Park, and that was their threshold, yet when the police reacted so aggressively, more Turks met their threshold. Thus we should not be surprised that massive demonstrations occur so quickly, we should be surprised that we ourselves are so shocked when they do occur.

Erdogan and the AKP Party have done many things before this to make angry many Turks: Erdogan once said that democracy is "a train that takes you to your destination, and then you get off." Before becoming Bashar al-Assad's enemy, Erdogan referred to Assad as "my brother" when Assad accused him of giving support to the Syrian opposition. Turkey also has the most arrested journalists in the world: not China, North Korea, or even Russia. In 2004, his party tried to state-criminalize adultery. In 2009, Turkey was the only country to veto Rasmussen's rise to NATO's Secretary General on the grounds that he upheld freedom of the press with respect to the Danish Cartoons. And in 2011, all the top generals of Turkey resigned, en masse, because they could no longer influence policy they saw as going astray. The situation was ripe for massive demonstration, yet it did not have to happen, and again, it is being blown a bit out of proportion.

Erdogan is seeing that things are starting to get out of control which is why his party offered to let a popular, democratic, vote decide the fate of Gezi Park. However a spokesperson for the protestors responded, "We do not think that a referendum is the right way to go because we think that this park should remain as a park because it's our right, and rights should not be asked in a referendum."

Thus, the fate of Gezi Park and the protests remains unknown. Probably the next round of elections in Turkey will change the political arena. Erdogan, after winning election three times in a row, may not be so confident this time. What troubles me is the fate of both Patrona Halil and Halil Pasha: both were murdered.