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Silencing the Masses

Istanbul’s Shameful May Day

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

I was walking through the streets of Istanbul. Smoke and tear-gas bombs were exploding everywhere and people were running, pursued by police in riot gear. At a street corner I came across a street vendor selling Turkish sweets and stopped to speak to him. Finding it difficult to hear what he was saying, I leaned closer, putting my ear near his mouth. Suddenly someone grabbed him from behind and he fell at my feet, his throat slit open. Turning, I saw a dark-haired young woman in a purple dress muttering to herself, a bloody butcher’s knife in her hand. Then I woke up.

I lay for a while analysing my dream. It was May the first – International Workers’ Day. The mayhem in the streets was obviously inspired by my fear of what would happen that day in the centre of Istanbul. The Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan and the Governor of the city, Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, had stipulated that owing to construction work to pedestrianise the area, no celebrations of May Day would be permitted in Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square, despite major unions’ call for workers to congregate there. Mutlu said roads leading to Taksim would be out of service on May Day and that some 3,000 police would be brought in to provide security and prevent groups from marching to the square.

“We are saying our last word here; a rally will definitely not be allowed,” he said, although a short, wreath-laying ceremony would be permitted in the square to commemorate the dozens of demonstrators massacred by suspected right-wing extremist snipers at a rally on May Day in 1977. Since that day rallies had been banned in the square until the government permitted them again in 2010.

However, the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK) and the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK), dismissing the intransigence of the government, announced that they would hit the streets in an attempt to reach Taksim from the nearby districts of Sisli and Besiktas.

“Some unions are doing their best to turn May Day into a day of tension and clashes,” Prime Minister Erdogan said Leader of the opposition CHP party, Oguz Kaan, said that members would also participate in the rally.

“We will carry lemons so that if police use tear gas we will be able to help people. We hope this won’t be necessary,” he said. (Lemon juice helps to alleviate the burning effect of the gas on the eyes.)

As for the young woman ith the butcher’s knife in my dream, I guessed that she was a result of the darkly disturbing film ‘Stoker’ which I had watched in the cinema a couple of nights earlier.

I got up and performed my morning yoga ritual, ate my muesli breakfast, went to the toilet and had a wash, then sat on my little balcony overlooking the rooftops and narrow lanes of the run-down area of Tarlabasi where I live, with a coffee and a roll-up, watching the toing and froing of the many seagulls, swallows, crows, pigeons, doves and sparrows that populate the area, some still going about their nest-building.

Then I went back inside and online with my laptop. The meyhem I had seen in my dream had begun in earnest.

I learned that police, after insisting that the gathering was illegal and the group should disperse, had begun battling with crowds early in the morning with water cannon and tear gas in a bid to keep thousands of Turkish and Kurdish workers, trade unionists and other political groups away from Taksim Square. A group of 30 feminists, waving violet flags and shouting “all together against fascism,” was pushed back by police firing tear gas cannisters.

Citizens affected by the gas fled to apartments, but the thick clouds affected even those staying at home with windows closed. Even police officers and reporters using gas masks were affected by the immense quantities of gas used. Protestors built makeshift barricades using garbage containers and any other materials they could find on the streets, and some demonstrators responded by throwing stones and fireworks at the police. At least three protestors and a reporter had been injured during the crackdown and hospitalized. After being dispersed, demonstrators continued their attempts to gather again in the back alleys of Sisli, turning them into small war zones.

And then suddenly I was in the war zone myself. “PAT! PAT! PAT! PAT!” The almost constant nearby sound of police firing tear gas guns lured me back out onto the balcony, where smoke and vapour rose from some of the narrow streets, a helicopter roared and hovered overhead, brave people in small groups were marching and chanting and running from police attacks.

Soon it was lunchtime and I was hungry. It was time to go out and eat at the nearby cheap lokanta where I usually dine. The way was blocked by a police cordon, and I was instructed to take an alternative route. I crossed the usually busy highway, now carless and lined with metal mesh barriers, and managed to get to the restaurant. On the way police were everywhere, wearing protective armour and wielding long heavy black batons. While I ate I watched scenes of the chaos on the TV news, struck by one image of a young male protestor spreadeagled faceupward on the ground, unconscious or dead. I decided to see if I could manage to get on to Istiklal Caddessi, the main pedestrian avenue that leads to Taksim Square, and maybe even the square itself.

All the side streets along the way were blocked by the metal fences, but I headed for the trolley station (not operating) at Tunel, and managed to find myself on the usually busy, bustling thoroughfare, now empty apart from a few groups of bemused tourists and hundreds of police, dressed in black, some with fluorecent yellow jackets, all with the dangerous looking batons, most of them loitering in chatting groups or lolling in shop doorways, drinking glasses of tea.

I headed up towards Taksim trying to stay calm and look as inconspicuous as possible. Almost all the shops, restaurants, cafes and cinemas were closed and shuttered, but one ice cream shop was open and I bought a cone (banana and chocolate), and licked it as I progressed, aiding my guise of an innocent tourist. I saw a real tourist taking a picture of the deserted street and I followed suit with my cellphone, the contrast with the usual crowded river of pedestrians so incredible. It amused me to think of the huge amount of commercial trade that had been lost for the day, due to the government’s decision to ban the May Day meeting in Taksim.

Eventally the square was in sight, fenced off by the tall mesh fences, but there was a gap surrounded by police through which I saw one or two people passing through. I decided to risk it, and wow! I managed to walk through without question. There I was in the centre, the goal that thousands had been fighting to reach that day. I walked to the Ataturk memorial statue in the middle. There was no-one there but a cameraman and a female headscarfed reporter with a microphone. As I walked around the statue I heard her give her report.

“Taksim Square in central Istanbul is usually filled with hundreds of thousands of people, but today, May the first, it’s like a ghost town.”

My mission completed, I decided to try to go back home by another route, but the whole square and the roads off were blocked by barriers, so I had to return the way I had come. I succeeded without being stopped or questioned, but at one point I noticed a policeman step out and take a picture of me. At least he wasn’t firing a tear gas cannister.

Thousands of tear gas capsules were fired to stop demonstrators trying to march to Taksim Square on May Day. Various types were used – but none of it was produced locally. Capsules collected in Şişli district, which witnessed the fiercest clashes between police and demonstrators, were all imported. One fired with a gun was American made, while a similar one was from Brazil. A handgrenade-like capsule was produced in South Korea. This means that every year millions of dollars of Turkish taxpayers’ money is spent on importing tear gas.

The chairman of the trade union DİSK, Kani Beko said “These people did not deserve tear gas, they are the workers of this country. No other country threw tear gas at workers; they celebrated May Day in peace. Many of our friends have been hospitalized. I condemn this attack, this state terror against the workers.”

Şişli Mayor Mustafa Sarıgül said the tough measures, which included a lockdown on most transportation in the city, had produced “civilian martial law.”

But that’s what you get when you defy the wishes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the all powerful Sultan – I mean, Prime Minister – of Turkey.

Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website – http://yabanji.tripod.com/id21.html