Turkey’s May Day

TW: violence against protesters, class inequality, 1980 Turkish coup, 1977 Taksim Square massacre

In light of what I’ve written about previously as being part of the political situation in Turkey, the government’s response to May Day protests in İstanbul suggests just how much of a pitfall it is to have broad political reforms without constitutional backing. As others have reported, May Day has unique significance in Turkey, where it is also the anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1977. As a result of that date holding such importance for activists in Turkey, the undemocratic government in 1980 banned protests on May 1 in İstanbul’s Taksim Square, a restriction which was only just lifted in 2010.

Without a right to protest or free speech terribly well protected within the current constitution, the right to protest in that place on this day has seemed a fragile privilege, which the government could easily re-revoke. That’s precisely what the explanation that Turkish protesters wouldn’t be permitted to use the square this year, because of a distant construction project, was read as by many activists – an excuse to strip people of their right to participate in arguably the symbol of protest and freedom in Turkey.

There was a bit of immovable object meeting up with an irresistible force, today in Turkey.

(Electrical engineer union members walked into the neighborhood of the Taksim Square in protest of both the government’s protest policies as well as the economic conditions in the country. From here.)

This is actually something an established tendency in protest. While what initially motivates mass protest are often economic concerns (the bread and butter of May Day protests), movements in many countries become fixated on how the political process isolates, trivializes, and undermines their protests. Turkish protesters at the moment seem to be doing quite well at balancing both sides of the issue – why they want to go out in the street in the first place and how disastrous it is for their country that there’s restrictions placed on even that.

That said, there are limits to what they can accomplish with their protests – so it would be useful to consider in the days ahead, not only whether Turkish mass movements can enact change, but whether they’ll prioritize the immediate reforms that so far have only watered down the problem or systemic changes (namely to the constitution) that haven’t yet been enacted in the country.

(Water canons and tear gas were used to clear the protesters of Taksim and the surrounding area, from here.)

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