Turkey - Popular backlash in Istanbul

From Lutte de Classe #14 - Summer 1995 (published in Class Struggle #8 - Britain)
20 March 1995

On Sunday 12 March, at 8.30 pm, another terrorist attack by armed thugs took place in Gazi Osman Pacha, a working class district of Istanbul. This was one too many for the local population. It sparked off a major explosion of anger. Impressive footage of these riots was shown on television in Britain. Many militants from the left and revolutionary left live in Gazi Osman Pacha. Also the area is host to many Alawite Muslims who are known for their left leanings and, in any case, their opposition to Muslim fundamentalism. Shooting operations by small armed gangs are common in Istanbul. They are usually carried out by far-right groups. Sometimes policemen take part in such operations, either because they are influenced by the far-right or because they use the far-right as a cover for their own activities. The fact that Gazi Osman Pacha was targetted was of course not a coincidence but a provocation. Except that this time it was met with an unexpected reaction. Within twenty minutes of the shooting (18 minutes according to the police prefect) thousands of local people flooded the streets, among them many young workers. They immediately started to march on the local police station. Thus began three days of rebellion against the police, the state and their far-right stooges, in which the protesters showed their determination by fighting and holding out against the heavily armed Turkish police almost bare-handed. The police did not balk at shooting the demonstrators in cold blood. Twenty protesters were killed and dozens were injured. Several protesters disappeared during these events and it is still not known what happened to them. The importance of these riots was highlighted by the government's own reaction. Something previously unthinkable happened: the police chiefs made a public apology for the conduct of their men. All the policemen in the district were transferred. The government, which would normally endorse any violence by its repressive forces, sacked the police officer in charge of the district. All the top officials concerned were given a public reprimand, from the Home minister to Istanbul's police prefect, Necdet Menzir, who is well-known for his far-right sympathies and his provocative statements justifying the murder of left activists by the police. The government was obviously motivated by its fears that the popular explosion in Gazi Osman Pacha might set alight a much more extensive explosion. All the regime's dignitaries were mobilised to issue peace calls. Religious leaders, both Alawite and Sunni, were heard calling on people "not to fall prey to the provocateurs" and to "use reason rather than violence". As a government official said, «It is fortunate that no other district joined ranks with Gazi Osman Pacha, because we would have been unable to cope given that half the army is engaged in the East» (i.e. fighting the Kurdish guerilla). This was probably the most accurate summary of the government's position. In any case, the explosion at Gazi Osman Pacha shows that the Turkish population is not prepared to accept another period of dictatorship by the army and police. The population has had enough experience in the past of situations in which terrorism was used by the far-right, the police and secret services, in order to prepare the ground for a possible military dictatorship. There are many indications today that some political forces are acting in this direction. But the police, the army and the far-right, whether nationalist or fundamentalist, have still to win this battle. The population has not given up yet, far from it. They are not prepared to allow these forces, which they know all too well, to establish their dictatorial rule once again. The following text was sent to Class Struggle by Trotskyist activists in Turkey. It is an eyewitness account of the events by a worker who was involved in the riots. [Class Struggle]

Testimony of a worker who took part in the Gazi rebellion

For some time already Gazi Osman Pacha had been the target of police repression. Over the recent period, far-right activists had increased their profile in the area. With the help of the police, they had been recruiting in cafés where 15-year old youths hang about. They had set up headquarters in a cab office and in a beauty parlour.

That Sunday a gang of armed thugs driving round in a hijacked cab shot at three cafés and a bakery, killing an old religious man and injuring several others. The cab driver was later found dead too.

Instantly the news spread that an old Alawite had been murdered. Within no time the streets were full of workers, left activists and Alawites - it was like a dam suddenly breaking open. The protesters gathered outside the newly-opened Alawite centre.

Last October, an Alawite youth from Tokat had been murdered inside the Gazi police station. And this time, although they had been called after the shooting, the police did nothing against the murderers who drove past their station without being stopped. Hence the decision of the protesters to march on the police station.

The fact that thousands of people gathered in such a short time reflected the frustration accumulated over the years by thousands of workers who were constantly being harassed by the police and by the Alawites who had suffered several murders in their ranks. All joined in the rebellion against this injustice.

The protesters started marching from outside the Alawite centre towards the police station, led by Alawite leaders. Last October a similar demonstration had taken place as well. But then it had dispersed without taking any further action. This time, however, things turned out differently and the people's anger did not cool down so quickly. They held not one but three or four marches to the police station, until around midnight, with more protesters joining the demonstration each time. The youth were becoming increasingly angry. They were no longer satisfied with a "peaceful" demonstration and they started reacting with hostility to the conciliatory attitude displayed by the Alawite leaders.

Despite massive reinforcements the police was no longer able to cope. Around midnight, they fired a warning salvo. People went to ground and started throwing stones at the police and then, far from turning back, they stood up again and kept marching towards the police station. The police began to back off, shooting blindly as they were withdrawing. A youth was killed at this point.

Later on, the police armoured vehicles started moving towards the protesters who were gathered by then around the Alawite centre. Vehicles equipped with water cannon tried to drive straight into the crowd at full speed. But again, instead of running away, the protesters held their ground.

There was no-one to lead the crowd. The youth who were at the forefront were angry, courageous and determined. They never tried to turn back. Instead they fought back constantly using whatever they could grab, mainly stones. They burnt one of the armoured vehicles by throwing a gas bottle inside. Another one was forced to halt and its engine put out of order. Then they grabbed one of those enormous rolls of telephone cable that was lying close by and they used it as a shield while pushing it towards the police, thereby forcing the cops to withdraw towards the police station. By then, the armoured vehicles had turned round and been withdrawn for fear of the crowd hijacking them. This was a small victory but a mighty boost for the demonstrators.

The determination and strength of the crowd would have been capable of forcing the murderers out of the area. But the Alawite leaders prevented this. They gathered the crowd around their centre and made them stay there to wait. From the very beginning of the fighting the Alawite leaders did nothing to organise it, instead they tried to open negotiations. They used the youths' courage for their own purposes.

From midnight onwards the demonstrators proceeded to set up barricades using huge trees which required several people to move them. Six barricades were set up, five on the main street and one in front of the Alawite centre, by then the logistical centre of the protesters. A new spirit of initiative was born among the young workers.

Meanwhile part of the population had started to return home. But the youth remained to guard the barricades, armed with big sticks. There was no more fighting during the night. By 7h30 in the morning, the district looked like a battlefield. There was still a crowd around the Alawite centre. The armoured vehicles were patrolling in circles around the district. Everything was quiet. The youth decided at that point that they would stay there for the day instead of going to work.

During the night's fighting, the demonstrators had settled some accounts too. Several small businesses whose owners were known for belonging to the far-right were systematically wrecked - a cab office, a beauty parlour, a bakery, a few cafés and a building equipment depot. Many women protesters demanded that shopkeepers should destroy their credit registers (in which they keep track of what customers owe them - CS).

By mid-morning more fighting broke out with the police. They had received more reinforcements, with four more armoured vehicles. Again the crowd gathered and started marching, chanting slogans like «all united against fascism», «Gazi will be the fascists' cemetery» and «Long live the Gazi uprising». The anger of the marchers was so conspicuous and had reached such a high point that at this moment the police ran away. Images of their inglorious retreat were shown many times on television whereas the attacks they had launched before against the protestors were not shown. This reporting was not innocent - the media aimed at justifying the use of firearms by the police.

After that the fighting resumed. Whenever the crowd was getting closer to the vehicles, the water cannons were turned on full blast. Stones were being thrown at the police. In the face of the first big police charges, the crowd moved back. The youth took shelter in a side street where they confronted the police. Every time the police opened fire, the protesters moved back, picked up stones and went forward again, throwing them. Several were injured by police bullets. The police were now shooting at random from the side streets and from the surrounding building sites while the special police were shooting at selected targets. Most of those murdered by the police on that day were shot at this particular point, and most of them were not activists.

As the throwing of stones did not seem to have much impact on the police, the protesters decided to make molotov cocktails, this despite the fact that the Alawite leaders were still going round demanding that people should stop throwing stones and stop retaliating to the shooting.

By 12h30 the crowd was even larger, due to those who had come from the Okmeydani district. It was so large that the police armoured vehicles were right in the middle of the demonstrators. The youths climbed onto the vehicles and attacked them with hammers while others were busy smashing the water cannon. At this point the police started shooting again to free their vehicles. The crowd dispersed for a short while and then regrouped again.

It was at that point that the state minister and spokesman for the government arrived on the scene. He was booed. People yelled at him about the youth who had been killed outside the police station. Again, the crowd started marching towards the police station. The bodies of those killed were being picked up in the side streets and brought to the march. People were becoming increasingly angry at the sight of the dead and the way they were treated. Again the police and their vehicles started closing on the crowd and shooting.

This was when the army arrived, acting as a protective wall between the police and the demonstrators. Some people started shouting «our army is the greatest army» and the soldiers shouted back in the same way. It was obvious that the Alawite leaders preferred the army to the police. But when the army commander addressed the crowd, he was heckled by a whole section of it.

Soon after, some MPs belonging to the social-democratic party CHP came to Gazi together with Ecevit (the leader of the other social-democratic party, the DSP, who was Prime Minister before the 1980 military coup - Class Struggle) and Zulfu Livaneli, the well-known singer and CHP candidate in the local election in Istanbul, but they were booed by the population, particularly Ecevit.

Finally, at 4.30pm a curfew was declared. It involved banning anyone from leaving or entering Gazi, which could have meant that everyone was going to be searched systematically and the beginning of massive arrests. Despite this, the protesters kept together.

From this point, however, the determination of the protesters began to weaken. While the mobilisation lasted for another two days, until Wednesday, the bourgeois Alawite leaders were able to take full control of the movement during these two days. Nevertheless they failed to prevent revolutionary activists from organising the local population to demonstrate for the funeral of their comrades killed during the riots. In the meantime far left activists had initiated protests in some neighbouring districts. But the Alawite leaders, having more influence and being better organised, were able to stop them.