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No police, no cry: May Day in Turkey

“All roads lead to Taksim” isn’t the most original phrase ever coined, but it’s certainly a maxim that holds true in Turkey, and especially İstanbul, with just a few weeks remaining until 1 May, International Workers’ Day.

Stefan Martens*

As the day approaches, members of the working class in other countries can be forgiven for being mostly preoccupied with protecting themselves from the May sun during the vast gatherings expected around the world, but their Turkish comrades will be busy with far more than packing hats against the elements or ensuring their organization’s cortege retains its shape; the checklist of the Turkish worker for this year’s May Day is likely to include one’s tear-gas repellent of choice, a scarf, running shoes, goggles and hardhat.

The reason is easy enough to guess: Turkish state authorities effectively operating at the beck and call of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have again refused to open Taksim Square, the country’s most important public space, to workers for May Day.


May Day 2013

The beating heart of European-side İstanbul, Taksim Square is a site of paramount importance for the country’s working class. Long before the name Taksim was flashed on TV screens around the world thanks to last year’s June Revolt, which was ignited by the irrepressibly neoliberal AKP’s ham-fisted attempt to cut down trees in Taksim Gezi Park to make way for İstanbul’s umpteenth shopping center, the square became etched into the minds of the country’s left after fascist elements within the deep state opened fire during May Day in 1977, killing at least 37. Thirty-seven years on, little light has been shed on the incident.

All celebrations of the holiday were banned in the wake of the 1980 military coup, and while authorities again began tolerating International Workers’ Day in 1992, marking the day in Taksim remained prohibited. Years of agitation on the part of the labor movement, however, bore fruit in 2009, as the AKP government was forced to declare the day a public holiday – albeit under the name “Labor and Solidarity Day.” The left’s victory was capped a year later when the government retreated in the face of workers’ demands, permitting the first celebration of May Day in Taksim Square since the coup.

The day drew hundreds of thousands of workers, and its peaceful, festival-like atmosphere categorically proved wrong the naysayers who had spent years shouting themselves hoarse that the celebration of May Day in Taksim Square would lead to tension, violence and injury.
After three years of peaceful May Day celebrations, though, the naysayers were perhaps finally proven right that 1 May in Taksim is a recipe for tumult, albeit with the addition of one important element: the police.

Peddling the myth that work to pedestrianize Taksim Square precluded the possibility of celebrating May Day in the space, İstanbul Gov. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu told workers’ organizations to mark the day somewhere else, while putting the city’s transit system under virtual lockdown to ensure no one could reach the square.

Delegating himself the task of protecting workers from the construction-related holes in Taksim Square, Gov. Mutlu unleashed his police forces on workers – for their own good, naturally – at points throughout the city in a bid to prevent any march on Taksim. Workers were gassed, soaked, clubbed and shot at by police, but not a few – retaining their command of irony to the end – thanked the city’s father figure for protecting them from the square’s holes of doom.

Fast-forward one year, and Gov. Mutlu has again banned celebrations of May Day in Taksim, this time not even troubling himself with the onerous task of providing a justification for the prohibition. The decision is no surprise, especially as the governor has spent most of the last year busying himself with closures of Gezi Park lest anyone deign to enter with even the slightest of political intent.

The Turkish left, however, remains adamant about celebrating the day in Taksim, particularly in the wake of the June Revolt, which resulted in the deaths of eight protesters and thousands of injuries.

Imbued with the spirit of Gezi and drawing inspiration from the eight who fell, as well as the martyrs of 1977, the Turkish left will set off on the road for Taksim on the morning of 1 May for one of the most important May Days in recent memory – ready for anything the state has to throw at them.


Working Women 2 Gezi Park

Stefan Martens; Journalist and member of DİSK/Basın-İş