Istanbul’s May Day Protests Really Quite Boring

MAY 3, 2009

If reading the news prompts you to suspect that the apocalypse is at hand, keep in mind that good news doesn’t sell and that journalists need to make a living. Editors prefer the headline PROTESTS MARRED BY VIOLENCE to the headline PROTESTS REALLY QUITE BORING. Sometimes, however, a boring protest is an important story. Istanbul’s May Day celebrations were generally peaceful and cheerful this year—for the first time since 1977, when 37 people were shot or trampled to death in Taksim Square, the city’s busy consumer center, helping pave the way for the 1980 military overthrow of Turkey’s civilian government. Nonetheless, if you read the news reports, you would have concluded that this year, too, Istanbul’s streets ran red with blood in an orgy of left-wing agitation and police brutality.

From 1977 until this year, the government tried to ban the celebrations, which celebrate the international labor movement and almost always descend into violence. Last year, for instance, the police were properly excoriated for gassing a hospital full of leukemia-stricken children and beating protesters senseless. But this year, the demonstrators threw carnations and sang while the police spent the better part of the day smoking, looking first worried and then tired, and asking me what I thought of President Obama. They arrested a handful of troublemakers, who succeeded in breaking a few shop windows. One cop tripped over a garbage can and hurt his leg. “Officials said 36 police officers were injured,” read the subsequent report from Reuters. I didn’t see how the other 35 injuries happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of them also ensued from clumsiness.

The absence of drama was worth reporting. The government finally did the right thing this year, taking a significant step toward permitting true freedom of assembly in Turkey while preserving public safety. The national assembly declared May Day a holiday. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan made unusually conciliatory speeches about brotherhood and solidarity. Most important, the government permitted demonstrators to gather at the site of the ’77 massacre, albeit in controlled numbers—a reasonable decision, since many of the deaths in the original incident had resulted from a stampede. The police had clearly been instructed to do nothing that would look embarrassing on the nightly news. The combination of goodwill, common sense, and planning worked. Everyone lost interest after a while and went home.

My reservations about Turkey’s governing party, the AKP, are considerable, but it deserves credit here. It won’t get it. Foreign media outlets generally aren’t sufficiently interested in Turkey to think it worth explaining a story whose newsworthiness resides in its historical context. Instead, the reports have screeched that the police used tear gas, that protesters rampaged, and that the day was “marred” by violence, as if Istanbul had been turned into a free-fire zone. In truth, journalists and curious spectators idled in the cafés, drank tea, and complained that May Day was much more exciting last year.

The cops did use pepper spray to disperse those demonstrators who were bent on mayhem, prompting a great deal of melodramatic coughing. But pepper spray, as opposed to the more noxious 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile tear gas, is a nuisance, not a brutality. It smells and feels as if someone is cooking with chilies, because that’s precisely what it’s made of. Gas masks make for great photos—very World War I!—but the protesters and journalists who made a great display of wearing them didn’t seem to need them when they paused for a cigarette. Considering the size of the crowds of trade unionists, communists, anarchists, and unwashed students—most of whom assembled peacefully, danced, made speeches, and then went home unharmed—the number of arrests was trivial. I’ve seen heavier-handed policing at Rolling Stones concerts.

So it was a good day for freedom of assembly in Turkey, and a good day for freedom of the press—and all the more so given the heat the AKP has deservedly taken in recent years for harassing the media. Where I was standing, the cop-to-journalist ratio was about three to one. The police were painfully aware that no matter what they did, journalists were determined to photograph and report it to make them look brutal. “Then we’ll get in trouble,” a young police officer said to me, fretting nervously under his heavy riot gear and clearly envisioning a punitive reassignment to some dismal Eastern Anatolian village. Likewise, if the protesters broke a window and the police failed to prevent it, he said, “We’ll get in trouble”—as they would, he went on, if the protesters managed to stampede and injure themselves. The police couldn’t win. They nonetheless made no attempt to prevent journalists from getting right into the middle of the demonstrations or taking photographs. I very much doubt that French or German police would have been so indulgent and cooperative. “You see we’re not bad,” another officer said to me plaintively. “We trained a lot for this day. But whatever we do, the Europeans will laugh at us.”

A handful of obviously coached protesters did their best to antagonize the police, throwing stones at them and then feigning injury when apprehended, shrieking “police brutality” for the cameras. For the most part, though, the demonstrators, also to their credit, were no more interested in conflict than the police.

When I returned home and saw how the day had been reported, I wondered if we had all been at the same event. (Some of us hadn’t: one wire service story was datelined PARIS.) “Istanbul was virtually shut down,” read an Agence France-Press photograph caption—failing to mention that this was because the government had declared the day a holiday. It’s something to keep in mind when reading similar stories of violence elsewhere in the news, not to mention reports of our imminent collective demise from swine flu. From the headlines, you would think that Istanbul on May Day looked like Gaza. That’s far enough from the truth to make one doubt that even Gaza looks like Gaza.

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