C was nice enough to invite me along with her to the May 1 Labor Day protests. Students and friends have been warning me to stay away from Taksim on May 1 for weeks, now. “Very dangerous,” they all assured me. There have been waves of small protests about this and that recently, (this is not a political blog) and I know some of them have ended or threatened to end in explosions and violence, so I thought a moment before I took her up on it. But I came here to experience Turkish culture, not hide in my apartment on an important holiday. So I woke up early on Monday and pulled on some clothes and fretted about what to bring or not bring. Lou once told me that if you’re going to a protest and there’s any chance you might be arrested, leave your license at home. They can’t charge you if they don’t know who you are and the worst that will happen is you’ll get a ticket for not having your i.d. Sound advice in Seattle, but I’m in Istanbul. Would I get in less or more trouble for not having my passport? I packed a bag with bottled water, my camera, my cell phone, and a color photocopy of my passport, (compromise) and took the metrobus to Mecediyeköy where people were organizing themselves and getting ready to march to Taksim.
The communists are coming! The communists are coming!
And so are the socialists!
But the cops are ready for them.
At around 9:30 the marchers took off,
and C and her boyfriend and I set off in the same direction. Because you couldn’t get into the square unless you were with a group, and because C’s chosen group was leaving from Şişhane, arriving from the other side, we walked until we found the white collar union, (they have a white collar union here, isn’t that crazy?) and slipped into their ranks. C’s boyfriend held a sign that said “Maximum Output= Maximum Exploitation!” and I put on a hat that identified me as a member of the bankers’ union.
And this was my view for a few blocks:
There were men marching ahead of us with drums, called the Red Drummers. There were communists ahead of us, socialists and anarchists somewhere. We passed actors’ unions and GLBTQ activists. C pointed out right wing unions to me, (they have right wing unions here, isn’t that CRAZY?!) and she and her boyfriend took turns telling me the history of this group and that group which all blurred into an indistinct, inexact muddle in in my head, (someone with a moustache kidnapped the US Ambassador? And then got shot? And then people formed a party? And then in the seventies a bunch of people got shot? And then people formed another party?) We marched along, people singing “Bir Mayıs!” sometimes and sometimes cheering and shouting things I didn’t understand,
and C said to me, “We used to carry lemons, for the police gas bombs.” I took in this information, wondering how lemons work against tear gas, and said casually, “But the police won’t throw gas bombs today, right?” “No! No! I don’t want you to be nervous,” she said. “We’re perfectly safe today.” “Oh, I’m not worried,” I said quickly. And she explained that until two years ago, the current government closed off Taksim Square on May 1, forbade people to protest there. “Taksim Square is very important, symbolic, you know, for Bir Mayıs,” she said. “So we would try to get in, to protest, and it used to be very dangerous. But two years ago they let people back into the square and now it’s very safe.” She went on to recount her years protesting the right to protest, the close calls with the police, the running through narrow alleys and the carrying of lemons. We passed a building where people were throwing fliers from the roof.
We went through a security checkpoint where we were frisked and our bags searched, and then we were in Taksim Square.
We found our way close to the center of the protest, where a large stage was set up, and a big screen alternately showing what was going on stage and panning the crowd. Oh my God, the crowd.
I attempted a panorama at one point, of my view in the crowd.
But really photos taken by a 5’4″ woman wearing flat shoes standing on the ground don’t do it justice. A half hour into the demonstrations a woman got onstage and announced that a million people had shown up for Bir Mayıs. What does one million people look like? Let’s consult google images.
Soon after we got there the speeches started, and of course they were in Turkish. “Crap,” I thought. “I forgot there would be speeches.” I fidgeted, and noticed my feet beginning to hurt. But there was so much to look at. So many people milling around. People were on the tops of the surrounding buildings, they were hanging out of windows. They hung like monkeys from the statue and crowded together on top of the balustrades surrounding the park. Young people, old people, middle aged people. There were even children, like this revolutionary baby:
I thought it was adorable and at the same time I wanted to scream at his parents to get that kid the fuck out of there! Too noisy! Too crowded!
There was too much for me to look at to be bored. And they played music in between speeches, and people danced and sang along. “These are revolutionary songs,” C said. “When I was in college, you could not play these songs in public squares. It was very dangerous. And now, they’re playing them in Taksim, on Bir Mayıs. It’s incredible.” She got a little teary.
I didn’t understand much of what was said, but she translated some of it for me. At one point they read the names of those who had died on a terrible Bir Mayıs in the ’70’s, and after every name every person in the square, with raised fist, shouted, “Here!’ It gave me chills.
There were some older women near us dancing. They looked so happy, and kept hugging after every song.
And there was an older man with them who wept as he sang along.
It was actually kind of a lonely feeling after a while. Everyone there knew the stories of the struggles that led to that day, to that huge peaceful protest, everyone knew the lyrics to the songs, could dance the halay dances, knew when to shake their fists and when to flash peace signs. I was lost. I have never felt more like a tourist in my life. But it was beautiful to watch. From the outside.
“This is my favorite May Day,” C said. “This is what you fought so hard for, huh?” I said. She nodded. “It is amazing to me,” I went on, “it’s just so miraculous that this is even happening. That there are a million people here, protesting, and that the government is letting it happen, and that there aren’t any conflicts with the police.” She nodded again. “Three years ago,” she said, “if you had told me that I would be in Taksim Square, listening to revolutionary songs, I would have told you you were crazy.” “It must be kind of like when Obama got elected,” I said. “Whatever you think of him now, it was a huge victory when it happened. We never thought it could, especially after eight years of Bush. And if you’d told me when I was 20 that there would be a black president before I turned 30, I would have told you you were crazy. But my god, that night he got elected- it was euphoric. We were all dancing in the streets, hugging, crying.” “That’s what last year was like,” she said. “The first year back in the square. It was- what’s the word? It was a victory.” “Look what you helped create,” I marveled, looking around.
At around three, (not that I was counting but I had been on my feet for six hours) the show ended with one or two last rousing rounds of “Bir Mayıs,” which will now be stuck in my head FOREVER, (but hey, if you only get to play a song one day a year I guess you should play it as often as possible) and the crowds all began to disperse. Again, miraculously, peacefully.
Which was when I noticed that Ataturk had a bib, which is both sacrilegious and hilarious.
We walked down Istiklal to go to the bar where we were to meet C’s friends, and there were cops blocking the side streets
but they looked calm, as half a million people all jacked up on triumph passed them, singing, “Bir Mayıs.”