#WeAreNotSlaves! An Intersectional Analysis of Class and Ethnicity in the Istanbul Airport Resistance

Ay§e Serdar


On 29 May 2017, at the building site of Istanbul Airport, planned to be the biggest in the world, 1,453 trucks paraded to commemorate the 1453 conquest of Istanbul. Yusuf Ak^ayoglu, then CEO of Istanbul Grand Airport (IGA), the consortium undertaking the public-private partnership project, drew parallels between the conquest of Istanbul and the building of the new airport:

akin to the conquest spirit which marked the end of an era and initiated a new one, we have always been a nation that demonstrated what we can achieve as long as we stand as one. Holding on to the same spirit, we are exerting a full-fledged effort in order to put into life the Istanbul New Airport, a project that the whole world is watching closely... We are proud to prove the world our power by crowning the name of our country thanks to the loyalty and sacrifice of our employees in this project. When completed, Istanbul New Airport will surely close an era in the aviation history and kick off a whole new period (IGA n.d.a, emphasis added).

The parade was presented as an allegory of the airport project’s ideological and political end, rooted in sacrifice and loyalty with a nationally unifying mission. The parade symbolized a ‘re-conquest’ of the city, a territorial expansion, a victory, a battle won against the enemies. At the ground-breaking ceremony in 2014, Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader and then-prime minister (now president), Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already described the project not only as an airport, but also as a ‘monument of triumph' that would boost ‘the nation’s selfconfidence’, which had been lost under previous governments (IGA n.d.b). It was described as a national source of glory of which every Turkish citizen should be proud.

The airport project aspired to make Istanbul a centre, a global hub at the ‘meeting point of five continents, at the crossroads of East and West’

(IGA n.d.b). This new global hub is in Istanbul’s north-western forest lands. In one respect, the project expands the territorial reaches of the mega-city. To transform Istanbul into a global centre, its rural, green hinterland had to be cleared. The project was criticized by environmentalists, urban planners and citizens for its inappropriate location, as it hosts a special nature reserve, and expert opinion is that the characteristics of the ground and the local climate are hazardous for aviation safety. It was argued that the project would displace and irreversibly destroy the local ecosystem, peasant communities, forest land, water basins, seashores, endemic species, wild animals and migrating birds.1

In stark contrast to the imagery of progress, development and global centredness creating national pride, following the launch of the construction in 2014, the building site became infamous for a lack of safety and gruelling working conditions. The frenzied pace of construction caused a disputed number of work-related deaths. This culminated in September 2018 in a spontaneous walkout and protest by thousands of construction workers on the site. They shouted ‘we are not slaves’, which soon became a slogan identified with the airport resistance. The narratives built around the meaning of the airport and the resistance clashed with each other. After midnight on the day following the protest, according to official numbers, 401 construction workers were detained, and in subsequent days 61 workers were sued, 31 of whom spent up to 78 days in jail prior to their trials. The resistance was brought under control through mass detention, securitization and criminalization of workers’ mobilization.

In this study, I argue that the everyday organizing of the airport project was performed through intersecting domination and oppression under a neoliberal authoritarian mode of governance. Criminalizing the workers’ resistance was a crystallization of these intersecting acts of domination and oppression. Securitization and criminalization of the resistance was enabled by intersecting means of oppression, particularly, but not exclusively, embedded in the context of the Kurdish question in Turkey, since the majority of construction workers were Kurds, an unofficial ethnic minority group in Turkey. Therefore, I suggest that the dynamics of racialized neoliberal exploitation cannot be fully grasped unless intersecting aspects of the workers’ subordination are examined, and particularly the politically-driven ethnic dimension. By using an intersectional framework, it is possible to avoid class-only or race/ethnicity-only explanations (McCall 2005), and to better investigate the mechanisms of global capitalism in temporally- and spatially-specific configurations that deploy context-specific technologies to control, discipline and police intersecting social divisions.

This study draws on both primary and secondary resources, with an extensive examination of all news posted about the Istanbul Airport project on the digital websites of independent Turkish newspapers and news websites since the beginning of the project in 2011. I drew particularly on the Evrensel, Cumhuriyet and Birgiiu newspapers’ digital editions, and Bianefs online news website. I conducted seven in-depth semi-structured interviews in February and March 2020 with interviewees who were all defendants in the ongoing criminal case concerning the airport resistance. Six had spent more than two months in jail under pre-trial arrest, and one had been released on probation. Three were construction trade unionists (from Dev-Yapi-i$ and ln$aat-/j unions), and the other four were young labourers who had worked on the airport’s building site before the resistance. All interviewees were male.

In the remainder of this paper, I explain why an intersectional approach is methodologically and ethically more suited to understanding multiple oppressions. I then identify the basic characteristics of Turkey’s neoliberal authoritarianism and construction-based growth model, and present an intersectionally framed analysis of Istanbul Airport. This includes the background to the project, the work site as a securitized space and working life as a racialized and precarious experience, and some aspects of racialized Kurdish labour. I also present a chronology of the resistance, and analyze intersecting dominations deployed during the detentions and criminal investigation, and intersectional oppressions of workers as racialized Kurdish migrant labourers.

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