Bir Mayis, Istanbul

By Aydın Emre Osborne Dikerdem

Here in İstanbul the tension around May Day had been building all week. Each morning there was fresh graffiti calling for ‘Devrim’ (Revolution) or urging people to take Taksim Square. Posters from various political groups and parties were up everywhere. The warnings from everyone always began: ‘keep away from Taksim’, ‘stay off the streets’, ‘I hope you’re not going out tomorrow…’. Nobody really knew what to expect. Were demonstrators going to make it to Taksim in spite of Prime Minister Erdogan’s ban? How many people would turn up? How brutal would the police be? It was the first major action since the AKP (Justice and Development Party)’s election victories in March and it would be a signal of how much momentum was left over from last year’s Gezi Park uprisings.

Gonzo

I woke up early and headed straight up towards Şişhane metro station in an attempt to see how tight the police barricades around İstiklal were (İstiklal is like an Oxford Street that leads up to Taksim). The police presence was huge and the whole area was on total lockdown, with police fencing off every side street and alley. Realising there was no chance of getting through I walked down to Tophane and headed for Beşiktaş where I had been told protestors would be gathering.

There was an eerie feeling walking through the empty districts. Anyone who knows Istanbul is aware of how packed and noisy the streets are normally. The police had closed most major roads so traffic was restricted but it was also clear that people had decided to stay off the streets particularly around Taksim and Beşiktaş. There was a huge police presence all the way down to Dolmabaçe Caddesi and I saw the first TOMA of the day (a huge van with a ram on the front that has a water cannon on it filled with nasty chemicals, basically a giant can of pepper spray). It was purring up and down the empty road; for show more than anything I guess.

When I arrived at Beşiktaş I could just about see the crowd as it was cornered behind a line of police and a TOMA. There were speeches going on and I could make out a large group of CHP (Republican People’s Party) next to the TKP (Turkish Communist Party) supporters. This was the front of the demo and the back then spilled out into the alleys and shops of the area. There was music – Cem Karaca’s ‘Bir Mayis’ – and chanting like any other rally, except with copious amounts of police. Suddenly the mood turned, the speeches stopped and the crowd began to chant, some walking forward with their hands in the air… and then it all kicked off.

The TOMA took this peaceful but active change as a sign to begin spraying the crowd. In retaliation missiles were thrown at the police (bottles, stones etc). Then the shots and explosions began to ring out as tear gas canisters and rubber bullets were shot at the crowds who had now disappeared up into the back alleys of Beşiktaş. I was on the other side looking in, as were a few other protesters who began to shout abuse. I hid behind a bus stop as the shooting started. The TOMA then decided to head our way and start spraying us, for no conceivable reason, so we legged it. There were cops with paintball guns filled with rubber pellets shooting at people who were emerging from the alleys to throw things and a couple of police battalions had gone charging in after the protesters who had now disappeared from view deeper into the urban sprawl. As we were out in the open attention was drawn to us and we were shot at. This is when I decided to run from the safety of the ‘outside zone’, ostensibly not part of the main march, and into the alleys. This was fucking terrifying as there was tear gas everywhere and you had no idea whether you would turn a corner and find police or demonstrators. At one point we got stuck between the police coming from the right hand side and those who had already chased protesters up the streets. The little alleys, the tear gas and the loud bangs all around were pretty intense mostly because you felt very trapped. Your eyes suddenly feel very naked and fragile when there are rubber bullets flying around. One snippet of the video gives a sense of this, as we run across empty streets to get to the other side with the police shooting at the other end.

Emerging from the smoke I found the protesters recuperating from the first round up at Abbasağa Park. I say ‘emerging’, in reality you are flailing around gasping for air as you cry your eyes out. Tear gas is fucking horrible. It’s like drowning in tobasco. After sitting down and getting my breath back I realised I was now with the main body of protestors. There was music playing and everyone was putting lemon in their eyes and drinking water because of the burning from the gas. It seemed kind of chilled for a while with lots of people just hanging out in the park, but it turned out people further on were fighting and making ground up ahead.

Things started moving again as a large group of EHP (Proletarian Movement Party) supporters had fought their way down onto Barbaros Boulevard. Soon everyone was spilling down onto the street to begin building barricades. In the distance, down towards the sea, you could see people fighting police while teargas canisters were being shot at them. The further down you got the more teargas there was and so we had to retreat back up again. However the TOMA was lying in wait. As we waited for the charge from the front the police were suddenly coming from behind; and everybody began to run up the streets towards the park again as more canisters started flying. I could see there was a big squeeze ahead and that I would not make it up fast enough so I darted inside one of the buildings on the Boulevard and ran up the stairs as the police closed in.

Lots of other people came running in and then the doors were closed. We were stuck there for about and hour and a half as the police took back the street and chased people up the side roads. We ended up hiding in the under part of the roof of the building. Some climbed onto the roof (of what was a 9-10 storey building!) to check our situation, which was not great as there were swarms of police outside. We waited and waited quietly in the heat. Then someone in one of the apartments told us all to pile in as they could see the police outside were planning to storm the place. After waiting in the flat we decided to slowly filter out in groups of 4. The police by now had moved on up the street and though lots were left they were clearly just chilling in the sun. Pedestrians were walking about again so it seemed ok. I just walked out calmly past them and made my way up the street. I bought a simit and a bottle of water at the first Simitci I saw and wolfed it down.

As I walked up the street however the gunshots and bangs started to grow closer and closer and I could see the new police lines at the top of the Boulevard. Some protesters had taken control of an overpass and the police were steadily making their way up to it. I went on to the overpass and saw that someone had set fire to a bin, soon a barricade was being built. Then the shooting started again so I headed down a hill to the side streets parallel to the main road but was soon right in it again, having to run from gas canisters and seeing people getting drenched by the TOMA on the raised road. The police were slow though, and soon everyone was back at the overpass, breaking up the road and building barricades. On the overpass were protesters who had built firework guns to shoot at the police. Lots of people were arming up with rocks and bricks. As had happened before, while we all watched the clashes of police and a TOMA at the front line, another came from behind. Some of us jumped down a grassy knoll, but many got sprayed. Those who filtered down after were drenched; vomiting and retching and unable to breathe.

The TOMAs began patrolling the road, protestors would throw rocks from the banks and corners and then they would try and douse them. The police also began shelling the lower streets with tear gas canisters. At this point my phone was running out of battery and I was exhausted. I knew this was the wind down and those who stayed would be risking the snatch squads as they began to clear out the smaller streets. Lots of people began to filter back down towards Beşiktaş through the streets by Dünya Bariş Park. The streets were now normalish with people doing their shopping or just hanging out enjoying the day off work. Down in Beşiktaş the clean-up was underway with broken glass and pulled-up cobbles being swept into heaps. There was protest graffiti everywhere (especially the Beşiktaş Carşi!) and lots of tired looking police. It was quite surreal walking past baklava delicatessens and restaurants where people were shopping and eating knowing that only hours ago the place was like a war zone (and had the scars to show it).

I still wondered if anyone had made it to Taksim so on my way home I tried to get close but the place was still totally locked down and I couldn’t get onto İstiklal from any of the back streets. I texted a friend I knew would definitely be there if anyone was but he said he was heading home to rest. Taking Taksim was not going to happen this May Day. The city was pretty much back to normal now, the streets had re-opened and other than the routes to Taksim people were going about their business.

The Politics

This was an anti-government protest. There was a myriad of political groups involved, too many to name, from the rainbow Gay Rights to black clad Anarchists. What united them was anger at the government. Broadly speaking it was the ‘Left’ with a predominance of socialists and communists. It was violent and aggressive, and it had to be. Everyone knows the police do not mess around and that they would try and hurt protestors, so they fought back. Alongside homemade weapons like firework launchers (crude wooden guns strapped around with fireworks like a multi barrel) entire roadsides were dismantled for throwing ammunition and building barricades. At one point when hiding in a hallway I asked someone what was going on outside, they answered in English ‘the war’. The demonstrators really do feel that they are at war with the government, a government they see as corrupt, majoritarian and repressive.

There was also the neighbourhood element. The majority of people in this part of Beşiktaş were clearly supporters of the protestors, they let us hide in their buildings or they offered us water in the street or simply left buckets of water to wash our faces with if the gas was bad. I heard different stories about other neighbourhoods where the shopkeepers pulled knives on the trade unionists running from the police.

The lack of surveillance tactics was the most surprising difference for anyone familiar with demonstrations in the UK. After the student demonstrations at Millbank in 2010 the TSG had serious surveillance units with massive cameras as well as the usual vans. There is also the absurdly high use of CCTV in the UK comparative to most countries. As the most recent British riots illustrate (Bradford and 2011) this CCTV can be meticulously combed through leading to a huge number of arrests. In Britain we know that you can go to jail for throwing a flimsy piece of placard stick at a demo. Here the rules seemed completely different, you gave as good as you got and tried not to get physically captured or hurt. After that you went home. When I asked whether people who threw rocks would be filmed and rounded up they said no, it would be too many people! The protestors felt it was more likely you would go to jail for something you said or wrote rather than throwing a brick at the police (although undoubtedly you’d be in the shit if you got nabbed by an undy just after lobbing a brick, and would probably get your head kicked in too!). Post-London riots this was surprising for me. I think it’s more because there is a tradition of street clashes so the public are less horrified and outraged by it than they would be in Britain.

Video

I managed to get some footage of the day.

I only took my phone out and started filming when I was at the back and felt pretty safe so if you wanna find the crazy stuff look online. Unless you have a gas mask its pretty difficult to film because you’re crying and spluttering most of the time… or running…or hiding… or using both hands to cover your face and head from the shooting!

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