International Worker’s Day on May 1st is a worldwide labour movement across 80 countries celebrating workers and their rights. For many it’s a call to action, marked by peaceful rallies and community celebrations. For others, it’s a show of defiance.
Turkey is no exception to the rule, and in the heart of Istanbul May Day marks a struggle between unions and the increasingly strict political system. After the events on May 1 in 1977, when unidentified gunmen opened fire on a crowd of more than 500,000 in which 36 people died, Taksim Square remained closed to celebrations until 2010.
This year the government once again put a ban on any celebrations from taking place in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, citing intelligence reports of a potential presence of terrorist related organisations. In spite of the ban, and in exercising their right to celebrate on May Day, Turkey’s major unions insisted on continuing their rallies there.
Pre May Day
With the ban being seen as irrational, protests took place before May 1st, appealing to the court to lift the ban. It was later rejected. I arrived in Istanbul a week before May Day where riot police and riot vans were already stationed in Taksim Square, a dominating force against the very small groups of protesters.
Two days before May Day and life in the Taksim Square continued as normal against the sporadic scattering of police fences.
What appeared calm and normal soon escalated into sporadic riots. Neighbourhood junctions were blockaded, with many frustrated tourists left trapped and bewildered. Elsewhere, groups of police dominated the main roads trying to determine what part of neighbourhood the protesters were moving through.
We came across one group of around 50 protesters, dressed in red masks and hard hats, with the ‘leaders’ amongst them armed with gas masks and catapults. What followed was a clash of fire crackers and Molotov Cocktails vs. the firing of tear gas.
Who fired at who first was hard to tell since the breakouts were quickly clocked in smoke. My initial thoughts were that this was about more than just a group of people wanting to celebrate May Day in Taksim Square and hitting out against the ban. Many of the protesters were young, some still in their teens, and it appeared a mob mentality was easily stirred and that violence was on the agenda no matter what.
On the other hand, police seemed gung-ho in how they approached the protesters and where they fired their weapons, injuring innocent people in the process and gassing out local business (where locals and tourists like myself took cover).
Elsewhere in Istanbul, celebrations have been taking place with public concerts and picnics stretching all the way to the Asia side. Unfortunately, I was unable to get out of the Taksim area to experience such festivities, instead being caged within the heart of this incredible city against my own will, the act of which, in principle, will no doubt always remain at the core of this annual conflict.