Industrialization and urbanization processes gained considerable momentum in Turkey during the 1960s and 1970s. In parallel to these developments, this period witnessed the emergence of an urban working class, as along with a leftist movement that mobilized university students, intellectuals and workers. The first wave of movement activities peaked at the end of the 1960s. In 1971, the Turkish military intervened with a coup d’etat and declared martial law, arresting thousands of left-wing activists and restricting most civil liberties. Nevertheless, the wave of demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins continued until the 1980 military coup. The Bloody May Day massacre of 1977 in Taksim Square İstanbul is considered a watershed for the leftist movement, as well as the beginning of its end. Subsequently, during the three-year period between Bloody May Day and the 1980 military coup, thousands of people lost their lives in attacks by ultra-nationalist groups and campaigns of state-sponsored violence. The 1980 coup then closed a chapter for the Turkish leftist movement.
On May 1, 1977, hundreds of thousands of workers gathered in Taksim Square in Istanbul to demonstrate solidarity with each other and commitment to their cause. At the end of a speech by Kemal Turkler, leader of the influential confederation of trade unions, unknown perpetrators opened fire on the crowd. Masked gunmen fired from two buildings: the Intercontinental Hotel, which had been officially closed for May Day, and the building of the Municipal Water Authority. The gunfire caused chaos among the protestors, who attempted to flee the square. Meanwhile, police vehicles entered the square, further agitating the crowd and crushing some protestors to death. In attempting to escape, some protestors gathered at the Kazanci street exit from the square, but a parked truck blocked the road; many people were crushed to death trying to get out. When the chaos ended, 34 people had been killed and 136 seriously injured.
Following the incident, approximately 500 demonstrators were taken into custody, but judicial inquiries into the events never revealed the facts. Trials continued until 1989, but there was insufficient evidence to convict any perpetrators. Leftists generally believe the massacre was organized by the Turkish “Deep State,” allied with counterinsurgency units from the USA or the Turkish branch of the Cold War anti-Communist Operation Gladio. Bülent Ecevit, later the Turkish prime minister, even said soon after the massacre, “Some organizations and forces within the state, but outside the control of the democratic laws, should be controlled immediately. The counter-guerrillas are on the offensive and have a finger in the May 1 incident.”
The state’s version of what happened was that there was a fight amongst leftist groups which initiated the panic. The officials responsible for the massacre are still unknown; thus the Turkish state has effectively granted impunity to the perpetrators.
Scope and Purpose
This memorial takes the form of a gathering each year on Taksim Square to commemorate those killed on Bloody May Day. Trade unionists, leftists, activists, NGOs and people who lost their relatives attend this demonstration, which is simply a wreath-laying ceremony. The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey is the main organizer of this memorial, along with various activists. This memorial has taken place in the early hours of the day on every May Day since 2009.
In the years following Bloody May Day, May Day demonstrations in Taksim Square became a struggle over space between the leftist movement and the Turkish state. While Turkish authorities claimed Taksim Square could not be used for May Day demonstrations for security reasons, the left considered the square a symbol of state-sponsored injustices. The memorial gathering, accompanied by attempts to demonstrate in Taksim Square every year on May 1, have contributed a great deal to the struggle to force the Turkish state to confront and come to terms with its past. In 2012, as a result of these efforts, a discussion began in the Turkish media about the perpetrators of the Bloody May Day massacre. This media attention continued for weeks and helped to spread awareness of the event. In the same year, a new trial was begun of perpetrators of the 1980 military coup; the Bloody May Day events have been included in the court proceedings. However, although the Turkish national intelligence agency provided the prosecution with documentation regarding the Bloody May Day events, these documents do not seem to have helped uncover the perpetrators.
The main challenge to this memorial effort was the official prohibition on using Taksim Square as a demonstration site. In 2007, trade unions and left-wing organizations declared that even if the security forces tried to suppress protestors, they would attempt to demonstrate on Taksim Square on May Day. The following three years witnessed annual May Day clashes between Turkish police and protestors. These finally ended when the state declared May Day an official holiday and allowed Taksim Square to be used for demonstrations and memorials. Thus commemoration began in 2009 of the people killed on Bloody May Day. Although Turkish state authorities began to be more tolerant of demonstrators in 2010, the Gezi Park clashes in 2013 show that the state still resists public protest and memorialization.