Why use violence against peaceful protesters?

The Turkish government’s decision to use tear gas as a form of political violence to suppress peaceful protesters is puzzling given the AKP’s role in breaking the grip of Kemalist institutions and its reconciliation initiatives to resolve both the Kurdish question and the Alevi issue. Why did the AKP government use state repression? What is the AKP’s logic of violence?

State repression has three main functions in Turkey: a way of dealing with challenges to political elites and state institutions; facilitating a certain political ideology; and drawing the boundaries of freedom and limits of action. Of course these functions are interrelated and to some extent similar to each other. Nevertheless, they provide a sophisticated repertoire of coercive measures. Although such coercive measures did not necessarily require use of violence, the AKP government used excessive violence on protests mainly led by labour unions, leftist and pro-Kurdish groups. Selective violence was justified on the basis that such protests were harmful to maintenance either of public order or in the public interest.

Public order and interest are key terms to understand the Turkish state’s logic of repression and violence. What is public order? Although various laws and the Constitution refer to public order frequently, this concept is not defined and broadly describes what might be harmful to public order. Public interest is no different. Of course many people might think that ‘public’ refers to people but in Turkey it actually refers to the state. Therefore, the laws and Turkish Constitution protect and serve the interests of the state rather than being in the service of citizens. This reflects a broader phenomenon that is embedded in the philosophy of the Turkish state: citizens exist thanks to the state. In other words, emerging out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and politically shaped by the Armenian genocide, National Liberation War and early ethnopolitical Kurdish and Alevi revolts, the Turkish state has become the Leviathan.

Despite important political and social transformation over the last ninety years, little has changed in the mindset of the political elite administering the country regarding the use of violence. While the prolonged Kurdish question facilitated the military’s use of violence as a methodology to resolve the conflict, the police enforced daily law and order. Of course protests, demonstrations and riots were accommodated to a certain extent depending on the political climate and actors involved in such processes. Yet, the malaise of seeing citizens as a threat has struck back on various notorious occasions, for example on May 1, 1976 in Taksim Square during the Labour day celebrations and most recently again during Labour day celebrations at the same place. As a result of this malaise, the state has developed an automatic reflex to respond to protests with violence rather than accommodating diverse views or negotiating with demonstrators, especially when leftist groups organize protests. Istanbul University, in the heart of Old City, for instance, has always been the best place to go to witness such violence when leftist groups hold their protests in Beyazit Square.

The AKP Government’s reforms have also extended the discretionary power of the Police Department. It is up to police chiefs to assess whether it is appropriate to use violence or not, and whether the violence deployed has been proportional or not. This means giving the police a blank cheque from a willing government and there are no accountability mechanisms. A few days ago, a Police Chief in Izmir, for instance, not only used violence against protesters but also asked his “ununiformed police officers” to help their uniformed fellows because “protests were getting out of control”. Nevertheless, the police force has improved its reputation under the AKP government thanks to TV advertisements and campaigns to increase the credibility of the institution. While establishing trust between the people and institutions in democracies is essential, it remains something of a Turkish paradox how the police can possibly be trusted when they suppress civilians.

The AKP’s use of violence during the Gezi Park protests are not only motivated by institutional reflexes, laws and mindset. Prime Minister Erdogan’s Chief Advisor declared that they believed such protests might be a coup d’etat attempt because the Kemalist Republican People’s Party  might have succeeded in just such an attempt on February 28, 1997. Mr. Erdogan was a member of the Welfare Party that was overthrown thanks to the military’s efforts. The military sponsored various civil society organizations at that time and such organizations rallied against the government, creating the conditions for military intervention. In other words, Gezi Park demonstrations were perceived as an existential threat by Prime Minister Erdogan given the protesters’ demand for his resignation.

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This might well be a tactic, however, to avoid the larger problems and limit the discussions around secularism and Kemalism so that Erdogan’s supporters do not participate in popular protests. Whether Mr. Erdogan’s calculations are beneficial or not, they have cost the Turkish people and “public” morally and materially – two people were killed (a police officer and a young man), many were subject to tear gas and beatings, and millions of dollars of public damage has been the result.

The loss of these two people’s lives is revealing about how our political culture is shaped by violence. Abdullah Comert, 20, was killed during the protests in Antakya while Mustafa Sari died after falling off a subway bridge in the Adana protests. The former was buried in his hometown without any government participation in the funeral and his family sent trees to Gezi Parki to be planted in his memory. Although Prime Minister Erdogan acknowledged the loss of two men, he praised the latter as a martyr, saying he gave his life in the service of the nation. Wasn’t Abdullah Comert’s right to protest perfectly legitimate and weren’t his demands also serving the nation?  It is true that we should honour our citizens but to call a police officer a martyr is to sanctify him/her and thus embed violence into daily life.

Overall, it is obvious that there is a need for security sector reform in Turkey. Sending the military to its barracks (although still not subordinated) was key to AKP’s electoral success, but instead the police have become the chief tool of repression. Without reforming the police and a change in the political elite’s mindset, Turkey will continue to experience human rights violations and violence. Turkish people should closely follow the government’s actions regarding this crucial issue and negotiate for reforms and accountability.