May Day in Istanbul

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This year, the Turkish government did their best to ban May Day in Istanbul by blocking off the traditional meeting ground of Taksim Square with layers of steel barricades and 39,000 riot police in the surrounding area. Last year, Taksim was also officially out of bounds but we had hopes this year that, post-Gezi and amid public anger at increasing government authoritarianism, protesters might succeed in pushing through to the square and exercising their constitutional right to protest there. The police presence proved overwhelming, although there were clashes elsewhere with a reported 40 people hospitalised and around 200 people detained. In the capital, Ankara, there were a reported 141 arrested, and their Taksim equivalent, Kızılay, was also blocked off. The authorities were thoroughly prepared for today’s events.

Below, I have copied Amnesty International’s press release condemning the police action today.

My personal experience started with an expedition with friends across Taksim Square and Gezi Park, which involved elaborate subterfuge. Pretending to be lost tourists, we asked at first to be allowed back to our hotel in Taksim Square, and were eventually ushered past the barricades by a group of frustrated police officers who became tired of fielding our questions. One of them, a plain-clothes officer with a gun tucked casually into the waistband of his jeans, kindly posed for a photo with us and attempted to explain the concept of May Day with hand gestures.

The square was empty and completely silent, lined with row upon row of barricades, bored-looking police and one lonely TV crew reporting in front of the emptiness. For an urban nucleus which usually teams with commuters, tourists, hawkers and traffic at all times of day and night, the silent space was surreal. From there, we made our way across Gezi Park – similarly deserted, with the odd clump of police picnicking and playing cards on the grass. Exactly two years ago, the park and square were full of people marching happily along, singing the usual May Day songs, enjoying their day off work. I do not remember a single incident – I do not even remember much of a police presence (the two are, by now, related). That was back when Taksim Square was a legal place to protest.

We made our way up Cumhurriyet Caddesi, which is the road leading from Taksim to Şişli, where we knew there had been clashes recently. Encountering people wearing hard hats and gas masks walking the other way, we learned that the clashes had moved to Beşiktaş. A friend of mine in the area told me that residents were taking in protesters fleeing the gas, and that police had started going into apartments to track them down, just as they had done during Gezi.

We arrived in Beşiktaş to find a strange kind of stand-off, in which lines of riot police faced football fans and ordinary protesters and street food sellers supplied both sides with refreshment. One was selling raw rhubarb from a cart. At one point, a Fenerbahçe fan lit a flare, and a little later fans joined hands, many of them holding up scarfs on which the faces of the dead Gezi victims were printed. The whole atmosphere, however, was somehow aimless and defeated. People were there to make a point, but the sheer number of police had dampened the Gezi spirit that had seen the same area overrun with protesters last year.

While we lingered, a jaunty May Day song blared out from some unseen speakers near the CHP offices in the square, over and over again, its rabble-rousing message at odds with the inaction. Moving away from the square, we discovered signs of previous clashes – pools of red water from the canons, the occasional canister, the odd pile of stones collected into a haphazard barricade, a bank with its windows and door smashed. Lingering tear gas made everyone splutter, including police. As evening approached, we made our way back towards Taksim along the sun-dappled Dolmabahçe road, which had a vaguely holiday feel, empty of traffic save for the odd opportunistic taxi.

Today made me wonder whether anything like Gezi would ever be possible again, at least under this government. Yes, there was evidence of the same defiance and anger from the public, but the government has learned its lessons from last year – there was no way Taksim Square could have been properly accessed given the police presence and barricades. Physical boundaries like that are important, and significantly affect public morale. Taksim is an important, symbolic place of traditional protest in Istanbul, and the government know that – hence the ban. They are taking no chances, and they certainly won’t take any notice of statements of condemnation such as the one below:

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL
PRESS RELEASE

1 May 2014

Turkey: Riot police in reprehensible crackdown on peaceful May Day protest

The use of tear gas and water cannon against peaceful protesters today by police in Istanbul is a reprehensible move to crack down on free expression and peaceful assembly, Amnesty International said.
Riot police sealed off the whole of central Istanbul near Taksim Square to ensure that no protesters made it to a peaceful demonstration planned there to mark May Day.

“A peaceful march this morning was cut off by a human wall of riot police blocking the main access road from Şişli into Taksim Square, the epicentre of last year’s Gezi Park protests,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey expert, who witnessed the events first-hand.

“In a repeat of the abusive tactics that have sadly become the Turkish authorities’ stock response to peaceful protests, tear gas and water cannon were fired to disperse the crowd assembled there. 

“Police sealed off the entire area, with one riot police officer on the roadblock remarking: ‘No people, no problems’. The Istanbul Governor had justified the ban on the grounds that it would disrupt traffic and tourism – then sealed off the area to everyone. What should have been a lively peaceful protest in the square has been denied – one more nail in the coffin of freedom of expression and assembly in Turkey.”

After several years of peaceful large-scale May Day celebrations in Taksim taking place with the approval of the Turkish authorities, in 2013 they refused to allow demonstrations to take place and police prevented and dispersed peaceful protesters with abusive force. This year, a reported 39,000 police officers and 50 water cannon trucks were drafted in as the authorities refused to allow demonstrations to take place.

With scant warning, police today used tear gas and water cannon against a crowd of several thousand people peacefully assembled close to the DÝSK union confederation building in the Şişli district. The scene was a carbon copy of the abusive force against trade unionists in 2008, found by the European Court of Human rights to violate their right to peaceful protest in the case of Disk and Kesk vs. Turkey.

On occasions when the authorities have allowed May Day rallies to take place in Taksim Square, they have passed peacefully and without injuries or damage to property. On occasions where the authorities have refused permission for Taksim May Day rallies to take place, they have resulted in the use of abusive force by police against demonstrators, injuries and major disruption across the city. This year has proved to be no different.”

Photo above via Selin Asker for Reuters