Turkey's largest city was locked down on May 1 to prevent unauthorized rallies in the city center. Riot police violently dispersed groups defying the ban on public gatherings. Jacob Resneck reports from Istanbul.
Istanbul's streets were eerily quiet Friday morning after metro, train and bus services were suspended to prevent people from reaching Taksim Square. Groups of demonstrators aligned with trade unions and opposition parties defied the ban by gathering in districts run by opposition parties but were prevented from advancing by thousands of riot police pressed into service from around the country.
Standing on Besiktas Square among thousands of leftist demonstrators, 50-year-old Ali Hasimi lamented on the government ban on a public holiday.
"There's nothing wrong to have celebrations in Taksim. It's peaceful and everyone celebrates their holiday," Hasimi told DW. "Now it's forbidden all over Istanbul. We're surrounded by police and they don't let us enjoy our holiday – what a pity, what a stupid—I don't know what to say."
Despite the heavy police presence, a spirited crowd of at most 2,000 danced, sang and chanted anti-government slogans as opposition politicians tried to negotiate with officers to allow the group to march on Taksim Square.
It's become a familiar pattern with a predictable ending. Back in 2008, a coalition of trade unions applied to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to protest in Taksim on May Day. The court ruled in the trade union's favor in 2012 and said police interventions violated the right to peaceful assembly, a basic right in democratic societies.
No right to peaceful assembly
But for the past two years the Turkish government has ignored the court ruling, adopting a zero tolerance policy on unauthorized demonstrations. Taksim Square was the focal point of the 2013 Gezi Park uprising that saw the greatest challenge to the rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK Party faces an electoral challenge next month.
"Taksim Square is not suitable for rallies, as rallying in Taksim Square would mean paralyzing transportation in Istanbul," Erdogan said Friday afternoon.
What the president didn't mention was that it was his government's orders that had shut down public transport and paralyzed the city. Before the ban was in effect – as recently as 2012 – more than 100,000 people celebrated May Day on Taksim Square without major incidents of violence or vandalism.
Trade unions insist on commemorating May Day on Taksim Square because of a bloody event 37 years ago. At least 36 people were massacred in 1977 after unknown gunmen opened fire on the crowd from atop the high-rise Marmara Hotel, a dark memory of a turbulent past in which leftist and rightist party supporters openly clashed on public streets.
This year, the government allowed a few dozen from government-friendly trade unions to lay flowers early Friday morning in a tightly controlled event that was closed to the general public.
Standing on the square, Mustafa, a rank-and-file member of the Turk-Is metal workers union said a lot of his colleagues weren't interested in attending because of fears of violence.
"A lot of workers didn't want to sign up, they were afraid that something was going to happen," he told DW.
Trade unionists remain defiant
Meanwhile, a much larger group of trade unionists remained behind police barricades erected in the district of Besiktas, complaining they wanted to reach Taksim Square.
Nebile Irmak Cetin, an organizer with the far-left DISK trade union, says it's absurd to expect Turkey's workers to commemorate May Day anywhere other than Taksim.
"If you want to commemorate the victory at Gallipoli, you go to Gallipoli," she told DW. "For us, May Day is as important as Gallipoli and we commemorate it in Taksim. We aren't doing anything illegal and May Day is an official holiday."
After negotiations went nowhere riot police opened up – apparently without warning – on the crowd with water cannons, tear gas and plastic bullets. Men, women and children ran screaming for cover in a nearby café as demonstrators retaliated with rocks and bottles. Clashes continued on side streets in various quarters of the city as riot police played a game of cat-and-mouse with demonstrators holding out in resistance.
Hundreds detained, dozens injured
As dusk began to set on the city, Istanbul's governor released a statement that more than 203 people had been detained, 24 people had been reported injured, six of them police officers.
Analysts say Friday's clashes have harmed Turkey's credentials as an advanced democracy.
It was the first May Day in which police had strengthened powers under a controversial security bill that made it easier for police to use violence to enforce public order.
"Police in recent times have got to interpret the laws liberally and use coercive powers to disband public manifestations," observed Professor of Political Science Ilter Turan of Bilgi University in Istanbul. The use of heavy handed tactics to suppress peaceful street protests – despite the Turkish constitution guaranteeing freedom of assembly – is a black stain on the country's democratic credentials, Turan said.
"I think everyone is losing; there are no winners in this," Turan told DW. "Turkish democracy is losing, the Turkish government is losing, the demonstrators are suffering, Turkey's image in the world is losing; there are no winners."