Marching to Taksim Square

Turkey’s labour unions mobilize to join the protests for democracy and human rights.

As anti-government and pro-democracy protests continue to sweep Turkey, the country’s labour unions are beginning to mobilize their members to support those who are protesting what they decry as an increasingly authoritarian and repressive regime.

Tuesday marked the beginning of a two-day general strike called by KESK, a 250,000-member public sector trade union confederation in Turkey. KESK was preparing for an upcoming strike in opposition to restrictive changes to labour legislation announced by the government, but they moved it ahead and broadened the theme to support the protests sweeping across Turkey in support of human rights, democracy and the preservation of Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

On Wednesday, KESK organized its members to march for a rally in Taksim Square, the heart and origin of the protest movement. I happened to be in Istanbul and caught up with the march as the first wave of union activists disembarked from a ferry boat on the other side of the Galata Bridge. This was in fact one of multiple starting points for the march, which organizers arranged to coalesce en route to Taksim Square.

As I surveyed the crowd and looked for English-speakers to interview, I was struck by the diversity and sheer number of flags and banners. The banners are bright and colourful: reds, blacks, yellows. They range from the defiant – victory fists and slogans in dark black on red – to the memorial: photos of murdered and detained activists held high on placards. A group of women held up a large purple hand-made banner adorned with multi-coloured butterflies. The weave of colour added depth and hue to the massive crowd stretching along the busy city street.

Thousands march in the streets of Istanbul on Wednesday. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Thousands march in the streets of Istanbul on Wednesday. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

With a cacophony of whistles and cheers, the leaders of the march formed ranks and the marchers set off. They occupied the street, but cars waiting off side-roads seemed patient. Cars traveling the opposite direction honked their horns in support, and were cheered in return, but the ones that elicited the most excitement were the drivers of large buses – city transit buses and large tour buses alike – as they deployed the full range of their deep and eclectic horns. Some of them blared their security alarms; most drivers held their fingers up in Victory-signs to the protestors, smiling broadly.

I weaved back and forth, looking for photo angles. A young, professional-looking type in a white dress shirt and dark suit stood by the side of the road watching the protest march pass by, and I moved in beside him to try to catch a shot of a large banner passing by. We wound up chatting, and it turned out he spoke fluent English. I asked him what he thought of the protests, and he commented on how truly remarkable it is that a catalyst as simple as a small grove of trees could trigger such a pent-up sense of rage against the government.

“If a dozen trees can trigger this,” he said, “just imagine what else we can do!”

That sense of almost astonished hope is one I’ve heard before. I asked him what he thought the outcome of the protests would be.

“They are demanding the prime minister’s resignation. Some are saying this could be like Tahrir Square,” he replied, referring to the protests that eventually toppled Egypt’s decades-old regime in 2011.

“Do you think that’ll happen?” I asked. He shook his head with uncertainty. “The prime minister was elected by fifty percent of the people,” he said. “Still, nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“This…” – he gestured expansively at the protest – “This is Turkey’s other fifty percent.” And then he proudly added “This is MY fifty percent.”

“You’re a supporter?” I asked, somewhat surprised. His professional attire didn’t match the protestor demographic being described by international media.

“Yes,” he said proudly. “During the day I’m in court, and at night I sleep in the park, to protect my trees.”

“Why do you go to court?” I asked.

“I’m a lawyer, of course,” he replied.

Fears and hopes

I fell in with another fellow, who turned out to have come quite a way to participate in the protest. He was also a professional-looking type with a thick black beard. He responded shyly but politely to my questions. His companion was in a teacher’s union in Istanbul, and I asked whether he was in the same union.

“No,” he replied, with a short smile. “I’m from Turkey, but right now I live in Macedonia. But I saw what was happening on the news: the tear gas, the police violence. And I thought, I can’t let this happen to my country. So I came home two days ago, to be part of this.”

“Wow!” I reply. “And will you stay until it’s over? When do you think it’ll be over?”

His smile grew thin. “Well, I hope the government will back down in two or three days. If not, I fear there could be civil war,” he said grimly.

It’s a fear I’ve heard voiced occasionally over the past couple of days. It’s mostly dismissed as unlikely by the younger generation, but seems to be a greater concern for the older generations that remember the sectarian violence and military coups prior to the 1990s. Still, throughout Taksim Square and Gezi Park signs declaiming “No civil war” can occasionally be seen.

Union marches cross a bridge in Istanbul to join the protests. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Union members and supporters cross a bridge in Istanbul to join the protests. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

As the marchers turned a corner, suddenly a great cry broke out and they all turn their heads. Cresting a rise, the river could be seen down below, and far off – perhaps a mile or two – on the bridge beneath, another group of union marchers were just setting out across the bridge from the opposite side. From where I was standing the length of their lines and the flurry of their banners was an impressive sight, and the entire road broke out in cheers. It’s impossible to see whether the far-off group on the other side even saw or heard us. But the march moved on, in excited anticipation of meeting in Taksim Square.

Closer to the square, the busy roadway turned more residential. Here tall apartment buildings rise, many of them with windows hurled open or small crowds gathered on the balconies, waving and clapping and unfurling supportive banners of their own. The sides of the road were filling with supporters as well, clapping and chanting in tune with the protestors. Proprietors stepped out of their shops to clap and take photos. A watermelon vendor took a banner briefly from a marcher, and held it high, to the elation of the crowd. There was fun to be had, as well. A mobile phone company ad featuring three life-sized Vodafone models briefly joined the march, the cardboard models dancing around as marchers wove it with banners. The cardboard cut-outs joined the other banners bobbing up and down to the cheering crowd for a few minutes, and the marchers dutifully returned it to the shop-owner before moving on.

Approaching the Square

The noon-day sun was beating down mercilessly, but the enthusiasm of the crowd only seemed to grow. As we passed one apartment building, a crowd of women stood on the roof-top, hurling handfuls of confetti over the marchers to everyone’s delight. Not to be outdone, a group of young children on a balcony just below tossed out cut flowers upon the march. The mood was buoyant.

But then it turned dark. A deep unsettled roar settled across the crowd, with boos and angry cries. I looked around to see what the source of the anger could be – a police van? A fight? And then I realized the march was passing by a police station: the marchers yelled their outrage and anger over recent police violence at the station and its 20-foot banner as they marched past. But that’s as far as they went: parade marshals kept the march flowing smoothly.

People show their support for protestors out the window of a building as the march passes by. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
People gather on balconies of an apartment building to show their support for the protests as thousands march below. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

And just as quickly, the mood turned jubilant again. Turning a corner and now on the final approach to Taksim Square, the march approached a building where, on the rooftop, a group of women unfurled a massive purple banner painted with women’s signs. The banner spanned at least two storeys. The crowd raised their arms in response, chanting and cheering as the women on the roof-top raised their fists in support.

As the march closed in on Taksim Square, the generally chaotic mass somehow resolved itself into a sense of order; different unions and organizations forming into ranks in a remarkable display of spontaneous organization. As they approached the gauntlet of media photographers lined up at the entrance to the Square, they formed into ranks behind their respective banners, with broad spaces between them, and took up their respective chants. The organizational display was as impressive as the numbers, and the photographers clicked away as the various groups marched, one by one, into the Square, to the cheers of the thousands already assembled there.

Driven by hope

For somebody who’s witnessed plenty of labour marches in North America – where it is often a sense of grim resignation and duty that drives marchers on under Canada’s sullen, cold grey skies – there was an unfathomable life to this march that stemmed from more than just the blue skies and blazing sun. The engagement between the onlookers on the street, the residents in their apartments, the drivers on the roads and the members on the march created a vibrant unity which has come to be the trademark of the Taksim Square protests. The struggles and causes are diverse; sometimes contradictory. But what unites them in common is the right to struggle, to protest, and to express themselves in all their democratic and creative spirits. The unions have pulled off an impressive display of organization and enthusiasm, but it’s one that reflects a broader spirit of cooperation, determination, and hope.

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