Sunday, May 3, 2015

Long Live May Day! How the Turkish State Keeps the Spark Alive

*for Turkish version, which appeared in Diken, 2 May 2015, here is the link

A common argument among pro-AKP pundits and supporters, such as the Genc Siviller, is that even if Turkey’s road to a democracy has not been smooth, clearly the situation today is better than it was in the pre-AKP period. True, there are the facts that they can pull out of their hat, such as allowing Kurdish to be spoken in the public sphere, and the steps at bringing a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish conflict. However, the “before and after” argument seems nothing more than a farce with the AKP ruling as a sole party for over 12 years now.  

May 1, 2015. Besiktas. (picture from Internet, if this is your please contact me for recognition).

This year once again we were witness to the fact that the AKP will do its utmost to stomp out voices at all costs. Istanbul was placed under its annual May Day lockdown, with a ring of security forces blocking protesters from reaching Taksim square with teargas, batons, water-cannons, and even documented cases of people in civilian clothes taking to the streets to beat up potential protesters. If this is “progressive democracy,” it scares me to imagine what the alternative is, or what the future holds.

The irony is that the draconian measures put in place to block May Day protests, actually have kept the Workers’ Holiday alive to a great extent. Once a day of massive protest, throughout the world May Day celebrations have dwindled; while in other counties, leftists have worked to re-invent the meaning of the workers’ day in the post-Soviet era. However, in Turkey, May Day reserves a special meaning, due to the fact that the wounds the 1977 May Day Taksim massacre have never had the chance to heal, with continued government bans on meeting in Taksim.

New York Times, May 2 1977

When elected in 2002, the AKP was the party that promised to reverse those injustices, to heal the wounds of not only 1977, but the deep ones the 1980 coup d’état ushered in. The party’s sole leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even recognized this in 2011 when Taksim was officially opened to May Day events-then no struggle no battles were on the nightly news. Rather, what was on the news, were pictures of workers and protesters coming together for a day of song and speeches. Indeed, it was a beautiful day, promising hope for the future.

Peaceful Protests in 2011

If the AKP had allowed Taksim to be open the next year, and the one after that, it is likely today Turkey would have looked much different. What is clear is that the more the protesters have insisted on fighting for May Day, the harder the government hits back. In fact, one could argue that without the major lockdown on May Day 2013, there is a good chance that the country would have not seen the breakout of the June 2013 Gezi protests, as tension had been building.

In fact, following the 2013 May Day lockdown, I wrote that banning it “breathed life into a day that in most countries has become quite marginal. And while the majority of İstanbul's residents might remain indifferent to May Day, they were certainly angered by the closing of the city, the loss of wages and the clouds of tear gas that filled the air. Indeed, tear gas is often fired on protesters in public venues, causing general havoc.” This certainly holds true for yesterday as well.

Now pundits and analysts can argue over why the AKP changed their policy, why has Erdogan opted for polarization rather than reconciliation, and why the government has chosen brutal force to ban May Day over allowing protesters to meet in Taksim. However, it is clear that since 2012 there has been a continuing wave of oppression hitting the streets of Turkey, not to mention the security laws that have brought domestic and international condemnation. Indeed, the future looks bleak. 

In the meantime, and as long as the government continues to unjustly attack protesters, May Day will remain more relevant than ever in Turkey. Yesterday, from the other side of the Atlantic, as I watched the attack on protesters unfold in Turkey, a glimmer of hope struck inside of me. Despite the dangers, people did their best to fulfill their civic right of marching. 

Just hours after Turkish citizens marched, I found myself marching for justice in New York. Despite their differences, at that moment, Baltimore, Taksim, and Palestine, seemed closer than ever before, as the chant Long Live May Day rang out in my mind and heart (stay tuned for pictures of May 1 in New York. Coming soon!)

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