Losing ground and doubling down

Police violence on increase in Turkey

The covid crisis has hit Turkey hard and made its mark on the government’s approval ratings. The country already has the highest number of police officers per capita in Europe and the regime is clamping down on dissent with increasing force – be it Pride marches or women’s protests for the Istanbul Convention.

Thousands of women and LGBTQ+ people showed up in the heart of Istanbul during the restrictions imposed under the pretext of pandemic and broke through the police barricades on 26 June 2021. Rainbow flags were banned, journalists strangled, beaten and arrested for recording the police violence. These are usual scenes in Turkey now.

Police brutality has long been prevalent in Turkey, but its intensity has increased recently. Those flooding the streets to demand justice, democracy and equality are usually greeted by riot police blocking their every step. Although the right to protest is engraved in the constitution, in practice it often ends up prohibited for arbitrary reasons, such as COVID-19 safety measures or ‘disturbing public order’.

2015 Istanbul Pride Photo by Lubunya, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

We experienced a striking example of this tendency during the 19th Istanbul Pride Parade this year. Footage of the event went viral and caused international uproar, with pop stars showing solidarity, among them Madonna asking, ‘Why are there so many PoPo’?

A desperate attempt

These images of violence reflect the political atmosphere in Turkey. Recent polls reveal that the government is losing ground among voters, partly resulting from the country’s fragile economy. In one of these polls, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which received 42.56 percent of the votes in the 2018 elections, seems to have dropped to 31 percent.

Shaking the global economy, the coronavirus pandemic has also had devastating impacts on Turkey’s fragile economy. Tourism and export activities to Europe are the two pillars of the Turkish economy. During the pandemic, these two came to a halt and exacerbated the already unfolding economic crisis. The government provided almost no direct support to those who lost their jobs or went bankrupt, increasing popular distress. According to the latest IMF assessment, Turkey is one of the countries that provide the least assistance to its citizens, spending only 2.5% of its national income on crisis aid. According to the reports published by the DİSK Research Center and the International Labour Organization (ILO), 3.6 million jobs were lost in the coronavirus pandemic in Turkey. On the other hand, almost 52 thousand Turkish people have died and 6 million have been infected.

The usual misconduct

Police brutality is neither new, nor surprising in Turkey. The Gezi Park protests of 2013 were sparked by public outrage over the plans to cut the trees of the park, the last green area left in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The protests then escalated in response to the disproportionate use of force by the police and turned into a major uprising that spread across the country.

Police in action during the Gezi park protests in Istanbul. Events of June 16, 2013. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first demonstrations began on the 28th of May 2013, following the news spread on social media that construction equipment had entered Gezi Park and were cutting down the trees to give way to a construction project. In response to the police’s violent clampdown on protesters, the outrage induced mass demonstrations, with many government supporters joining as well. The more authorities abused unarmed civilians, the more people from different provinces started to get involved in the protests.

The vigil in Gezi Park lasted 20 days, until it was forcefully evacuated. Nevertheless, demonstrations continued across the country for a while. According to the reports from the General Directorate of Security Affairs, rallies were held in the 80 out of 81 provinces and more than 4 million people participated.

During the protests, a gas canister fired by the police in Istanbul killed 15-year-old Berkin Elvan. In Ankara, a 26 year old protester, Ethem Sarisülük was killed by a bullet from a police gun. Ali Ismail Korkmaz, 19 at the time, was beaten to death by police and some civilians. Abdullah Cömert, 22, was killed with a tear gas canister fired by the police during the protests on the 3rd of June in Antakya. It was reported that many people lost their lives or limbs as a result of intense gas attacks by the police.

Then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the controversy in his speech in Erzurum, a province in eastern Turkey, on 23 June 2013, saying, ‘I gave the orders’.

Trying to clear the streets of protesters

The AKP has been expanding police forces as the authoritarian rule has gained momentum since the Gezi protests, which the government described as a ‘coup’. According to the 2020 Activity Report of the General Directorate of Security, approximately 330 thousand personnel work in the Police Department. This figure was reported at 263,709 in 2013. According to Eurostat data  of 2016-2018, Turkey has the highest number of police officers per capita in the EU.

Human rights organizations confirm that Turkey’s current state registers as a police state. Women who want to march against femicide, workers whose rights have been taken away, unions, Kurds whose politicians have been arrested, LGBTQ+ people struggling for survival – all marginalized groups are affected by this intense oppression that prevents them from raising their voices in the streets.

The Pride of Istanbul

LGBTQ+ community was involved in the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The next two Istanbul Pride parades were attended by an extraordinary crowd. Annual LGBTQ+ marches were traditionally held at Taksim, but they have been practically banned since 2015 and the movement has found itself largely excluded from the public sphere.

A protester at the Istanbul Pride Parade of 2014. Photo by Alexandra Zevallos-Ortiz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the Governor’s ban under the pretext of security concerns, LGBTQ+ people insisted on organising the Pride in Taksim. Due to police blockades, the Pride March could not be held on the main street, so it was announced to take place in Mis Street, another important point for LGBTQ+ people. Despite the attempts to prevent the march, protesters showed up in great numbers, violating the direct ban of the Istanbul Governor’s office. The authorities greeted them with tear gas; 46 people were detained, and many were beaten. Those who responded to the detentions from the nearby cafés were also kept in official custody. These people were demanding the police to stop dragging people on the ground, handcuffing behind the back, and firing tear gas.

A German musician and LGBTQ+ activists Liana Georgi was recoded in a video walking in front of the police barricades during the Pride Parade, which ultimately went viral after Madonna shared it on social media. Georgi said in our interview that ‘I was surprised to see so many police, and I thought, “we are just walking, how can this be a problem?”. There were police in every street. At first, they did nothing to me. I believe being a foreigner played a part in this. But later I was also pushed and beaten.’

Murat Kahya was arrested for arguing with a police chief over the authorities’ conduct while sitting at a café close to the 2021 Istanbul Pride march. The police chief wanted to evacuate the cafés. When people resisted, he ordered to fine Kahya for not wearing a face mask. As Kahya refused the fine, the chief ordered him to be arrested.

One of those who was arrested while sitting at a cafe was Istanbul-based photographer Murat Kahya. ‘While the country’s prisons are filled with politicians, journalists and human rights activists who were jailed for no reason, it feels strange to just talk about what happened to me. Everybody is being silenced. My experience is part of this’, he said in our interview after his release.

Allowing for violence

Although same-sex relations are not criminalized in Turkey, but government spokespersons and some state officials often excercise hate speech. Beside banning the Pride march, a public picnic was also banned during Pride Week. The authorities intervened using dogs against the picnickers which sparked an uproar.

Three days after the Istanbul events, police also brutally crushed another LGBTQ+ Pride Parade and arrested many activists on the 29th of June in the Turkish capital city Ankara. Another Pride Parade planned to be held for the first time on the 11th of July in the western province of Aydın was also prohibited by its governor. Even the rainbow flag was banned from protests.

LGBTQ+ people are facing increasing violence in Turkey, both politically and physically. The AKP has directly argued for the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention with the ridiculous claim that it ‘spreads homosexual relations’.

The Turkish government withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, a crucial international agreement on preventing violence against women, as of the 1st of July. The decision has a huge negative impact on millions of women, children and LGBTQ+ people.

On July 1, women’s organisations had long been protesting the withdrawal, even in spite of COVID-19 restrictions, holding a major demonstration in Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul. Thousands of women activists confronted a barricade of hundreds of police who wouldn’t let them march and attacked them with tear gas. The thousands of protesters demolished police barricades and carried on with the demonstration for hours despite the attacks.

Upon Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention , women and LGBTI+ protested in Sakarya Square in Ankara. Photo by Burçin Kalkın via KaosGL.

Journalists targeted

Journalists who try to record police brutality and human rights abuses are also targeted. A circular from the General Directorate of Security just before the last Labour Day directly banned the recording of such situations.

This year’s Pride Parade also saw law enforcement cracking down on journalists. Besides, it was reported that at least five female journalists were beaten and prevented from recording the events.

The police tried to thwart an attempt by a group of journalists, including myself, to film the violent tackling of protesters. Our colleague, Bülent Kılıç’s camera was broken by the police and he was brought to the ground by applying pressure to his neck and back.

The moments when a police officer was stepping on Kılıç’s neck despite him screaming ‘I cannot breathe’ were recorded and posted on social media. That video reminded of George Floyd who was killed by a US policeman last year and launched an international wave of racial reckoning. The video of Kılıç was also shared by the Journalists’ Union of Turkey on social media with the hashtag ‘I cannot breathe’. His colleagues gathered to protest police violence with banners reading ‘free press, free country’, outside the İstanbul Governor’s office.

Doubling down

The Turkish government is desperate to preserve its power in the current crisis, and their attempts include the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention and the flare-ups of violence against LGBTQ+ people. With the crackdown on political opponents and all forms of dissent, the ruling party hopes to attract religious and conservative voters. It seems that the Erdoğan regime has started to resort to more and more extreme measures as it loses legitimacy in the eyes of the wider society.

But despite the fear this extremism creates, the streets remain the most important place in the struggle for rights and democracy. It isn’t clear how long the state can contain dissent.

Published 6 September 2021
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Tuğba Özer / Eurozine



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