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Monday 17 June 2013

Direngezi - a report from our trade union delegation to Istanbul

Banner in Gezi Park
The brutal invasion of Gezi Park by police on the night of June 15th, the eighteenth day of its occupation, will be remembered as a significant event in the growth of resistance to the authoritarian rule of Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP Government. 

Erdogan sent in the police to demonstrate to his opponents – and his supporters alike – that he was still the master of Istanbul and the Turkish state. However, while he can use bulldozers and tear-gas to clear Gezi Park, he will not be able to sweep the growing hatred of his oppressive regime from the minds of increasing numbers of Turkish workers and youth.  

UPDATE: For a printable .pdf of this report, go to:
My video footage of the festival atmosphere in Gezi Park and the angry response that followed the police attack:  plus a link to the report in Sunday's 'Observer' newspaper:

Meeting with HDK MPs
I was in Istanbul as one of a delegation of five trade unionists who had flown from London as part of an international visit, along with delegations from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, organised by EMEP, the Party of Labour. It included Steve Hedley, Assistant General Secretary of the RMT union, together with two other RMT Executive members. 

As originally planned, we were able to attend a meeting convened at our hotel to discuss with the General Secretaries of both of the two main left trade union federations, KESK and DISK. A further meeting was arranged to hear from elected MPs of the HDK coalition of left parties, including those from both Turkish and Kurdish roots.

Steve Hedley (RMT) and Turkish Airlines strikers
I also had the opportunity to leave my NUT flag with Turkish Airlines pickets, already on strike for over a month in defence of trade union rights and to demand the reinstatement of sacked colleagues from their union Hava-Is. This is a dispute which, just in itself, was worthy of a visit to Istanbul in order to develop international solidarity and support from other trade unions across the world.

However, it was Erdogan’s decision to move in the police to crush the Gezi Park occupation that made sure that our visit will not be forgotten by any of the delegations. Our hotel, on a side-street just a few yards from Taksim, turned out to be just on the perimeter of a wall of police, tear-gas and water-cannon thrown around the square. 

Gezi Park just hours before the police attack
Arriving in the early hours of Saturday morning, we had gone straight to Gezi Park, situated just to one side of Taksim Square, to look around. This small wooded park was filled with tents, stalls and sleeping occupiers, a scene that would be familiar to anyone who has visited an Occupy event in many other cities. It had become a forum for debate and discussion between people from a range of backgrounds and traditions.

The stores of gas-masks, fire-extinguishers and medical supplies gave the only indication that this occupation was facing a significant threat of violent police attack. After all, at least three people had already died in the face of police brutality across Turkey in the previous fortnight.

3 am in Gezi Park
Chatting to a young woman, a member of Day-Mer, the Turkish/Kurdish community group in London that had invited me to take part in the delegation, it was clear that the occupiers’ grievances were about a lot more than protecting Gezi Park’s trees from destruction.

She explained how, like many other young women, she saw Erdogan threatening culture, personal freedom and her rights as a woman in particular. Theatres, cinemas and any media outlet critical of the AKP faced harassment and threats of closure. Rights to abortion were being abolished with Erdogan insisting that women should expect to bear at least three children.

Delegation meets with KESK
We learned more about the threats to trade unionists in particular in the discussions that took place on Saturday morning. Both the leaders of DISK and KESK explained how Erdogan’s authoritarian style of Government was alienating increasing sections of the population, with the Gezi Park struggle acting as a catalyst to bring together different groups with a range of grievances and demands.

Education was being threatened by having Islamic theology imposed on the curriculum, health services were facing privatisation, trade unions fighting for improved wages and working conditions and for the right to freely organise. 

DISK banner in Gezi Park
The DISK GS explained how they had been represented alongside other groups on the Taksim Resistance committee for over a year now. DISK was trying to integrate the demands of the Gezi protestors with the wider demands of the trade union movement. In answer to my question, the KESK GS made clear that, if the police were to move on the park, the federation would respond by calling a national strike. I am glad to report that KESK has kept that promise and, as a separate blogpost indicates, , will also be joined by DISK in that action.

At the concert on Saturday evening
On Friday night, with many occupiers clearly exhausted by 17 days of occupation, and with no obvious stewarding of the perimeter, it seemed to us that Gezi Park was vulnerable to police attack. However, returning on a sunny Saturday evening, with the park packed with thousands of trade unionists, local residents and families, it was hard to imagine that any Prime Minister could order police to attack in the way that Erdogan seems to have done.

Nevertheless, it was clear that, with Erdogan planning to hold a mass rally of his supporters on the outskirts of in Istanbul on Sunday, the stage was set for a possible confrontation. Few in the Park seemed to be aware of the specific threat to the occupiers that had been made by Erdogan at his rally in Ankara that afternoon. 

Zulfu Livaneli
Unaware of the events that were about to unfold, the Park was in a festival mood on Saturday night. Trade unionists were standing with flags among the crowd in front of the stage where striking transport workers addressed the Park, followed by speeches from DISK speakers commemorating the uprising of 15/16 June 1970, when hundreds of thousands of workers had taken to the streets of Istanbul. A concert by well-known singer Zulfu Livaneli followed with both old and young singing along to the music. Soon, these crowds would face a terrifying assault.

To the later relief of our partners and friends, our delegation decided to take a break from touring around the different trade union and party stalls in the park. Instead, we left to grab a bite to eat in a nearby restaurant so we could discuss further with a DISK organiser about how a strike movement could be extended to workers beyond the two left-wing federations. 

Facing the TOMA water cannon
Soon after our food arrived, the DISK organiser received a call on his mobile. The police had just made an ultimatum that everyone had to leave Gezi Park. Soon after, as people fled past our windows away from Taksim Square, and the waiters rushed to close the doors before choking chemicals could drift in, we knew the police attack was underway.

As we later found out from other delegations who had remained there, police first fired tear gas bombs into the air right across the park, then attacked to drive people out into the surrounding streets on the opposite side of Taksim from where we had gone. Police reportedly even chased protestors into the Divan Hotel, firing choking water cannon through its doors.

In the restaurant, the colleague from DISK had been explaining how Erdogan had hoped that he had struck a deal with the Taksim Resistance committee that would buy him time to prepare for a promised ‘referendum’ over the future of this remaining piece of greenery in the heart of Istanbul. However, Erdogan had reportedly become enraged when a DISK representative had pointed out that the protests were no longer just about trees but about wider social issues. Nevertheless, in order to gain time to consolidate and build the movement, the Taksim Resistance committee had apparently reached the conclusion that they would make an offer to Erdogan that they would just maintain a token presence in the park while discussions continued. The police attack put an end to any such negotiation. 

Choking fumes on Istiklal
We headed out into Istiklal street, the main pedestrianised road leading up to Taksim Square. It was already thronged by thousands, soon to become perhaps tens of thousands, of people who flooded into the streets to demonstrate their anger and defiance. Between us and the square stood lines of riot police and a threatening white ‘TOMA’ vehicle armed with a powerful water-cannon.

Seasoned protestors came with gas masks and a hard-hat, others wore swimming goggles or scarves as protection. Youth banged the shutters of the shops lining the streets. Protestors chanted and shouted, rising to a loud cat-call when the noise of the pumps of the TOMA vehicle could be heard, meaning its water-cannon was about to fire down on us. 

Defiance on the edge of Taksim Square
Basing our expectations on British media reports of tear-gas and pepper-spray, it took all of us time to realise that the choking fumes and burning skin were coming from the water from the TOMA. A soaking from this chemical spray left protestors clutching for air and ready to vomit. Crowds parted every now and again to allow the injured to be rushed away.

The RMT flag was unfurled amid the chanting crowds while I managed to grab a chance to give some interviews over the noise in response to some calls that I was receiving from Britain, including ‘The Observer’.

With phone batteries dead, we made our way back to our hotel through the back-streets to pause and get a change of clothes. The protests in our area subsided for a while until a group of working-class youth marched into the neighbourhood chanting and waving football scarves. They set straight to work ripping down some metal sheeting to form a mobile barricade from behind which they could shout at the police above them on the Square. 

Tear gas fired down from Taksim
Some taunted police with a song that, roughly translated, calls on them to put down their shields and helmets, to then see who would win the fight. This time the noise of the exploding tear-gas shell could be heard as police fired at them down the hill. The skirmish ended although battles reportedly raged in other parts of the city with many tens of thousands taking to the streets.

By Sunday morning, Taksim was quiet, protected by a line of police that was turning anyone away, even the elderly, who needed to cross the square. With the RMT delegation having returned to London to join a protest rally in Trafalgar Square, I joined the other international delegations in a taxi ride to the studio of the Hayat TV channel, one of the few who had been prepared to broadcast the protest movement. Most of the big channels had tried to pretend it wasn’t happening and had just broadcast shows on cooking, penguins and soap operas! It had just fought-off an attempt to revoke its broadcasting licence, an attack which had been seen as an act of political victimisation by Erdogan’s regime. 

Tear gas on Sunday afternoon
We then held our own Press Conference back at our hotel. I was able to explain my view that, under the guise of defending ‘religion’ and ‘traditional values’, the AKP were, in reality, seeking to attack every worker through cuts, privatisation and attacks on personal freedoms and freedom of the press. The movement now needed to organise, extending and co-ordinating committees across the country. A key role fell to the trade union movement to use the power of collective strike action. I congratulated KESK for its decision to strike (now joined by DISK as well) and pledged that we would use our visit to publicise and explain the struggles of Turkish trade unionists and youth. 

Water cannon and police seal off top of Istiklal street
I walked with a colleague from Day-Mer to attend one last meeting, a Press Conference where the Taksim Resistance committee was going to call for further mobilisations around Taksim that afternoon. However, perhaps to disrupt that meeting, the police started to attack protestors in broad daylight.

Early on a Sunday afternoon, with locals and tourists running for cover, the riot police were again firing tear-gas and the TOMA letting out their torrents of chemical spray. Indeed, if the British and American governments are really concerned about the use of chemical weaponry, perhaps they could start by pressurising their ally Erdogan to stop spraying acidic chemicals on its people. 

An Erdogan battle-bus near the AKP rally
After coming face-to-face with the riot police, we managed to find our way out to a passing taxi and get away to the airport for the flight back to London. On the way we passed a AKP bus headed for Erdogan’s rally on the road out to the airport. It was a concrete display of the polarisation in Turkey between the two sections massed in different parts of the city. 

The trade union movement has to organise to undercut Erdogan’s support by explaining that his Government represents the interests of a wealthy few, while it is the trade unions and Left parties, acting to defend ordinary people’s rights and livelihoods, that can help build a movement, and a society, that acts in the interests of the millions, not the millionaires.


In London: outside the Turkish Embassy, 43 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8PA:
The ITF (International Transport Workers' Federation), IUF (International Union of Food workers) and UK unions, the TUC, UNITE, RMT, PCS and NUT amongst others, are joining forces with the Taksim Solidarity Committee to demonstrate outside the Turkish Embassy in London against the ongoing oppression of protestors in Taksim Square and throughout Turkey.

The demo will coincide with other actions going on around the world. Get more info:

Email protests to the addresses below, demanding the Turkish authorities stop the repression:
The Turkish Republic, Prime Ministry
Tel: +90 312 422 10 00
Fax: +90 312 422 18 99

Mayor of Istanbul
Tel: +90 212 204555953

Turkish Consulate in London
Tel: 020 7591 6900
Fax 020 7591 6911



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