Turkey police arrest 210 at Istanbul May Day protests

Authorities deployed more than 40,000 police officers across the city after banning protests in Taksim Square.

Police in Istanbul have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who tried to break through a barricade to reach the city’s Taksim Square in defiance of a ban on May Day rallies.

Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said 210 people were arrested on Wednesday.

More than 40,000 police were deployed across the city, blocking even small side streets with metal barriers after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on the eve of May Day that the annual protests would not be allowed to take place in the square.

Tall metal barriers were put up around the square – a traditional focal point of protests in Istanbul, where authorities have banned rallies since 2013, when it was the focus of demonstrations against Erdogan’s government.

On X, Yerlik said that “210 people were detained in Istanbul after failure to heed our warnings and attempting to walk to the Taksim Square and attack our police officers on May 1 Labour and Solidarity Day.”

Police clashed with demonstrators near city hall in the Sarachane district, firing tear gas and rubber bullets to stop protesters from breaching barricades, the AFP news agency reported.

“We have demonstrated our will to celebrate May Day at Taksim Square. We have legal grounds,” Arzu Cerkezoglu, secretary general of the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), told AFP.

“Taksim is an important symbol for us. Taksim means May Day, Taksim means labour,” she said.

A labor union member holds flowers in front of the Victory Monument which is banned and closed for those who want to celebrate May Day at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey May 1, 2024. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
A labour union member holds flowers in front of the Victory Monument, which has been closed to those who want to celebrate May Day at Taksim Square in Istanbul [file: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

In 2023, Turkey’s top constitutional court ruled that the closure of Taksim Square for protests was a violation of citizens’ rights. The square was a rallying ground for May Day celebrations until 1977, when at least 34 people were killed during demonstrations. Authorities opened it up again in 2010, but it was shut again after the 2013 protests.

City locked down

Main roads across Istanbul were closed to traffic while public transport including ferries and subway trains was halted because of the security clampdown. Landmarks such as the Topkapi Palace were cordoned off.

On Monday, Yerlikaya said Taksim would be out of bounds for rallies to stop “terrorist organisations” from using it for “propaganda”.

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and unions had pressed the government to open the square for labour rallies, but Erdogan warned on Tuesday against any provocation.

CHP leader Ozgur Ozel, accompanied by Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and labour unions, gathered in the Sarachane neighbourhood.

“We will keep on fighting until Taksim is free,” Ozel said. “Taksim belongs to the workers.”

Addressing the police, Ozel declared: “These workers are not your enemies. Our only desire is for the day to be celebrated as a festival. We do not want conflict.”

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