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Turkey clampdown recalls dark chapter

Use of water cannons, tear gas and pepper gas against May Day demonstrators in Istanbul brings back ghosts of 1977.
Last modified: 2 May 2013 00:21
Protesters threw stones at riot police as they tried to break through barricades to reach Taksim Square [Reuters]

Taksim Square is the buzzing centre of Turkey's Istanbul. On the first day of May, however, the entertainment district that never sleeps was stripped of its bright colours and plunged into quietness.

It was sealed off and blanketed by a blue wall of police with the greys of the metal barriers that, in a series of circles, expanded towards the outer city as defensive as the walls of the ancient Constantinople once were.

For May Day this year, a contingent of 22,000 police was on duty around Taksim Square, equipped with water cannons, tear gas and pepper gas. Their task was to prevent the entry of trade unions, workers, members of leftist parties and civilians who wanted to mark May Day on the spot where more 30 people died in a hail of bullets in 1977.

Many fought to break through. As in all battles, casualties were inevitable. The roll call for the day will read 22 injured, three of them in a critical condition. The wounded include members of the police force and opposition members of parliament. More than 70 people were detained.

The strategy to avert casualties was carefully planned and deemed a success by the governor of Istanbul, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, in a press conference on Wednesday. Key to the strategy to prevent any mass May Day rally in Taksim was for the city of more 15 million people be locked down, paralysing life and immobilising the potential threats by Istanbulians.

The city that proudly bridges Europe and Asia was no longer a passage but was at standstill. Even the waterway dividing Istanbul, normally only closed due to extreme weather conditions, saw traffic cease to flow on a sunny day. Public transport was stopped, ferries ordered back to port and roads blocked.

Memories of killings

May Day was commemorated by thousands on a location designated by the government on the Asian side of the city in the suburb of Kadikoy, a continent away from the European side's Taksim Square, where the memory of those who fell in the still unsolved killings of 1977 still lingers.

Those trying the break rows of barricades were described by Governor Mutlu as "marginal groups", though those same marginal groups had in fact marked May Day peacefully and with state permission for the past two years in Taksim Square - a brief intermission, it seems, in the ban imposed in the wake of the 1977 shootings.

This year, the government used ongoing road works as an excuse to reintroduce the ban on marking May Day in Taksim Square, saying public safety was their main concern. But were this the case, then the barriers used to close off the area could have been used to close off the construction site that so worried the government.

However, freeing Taksim Square of its bloody past was not possible this May 1. Under siege by security forces, beneath grey smoke, with the lingering peppery smell of the gas and hovering helicopters in the air, another ghost of Turkey’s past re-emerged in the memories of many Turks.

The scenes at Taksim on Wednesday reminded Turks once again of their dark era, the curfews of the 1980 coup d'etat. Caught by the muscle-flexing of the authorities, how could the Turks exorcise the ghosts of their past?