Link to this page: https://secure.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/770/16918
Turkey: Eyewitness to Erdogan's state terror
Martin Powell-Davies of the NUT teachers' union executive and Socialist Party member, was part of an international trade union solidarity delegation visiting Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey, on 15-16 June, when a peaceful concert for anti-government protesters was brutally assaulted by riot police using tear gas and water cannon spraying toxic chemicals.
Along with his eyewitness account of this shocking event, Martin also reports on the struggle against the authoritarian Erdogan regime, particularly the role of the workers' movement.
Martin Powell-Davies, London representative on the national committee of the NUT teachers union, photo Paul Mattsson
On Saturday, 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 (Confederation of Public Workers' Unions) and DISK (Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions).
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.
I also had the opportunity to leave my NUT flag with Turkish Airlines pickets, on strike for over a month to defend trade union rights and to demand the reinstatement of sacked colleagues from their union Hava-Is.
However, it was Erdogan's decision to move in 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 Square, turned out to be just on the perimeter of a wall of police, tear gas and water cannon thrown around the square.
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. It had become a forum for debate and discussion between people from a range of backgrounds and traditions.
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 saw Erdogan threatening culture, personal freedom and her rights as a woman in particular. Theatres, cinemas and any media outlet critical of the AKP (the ruling Justice and Development party) 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.
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 are fighting for improved wages and working conditions and for the right to freely organise.
The DISK general secretary 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 protesters with the wider demands of the trade union movement.
In answer to my question, he made clear that if the police were to move on the park then the federation would respond by calling a national strike.
I am glad to report that KESK has kept that promise and will also be joined by DISK in that action.
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 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.
A concert by well-known singer Zulfu Livaneli followed speeches from DISK speakers 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 and grab a bite to eat in a nearby restaurant, and to discuss further with a DISK organiser about how a strike movement could be extended to workers beyond the two left-wing federations.
Soon after our food arrived, people fled past our windows away from Taksim Square. The waiters rushed to close the doors before choking chemicals could drift in. The police attack was underway.
As we later found out from other delegations who had remained in the square, 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 protesters into the Divan Hotel, firing choking water cannon spray through its doors.
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, demonstrating 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.
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 protesters clutching for air and ready to vomit. Crowds parted every now and again to allow the injured to be rushed away.
The RMT (UK transport workers' union) flag was unfurled amid the chanting crowds while I managed to give some interviews over the noise in response to calls that I was receiving from Britain, including the Observer.
By Sunday morning, Taksim was quiet, surrounded by a line of police that was turning everyone away.
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 pretended it wasn't happening and had broadcast shows on cooking, penguins and soap operas!).
Hayat TV 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.
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 coordinating committees across the country.
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 protesters 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.
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 using acidic sprays on its people.
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 an 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.
Martin's report can be read in full on http://electmartin1.blogspot.co.uk/
Two RMT union members who also witnessed the attack by state forces in Taksim Square, spoke to the Socialist at a solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square, London, on Sunday 16 June.
"We witnessed an unprovoked attack by riot police on a concert that was being attended by young people, families and children.
Completely unprovoked, they were attacked by water cannon that contained acid. Four of us actually got temporarily blinded by this for about ten minutes. Then we were treated by protesters.
It's an obligation for us all to get behind the people who are struggling for democracy in Turkey and to bring down the Erdogan regime.
The trade unions can do this by lobbying and calling days of action and hopefully by calling solidarity action with our sister unions in Turkey."
Steve Hedley, assistant general secretary, RMT transport union
"Along with two of my RMT colleagues, a PCS colleague and an NUT colleague we went over to Taksim Square to show solidarity but also in an international observer capacity.
We got hit (by water cannon) and my skin's still burning over 24 hours later. While we were on the way back to the hotel to take several showers to wash the stuff off we came under attack with plastic bullets - you could hear them fizzing over your head, and then the gas canisters."
Sean McGowan, RMT national executive
Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)
The Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) is the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.
The CWI is organised in 45 countries and works to unite the working class and oppressed peoples against global capitalism and to fight for a socialist world.
For more details including CWI publications write to: CWI, PO Box 3688, London E11 1YE.
The CWI website contains news, reports and analysis from around the world: www.socialistworld.net
In The Socialist 19 June 2013:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Fighting the bedroom tax
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reviews