In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, urbanization and industrialization accelerated in Turkey, expanding the working class, and, along with the participation of students and intellectuals, a substantial leftwing movement developed. The first wave of action peaked at the end of the 1960s. During 1971, the military intervened and declared martial law, limiting personal freedoms and arresting and imprisoning thousands of leftists. Still, demonstrations and a variety of other actions continued until military coup in 1980. May 1, 1977, which came to be known as Bloody May Day, was a major turning point for the leftist movement; it may also be interpreted as the beginning of the end. Between 1977 and 1980, thousands of individuals lost their lives either in clashes with a neofascist movement or due to violence led by the state. The military coup of September 12, 1980, spelled the end of the era.
During the May Day celebrations of 1977, about a half-million people gathered at Taksim Square in central Istanbul. This gathering was critical in showing that the leftist movement had become a mass movement. The left in Turkey was a mosaic of individuals of many persuasions from many fractions, including a variety of communists, social democrats, unions and trade groups, all of which had gathered together in Taksim. While the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (DISK) had organized this huge gathering with labor unions, various organizations and political parties, it aimed to give a serious and mass response to the neofascist movement rising with the help of the state in Turkey (Çelik, 2022). Hundreds of thousands of activists came to Taksim in a festive spirit to show their solidarity with the oppressed and downtrodden. Towards the end of a speech made DISK chairman Kemal Türkler, shots were fired on the crowd from nearby buildings, including a hotel (called Intercontinental at those time, The Marmara today) and the Water Administration building, creating panic and turmoil. At the same time, armored police vehicles entered the area, crushing and killing many. The crowd tried to leave the square down the long, steep Kazanci street, but a truck parked at the top blocked their way, leading to a stampede and many lost their lives by crushed. When it all ended, at least 34 people had lost their lives, while 136 were seriously hurt.
The police detained nearly 500 people following the incident. Neither the investigation nor the court case cast any light on what had really happened. Although the court proceedings continued until 1989, no evidence could be found to support the accusations against the defendants. Many socialists in Turkey believe the chaos of Bloody May Day was the result of planning and action by cohorts of U.S. counter-insurgency units or an action planned by the Turkish deep state cooperating with the Turkish branch of Gladio, the anti-communist organization during the Cold War. Bülent Ecevit, who would go on to become prime minister, had this to say about Bloody May Day: “Those organizations that are within the state, but outside the rule of law, must be controlled immediately. The counterinsurgency is on the move, and it was involved in the events of May the First.” State officials said the events leading to the deaths were caused by infighting among leftists.
Çelik, A. (ed.) (2022). DİSK Tarihi - Dayanışma, Direniş, Umut - Cilt II 1975-1980. History of DİSK- Solidarity, Resistance and Hope, Vol. II, DİSK Yayınları.
This memorialization endeavor is actualized in honor of those killed at Taksim Square during Bloody May Day in 1977. Every May 1, a wreath is laid at the Kazancı Street by trade unionists, socialists, NGOs and those who lost loved ones in 1977. DISK is one of the most important actors in this effort. This remembrance event takes place in the early morning hours each May Day since 2009.
Since Bloody May Day, a struggle between the government and Turkey’s leftist movement has continued about whether May 1st celebrations can be held at Taksim Square. While state officials claim that Taksim Square cannot be used due to security issues, the leftist movement perceives the square as a symbol of the injustices committed by the state and thus wants remembrance events held there, in part to force the state to face up to its past. Throughout 2012, Bloody May Day was the subject of a public debate, including in the mainstream media, raising social awareness of the events. Judicial proceedings began that year against the perpetrators of the 1980 military coup, and the events of Bloody May Day were included in the indictment. The court asked the National Intelligence Organization to supply information about what had happened; however, the documents that were turned over failed to shed light on who were responsible for the events. Still, the annual commemoration of Bloody May Day keeps the issue and the demands for justice by the families of victims in the public consciousness. Those families maintain their attempts to shed light on the massacre and calls for those responsible to be punished.
The most serious challenge for this memorialization are the government’s efforts to prohibit Taksim Square as a site for action. In 2007, labor unions and leftist organizations vowed to rally in Taksim Square, even in the face of a police crackdown. For the next two years, police sought to prevent all May Day commemorations in Istanbul, leading to clashes with political activists. This ended with the state announcing in 2010 that May Day would be an official holiday and that Taksim Square could be to rally for May Day and also for the Bloody May Day memorialization. However, in 2013, with the Gezi Park protests, Taksim Square and the protests organized there entered a new era. Since the Gezi Park protests, Taksim Square has been closed by the Turkish state on the days of various commemorations and celebrations.