Berkin Elvan’s funeral services, which were held at the Okmeydani Cemevi on 12 March, once again raised the question of why all six youths killed during the Gezi Protests—or, if we are to approach the Gezi process within a broader framework, why seven out of eight youths killed—were Alevîs.
Indeed, the question is not a new one; months prior to Berkin’s funeral, Nagehan Alçı, one of the government’s staunchest supporters in the media, had claimed on a television program that the Gezi Protests were essentially an Alevî revolt. According to the logic on which this claim rests, given that all of those killed as well as seventy-eight percent of those taken under custody (as reported by the city police—a report which itself operates as a confession of religious profiling on the part of the security forces) were Alevîs, the argument followed that most, if not all, of the protesters were Alevîs; therefore, the Gezi Protests were an Alevî revolt.
The attempts by the government and its supporters to forge an organic bond between the Gezi Protests and the Alevî community in Turkey are as far as one can get from innocent analytical meditations; rather, they are aimed at inciting agitation. That said, the question of why all of those who fell victim to deadly state violence, and the overwhelming majority of those taken under custody in conjunction with the Gezi Protests, were in fact Alevîs demands a deeper engagement than a simple quantitative logic could provide.
Gezi’s Three Fundamental Grievances
First and foremost, what was Gezi after all? Gezi was an urban protest movement that developed spontaneously, assembling a diverse group of socio-cultural milieus in contemporary Turkey. There were three fundamental grievances that mobilized the Gezi protestors: neoliberal policies based on speculative investment with an utter disregard for the environment and for urban citizens’ rights; an Islamist government’s top-down conservative politics and its attendant repressive measures directed at secular lifestyles; and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism and his marginalizing statements, often bordering on hate speech, aimed at those situated outside of his constituency. From environmentalists to secularists, from protesters against hydroelectric power plants to LGBT individuals, from Alevîs to anti-capitalist Muslims, from socialists to liberals, from Kurds to Armenians, from members of the educated middle-class to blue-collar workers on the urban peripheries, it was on the basis of these three grievances that the Gezi Protest movement successfully assembled a diverse group of social actors, otherwise engaged in different corners of an arena of identity politics.
The first and foremost target of the Gezi Protests was without a doubt the Erdoğan administration and its aforementioned policies. When examined more closely, however, we see that the Gezi Protests also held a more radical political stance, or at the very least a potential thereof. Tying together these three fundamental grievances deep down at their respective roots, and in so doing opening up the possibility for a surprising pluralism, Gezi’s radical potential was and is just as much about the rejection and subsequent critique of a state-making tradition that assumes and exercises absolute possession over the governed—a tradition that the AKP has by no means invented, but has definitively taken to a new level. In other words, what made the Gezi Protest movement distinctive was the fact that the movement was as much a revolt against the paternalistic mentality of a state-making tradition. This tradition gives various state actors the right and the power to comment on, diffuse into, and reign over each and every space imaginable, from citizens’ living spaces and lifestyles to their beliefs and identities. Precisely due to this duality, Gezi has emerged as a different and novel experiential epoch that broke new ground, impossible to contain in the all-too familiar frames and molds of Turkish politics to date.
Therefore, the fact that a sizeable proportion of Turkey’s Alevîs took part in the protests—even if the disproportionate percentages that the police reports have cited were true—does not make the Gezi Protests an Alevî Revolt. In addition to not being catalyzers for the Gezi Protests, Alevîs did not take part in the movement as a politically organized collective. It is crucial to highlight that an overwhelming majority of the Alevîs who did take part in the Gezi Protests did so not with any particular Alevî agenda, or for that matter, with their Alevî identities. Rather, they poured onto the streets as environmentalists, critics of urban renewal, labor union members and activists, democrats, secularists, Ataturkists, socialists, and/or Kurds, often with commitments to two or more of these political communities.
In other words, the surprising pluralism observed in the broader Gezi Protest movement was also present with all of its colors among the Alevîs. The recent attempts to represent the Gezi Protests as an Alevî revolt on the part of the Erdoğan administration, working alongside its immediate circles and media collaborators and relying on banal tactics dug out of the dark alleys of sectarian politics, is nothing but a last resort to distort and undermine Gezi’s pluralism and radical potential. Not unlike the propaganda strategies deployed by the right-wing movements to forge a link between the rising Leftist Wave and Qizilbash in the 1960s and 1970s, which successfully demonized the latter in the eyes of the Sunni majority, the AKP is trying to Alevize the Gezi protesters, even more blatantly and recklessly than its right-wing predecessors ever did.
From Okmeydani to Lice
Under these circumstances, how are we to approach and comprehend the fact that all (or all with the exception of one) of the Gezi victims are Alevîs? Even within circles unbiased or sympathetic towards the Gezi Protests, the shared religious identity of the Gezi victims is often understood as the manifestation of the intense support Alevî communities lent to the protests in Turkey. This manifestation is then taken, not as the ultimate sign of a sectarian conspiracy, as the government circles would have us believe, but rather as the natural consequence of the violent victimization Alevîs have suffered compared to other social milieus in Turkey. Rather than being wrong, this line of analysis is incomplete: I say incomplete, precisely because it relies on the superficial assumption that “nobody is marked with the word Alevî on their foreheads.” In doing so, it misses a crucial point: how, where, and when police brutality and repression operate selectively and discriminately.
In order to better understand what is at stake, it might be useful to move beyond the Gezi victims’ religious identities and take a closer look at their social and political identities, as well as the particular places where they have been killed. Two of the six who died in direct relation to the protests, Abdullah Cömert and Ahmet Atakan, faced police brutality and lost their lives in Armutlu—one of the two well-known Alevî neighborhoods of Hatay—while Mehmet Ayvalıtaş was killed in the May 1st district of Ümraniye, and Berkin Elvan in a district of Okmeydanı—both known for the Alevî-Leftist identities of their inhabitants. Ali İsmail Korkmaz lost his life in Eskişehir, and Ethem Sarısülük in Ankara’s Güvenpark. This brief account illustrates that all Gezi victims have been killed outside the epicenters of the protests—namely, Taksim, Beşiktaş and Kadıköy, all characterized by high numbers of protesters—and either in Istanbul’s peripheral districts inhabited by Alevî and Leftist urban dwellers or in protests started in other cities of Turkey in solidarity with the Gezi Park Protests. Even when we factor into this equation the deaths of Medeni Yıldırım (killed when the Turkish Army opened fire on protesters in Lice) and Hasan Ferit Gedik (killed by a drug cartel allegedly under covert support within the police force), both of whom are considered as Gezi victims although they were not killed during the protests, the general picture remains the same.
Those who have lost their lives due to the violence unleashed on them by the police or counter-protesters supported by the police have to be understood as members of the oppressed milieus in Turkey, not only because of their religious and cultural identities, but also because of their social and political identities. It must be noted in passing that the aforementioned locations—the May 1st district of Ümraniye, Okmeydani, Tuzluçayır in Ankara where Ethem Sarısülük lived, Armutlu in Istanbul where Hasan Ferit Gedik lived and Gülsuyu where he was killed—are not only urban spaces characterized by the Alevî-Leftist identities of their inhabitants; they are also sites of organized resistance in the face of an ever-expanding sphere of urban renewal schemes. These spaces also happen to be the epicenters of the leftist organizations on the forefront of the Gezi Protests where the youths who have been leading the resistance movements against urban renewal live. These have been sites of frequent protests and other forms of organized resistance and subsequent police interventions not only during, but also well before, the Gezi Protests. Even though these protests have rarely been covered in the domestic media and the general public in Turkey has remained oblivious to these struggles, an overwhelming majority of these districts’ inhabitants have been living under an unofficial state of exception, where they have gotten to know the police forces intimately, and vice versa.
Discrimination of Violence
It is important to remember at this juncture that there were no deaths reported in Istanbul neighborhoods such as Taksim, Beşiktaş, and Kadıköy, where we witnessed the longest-lasting protests with the highest number of participants. Meanwhile, the peripheral districts of Istanbul and Hatay, characterized by their inhabitants’ Alevî-Leftist identities, emerged as the grounds for four deaths (five, if we include Hasan Ferit Gedik). The other two lost their lives outside of Istanbul. The fact that all these youths not only had Alevî identities in common, but also shared similar class backgrounds and political dispositions, could not be explained away as a simple coincidence or sheer luck. What this picture points out is rather how the state apparatus calibrates the scale of its violence according to its targets, and how in its interventions it could exhibit restraint or brutal force according to the interventions’ particular time and place, sometimes simultaneously. The scale of violence is intricately tied to its visibility as much as it is to the identities of those on which it is enacted. Indeed, after the third day of the protests in Taksim’s Gezi Park, and following the stationing of international media around the square, the scale of violence exercised by the police in and around Taksim was relatively decreased, while that unleashed on protestors outside of Istanbul, including Ankara, increased dramatically. What this set of calibrations illustrates is the fact that the state is very capable of, in fact is expert in, making minute adjustments to the scale of violence it exercises according to circumstances. Needless to say, a systematic study incorporating those thousands wounded and left disabled during the Gezi Protests could provide us with a clearer picture of the structural discriminations that underpin the exercise of police violence in Turkey.
The same insights apply to the data shared by security forces alleging that seventy-eight percent of those taken under custody during the protests were Alevîs. As I have pointed out in the case of those killed and their religious identities, any conclusions drawn about the general demographics of the Gezi protestors based on this report will prove to be problematic, to say the least. If we are to take it as our premise that there is an elective affinity between the profiles of those killed and those taken under custody, exactly where these individuals were taken under custody emerges as a critically important question. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that police forces are often more inclined to resort to these methods of repression and control in the face of protests taking place in the aforementioned profiled neighborhoods. Within the context of protests taking place outside of these particular neighborhoods too, we have to bear in mind that police violence could take on a brutal and uncompromising force depending on the protesters’ clothing styles, symbols worn and carried, body language, and where and with which political formations they claim their rank in the protests. These markers, singly or in combination, often reveal the type of social and political identities that protesters carry into the protests.
By way of conclusion, while acknowledging Alevîs’ intense participation in the Gezi Protests, I want to suggest that deriving conclusions about the general demographics of the Gezi Protests and the rates of Alevî representation therein, based on the premise that all those killed and most of those taken under custody were Alevîs, is both wrong and misleading. Without problematizing the consolidation of that data, and without taking into account the malleability of police violence depending on place, time, and target, such derivative arguments would accomplish nothing other than enabling the government’s efforts to Alevize Gezi. Possibly the most critical point to bear in mind here is the fact that these efforts are not limited to producing such a perception; rather, they are invested in transforming this perception into an objective reality by relying on discriminately unleashed police violence and repression.
Translated from Turkish by Emrah Yildiz
26 March 2014
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