Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

The Infrastructure of Repression: Repression of Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 3, 2008

In my last post, I mentioned the planned May Day marches in Istanbul and the order given by the governor of Istanbul and surroundings at the behest of the country’s ruling pro-Islamic AK party to ban both the marches and the traditional May Day rally of labor unions and leftist parties at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the city’s traditional rallying point and largest open space and an iconic symbol of the Turkish republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk some 85 years ago.

The governor’s stated ratonale for the ban was the supposed threat of infiltration of the march by members of the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish national organization branded as terrorist by Turkey and other countries. The real issue, however, was the growing tension between Turkey’s secular and Islamic parties, most recently brought to a head by the government’s order to allow the wearing of women’s head-scarves symbolic of Islamic orthodoxy at the country’s universities and by the countermove by secularists to obtain a court order to disband the AK party and bar its leaders from politics on the grounds that they are committed to undermining the secularism that is the foundation of the Turkish constitution and state. To add fuel to the fire, the country’s prime minister, AK party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, condescendingly quipped last week that May Day should not be declared an official holiday because Turkish workers get enough time off as is. In fact, Turkish workers work far more hours each year for far less pay than their western counterparts.

The Infrastructure of Repression

To enforce the ban and prevent mass protests, the Turkish government bussed an army of police to Istanbul from throughout the country, stationing dozens of riot geared policemen at every street and alleyway leading to Taksim and to Istiqlal Caddesi, the main pedestrian artery that feeds into the square. Policemen carried truncheons, shields, automatic weapons, gas masks, and tear gas cannisters. Larger arteries were blocked by tank-mounted water cannons manned by police. In many neighborhoods, scores of policemen lounged on curbs and against walls, some dozing, seemingly tired from all-night bus rides into Istanbul from provincial towns. To nip the marches in the bud and to squelch anti-government protests, the police launched an early morning attack on union headquarters buildings in the neighborhood of Sisli, only a few kilometers from Taksim, assaulting union members with water-cannons and tear-gas barrages and beating with truncheons those who tried to flee. At least one union member was killed in the process. In their zeal, the police also gassed neighboring hospitals, forcing bewidered patients and staff to flee. Fortunately, there was no gunfire.

The Repression of Infrastructure

The transportation infrastructure that moves people and goods in and out and through Istanbul is as monumental as the great mosques that dot the hilled skyline of this 1,600-year-old city. Somewhere between 15 and 20 million people live and work in Istanbul and its suburbs and their daily movements to and from offices, factories, workshops, stores, and markets, both traditional and modern, is the medium that keeps the city alive. In Istanbul, the sound of movement is continuous and throbbing. Modern high-speed metros and trams, far less modern busses and jitneys, endless car and truck traffic, and the human muscle-power of load-bearing porters keep Istanbul moving.

Most characteristic of Istanbul’s transportation infrastructure are its ferries. Istanbul owes its might, prosperity, and attractiveness to its setting at the point where Europe meets Asia and where the waters of the Black Sea mingle with those of the Aegean and the Mediterranean. From the heights of the hills that constitute Istanbul, one looks down on vistas of water — the Bosporus, the Golden Horn, and the Marmara. From early morning until midnight, these waterways are crisscrossed by smoke-spouting white ferries leaving white foam in their wakes, and crossing each others’ bows with breathtaking confidence.

On the morning of May 1, Istanbul was strangely quiet. In neighborhoods near Taksim and Istiqlal, the streets were empty of pedestrians and moving autos both. On larger roadways, small clusters of passengers waited for trams and busses that never arrived. A glance seaward showed the Marmara and the Bosporus blue and silvery in the sunlight and uncharacteristically peaceful. A second glance revealed that something was amiss — not a single ferry nor moving ship was to be seen. Without warning, the core of Istanbul ‘s entire transportation infrastructure had come to a halt and all sea traffic had ended. The only sound to be heard was an occasional unfamiliar mechanical drone overhead, the sound of police helicopters circling in search of crowds and marchers.

The quickness and effectiveness of this shutdown of the infrastructure of urban movement of one of the world’s largest cities was alarmingly effective. By knowing exactly where the pressure points of urban movement are and how to pinch them, the government and police succeeded in isolating neighborhoods  from neighborhoods, halting the movement of people, and putting a pulsing, hyper-alive city into a state of near sleep.  Even the communications infrastructure of the present age — internet and mobile voice and sms — could not compensate for the atmosphere of isolation and the breakdown of information flows and of the ability to exercise the basic rights of citizenship that ensued when the infrastructure and freedom of physical movement, the most elementary components of cities and civilizations, were frozen.

For more on recent events in Istanbul see the website of the Turkish Daily News as well these specific articles chronicling outrage and media reactions in the wake of the events of May 1.


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