David Smith recently argued that the peaceful demonstrations we’re seeing in Georgia and the United States are a healthy part of democracy. Today’s May Day violence in Turkey, Germany, and Greece show the flip side of the coin.


Thomas Grove for Reuters:

There were early morning clashes in Germany and protests in Istanbul swiftly turned violent. Greek police clashed with self-styled anarchists. Demonstrations in France and Spain appeared largely peaceful.

Turkish riot police fired water cannon and tear gas, firing shots and pepper spray to disperse masked protesters. Young men hurled stones and Molotov cocktails, smashing bank and shop windows in side streets. An Istanbul police spokesman said 68 demonstrators were detained and 11 police wounded. Leftists and Kurdish separatists regularly clash with police at demonstrations in Turkey and the May Day protest last year also turned violent.

Turkey’s government had declared May Day, traditionally marked by rallies by labor unions, a public holiday this year under pressure from the unions.”Those who are here are unemployed and need work,” said Mehmet Guleryuz, a film director. “These are students who cannot pay tuition fees. Things are bad everywhere but it hits Turkey hard.” Almost one in three young people in Turkey is without a job and the government fears social unrest and increased ethnic tension because of the downturn. Labor unions, traditionally weak, have become increasingly vocal.

In Berlin and Hamburg, scattered violence erupted in the early hours of the May Day holiday injuring more than 50 riot police, authorities said.   Some 200 demonstrators chanting anti-capitalism slogans threw bottles and stones at riot police in Berlin, police said, torching five cars. Police also clashed with the leftists ahead of a far right rally.  “There are people out in the streets protesting peacefully against the economic crisis and there is nothing wrong with that,” said police spokesman Frank Miller. “But when people burn cars and trash containers and commit other criminal acts — that has nothing to do with political protests.”

French unions organized nearly 300 marches targeting President Nicolas Sarkozy’s social policies and crisis management, with the opposition Socialists calling on members to join the protests for the first time since 2002.  French unions said turnout at regional protests was lower than on March 19 when up to 3 million attended the largest demonstrations in Sarkozy’s election in 2007. But in a sign of how far disillusion has spread, even staff in management positions joined the marches. The number of jobseekers under 25 increased 36 percent year-on-year in March.  “It is absolutely not in our tradition to protest on May 1, but given the economic context in France and crisis we decided to join in,” said Carole Couvert, a leader of the CFE-CGC union for executives.

BBC‘s Paris correspondent Emma Jane Kirby reports that, “There is a growing perception that little has been done to protect the ordinary person’s job and wages, while executives from banks bailed out by the government have enjoyed generous pay-offs and bonuses.”  NYT’s Matthew Saltmarsh provides a detailed backgrounder, apparently written before the incidents took place.

Frustration among those who have lost their jobs, savings or pensions has been fueled by a steady stream of reports that bankers and executives at ailing companies were continuing to reap large financial rewards. “For some, the mood is hardening,” said John Monks, the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, which represents 82 union organizations in 36 European countries. “It’s switching from worry to frustration and anger. This is the most important May the 1st in a long time.”

Frustration, anger, and large crowds are a volatile and dangerous combination. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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