TAKSIM SQUARE, FROM 1977 TO 2013 — Power of the Symbols

Soviet Eastern PolicyShort

Istanbul Taksim Square, where Gezi Park is located, has been a powerful symbol for the popular left resistance in Turkey since May Day 1977, when dozens of trade union activists, students and radicals were massacred by still unknown assailants. In the years following the dark days of the military dictatorship of the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of workers and students tried to enter the square on May Day as a symbolic gesture to the events of 1977. 

What happened on May Day 1977? 

Following its successful May Day celebration in 1976, the Revolutionary Confederation of Labour Unions (DISK) organized a May Day demonstration in the following year as well, to be held in Taksim Square in Istanbul.  On the day, very large numbers of demonstrators filled the square, and the crowds flowed into the surrounding area.  In Besiktas, hundreds of thousands of people had gathered in the early morning hours to march to the rally.  By the time the DISK General Chairman, Kemal Turkler, delivered his May Day speech, all the roads leading into the area were still full of people marching, and it was nearly 7 p.m. before the last contingents of almost one million people were able to reach the Taksim area.

The DISK Chairman was about to finish his speech when snipers on surrounding buildings started firing at the crowd. First there was stillness, and then a deadly pandemonium broke out and the crowd fled in panic.  People who had been lying in ambush inside buildings in the vicinity of the meeting area, in the Intercontinental Hotel – now the Marmara Istanbul- and in the Water Authority building rained bullets down on the crowd with automatic weapons.  As the gunfire spread, armored personnel carriers went into action and noise bombs and sound of automatic weapons suddenly turned the meeting area into a battlefield.  Thousands of people lay down where they were, while others running to escape were shoved into corners and crushed by the armored vehicles.  Then, automatic weapons fire from a white Renault was turned on thousands of people who were fleeing down Kazanci Yokusu, a street that intersects Taksim Square, while a truck parked in the middle of the narrow street blocked the road.  Those who were fleeing were squeezed together, piled up one on top of the other, and many of them either suffocated or were crushed. 

Altogether, 36 people died, hundreds were wounded, some seriously, and 453 were arrested.  While some said that the incident was a provocation by right-wing militants from Turkes’s Grey Wolves, carried out under the direction of the CIA-controlled Turkish contra guerilla organization, the police and the right-wing press advanced the idea that the incident had been sparked by pro-Chinese extreme leftists. 

Police charged 98 people arrested at random with responsibility for the massacre, but none of them were involved and all were acquitted.  While the judge called upon the authorities to renew the investigation and prosecute those responsible, successive military-dominated regimes suppressed the case.  On 7 May 1977, Bulent Ecevit, who was later to become Prime Minister, attracted little attention with his statement at a meeting in Izmir, where he offered, ‘The finger of the counter-guerillas was in the May Day incidents’. 

According to article 102 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), the case expired after 20 years, due to the statute of limitations.  Following the May Day massacre, noone was allowed to use Taksim Square for a May Day celebration, and May Day was no longer officially recognized as a holiday. After the 12 September 1980 military coup, May Day celebrations continued to be banned for eight years.  In 2010, the authorities opened the Taksim Square up for May Day demonstrations under tight security for the first time since 1977. But this past May Day, it was shut down again, and hundreds of thousands of trade union activists and other protesters were met with police violence when tried to enter the square.

Now it seems that 36 years after the tragic events of the May Day 1977, the Taksim Square has again ‘become a lightning conductor for all the grievances accumulated against’* the current regime, led by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Bulent Gokay, Keele                                                                           3 June 2013




* Richard Seymour, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/31/istanbul-park-protests-turkish-spring, 31 May 2013



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