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Urban Trees as Triggers, From Istanbul to Oregon

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http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/urban-trees-as-triggers-from-istanbul-to-oregon/

Urban Trees as Triggers, From Istanbul to Oregon

Tear Gas in Istanbul Park Protest

As street protests spread across Turkey following an initial clash between police and demonstrators over the imperiled sycamore trees of Gezi Park (a rare green patch in the sprawl of central Istanbul), I was reminded of “If a Tree Falls,” the fine Oscar-nominated documentary on the roots of the Earth Liberation Front (Dot Earth coverage).

In the film, several members of that radical environmental group, which was behind a spate of arson fires and other crimes, say they were provoked to violence by a June 1, 1997, confrontation with police over the destruction of trees in downtown Eugene, Ore.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed he is “open hearted to anyone with democratic demands,” but actions seem to be speaking louder than words.

I asked Marshall Curry, the film’s director, to weigh in on urban trees and activism. Read on for Curry’s “Your Dot” post, followed by an excerpt from a related piece by Carl Pope, the former executive director of the Sierra Club, which concludes, “There is something about a tree that should make an autocrat shiver.”

First, Marshall Curry:

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan says his government is going to push ahead with the destruction of a park in Istanbul, the site of so much conflict in recent days. But I wonder whether the long term results of that decision will be what he hopes? The escalating situation there reminds me of how a small protest over a local park in Oregon helped set off a five-year wave of multimillion-dollar arsons, carried out by the Earth Liberation Front.

The story of that protest is chronicled in “If a Tree Falls: a Story of the Liberation Front,” which played in theaters and aired on PBS and the BBC.

In the summer of 1997, the city of Eugene, Ore., announced plans to cut down dozens of “heritage trees” and turn a local park into a parking garage. Activists began mobilizing to save the trees, but as they prepared to take up the issue at the next city council meeting, the city suddenly announced that it would cut the trees one day before that public hearing.

Protesters moved into the park and climbed into the trees, hoping to hold off the cutting until the city council could meet. But the next morning, police were ordered in. They went from tree to tree in a cherry picker, unleashing pepper spray and tear gas on the protesters.

The footage from the scene is chilling: at one tree, a protester who refused to come down has his pant legs cut by the police, so that they could shoot pepper spray at his genitals, as he hung from a limb 40 feet up. People swarmed the park, knocking down fences, getting arrested, but in the end, all of the trees were cut.

According to one local activist, the event radicalized the protesters. “The argument that you needed to work within the system was pretty well dashed by what the cops did on that day,” he says.

And, as the film chronicles, a number of those embittered tree-sitters went on to become part of the Earth Liberation Front — a radical group responsible for scores of arsons targeting timber companies, horse slaughterhouses, SUV dealerships, and a $12-million ski lodge in Vail, Colo.

There are clearly differences between the protests in Turkey and the one that occurred in Oregon. But in both cases, a small demonstration about trees was met with extreme, inflexible force, which fanned the flames of protest and delegitimized the government.

The similarities were brought to mind this week because — in addition to being the third day of protest in Turkey — Tuesday was also the day that Daniel McGowan, the main subject of our film, ended his prison sentence for the ELF arsons he committed in 2001.

Since the film was released, I often hear from protesters and law-enforcement officials alike that “If a Tree Falls” is a powerful cautionary tale. The film presses activists to think carefully about the tactics they are using and to consider the ethics and effectiveness of their choices. And the film also encourages governments to think carefully about the way they respond to activists, because some reactions bring people into the democratic argument, and other reactions radicalize them.

In a Huffington Post essay — “What Is It About Trees?” — the environmentalist Carl Pope notes how the tug of war between citizens and authoritarian officials in Turkey echoes events that spawned substantial movements in other countries. Here’s an excerpt:

[A] look at similar situations should remind us that when public concerns about autocratic governments begin to bubble over, trees are surprisingly often the symbolic trigger that pulls communities into the streets.

The case closest to Turkey is probably Kenya, where efforts by government of President Daniel Arap Moi to privatize a park in downtown Nairobi led eventual Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangaari Matthei and her Green Belt Movement into protests which ended upblocking the project through international pressure. In the early days of glasnost and perestroika much of the burgeoning challenge to the Soviet system expressed itself through previously forbidden ecological activism….

You can read the rest here.

7:50 a.m. | Postscript | To get a sense of the size of Gezi Park, check this nice Gawker post by Reuben Fischer-Baum, which includes satellite images showing the park is very similar in dimensions to Washington Square Park in Manhattan.

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Written by vaphc

June 8, 2013 at 8:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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