The violence of Erdoğan’s bodyguards in Washington DC is Turkey’s new normal
‘Everyone who is fed up with the Turkish media’s unapologetic propaganda was expecting a distortion of facts.’
On 17 May, a slice of Erdoğan’s Turkey found its way to Washington DC. That day, a group of Kurdish-Americans gathered outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence to protest against the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There, they were beaten, threatened and attacked by the Turkish leader’s bodyguards. A total of 11 people were injured. Instead of the attackers, two protesters were arrested.
This is what the world saw that day, and this is the story that videos of the incident tell. But, according to Turkish pro-government media, which includes all mainstream newspapers and TV channels in Turkey, the world got the story wrong.
In their version, terrorist sympathizers and Kurdistan Workers’ Party – PKK – supporters had started to create trouble. Erdoğan’s bodyguards decided to intervene, they say, because US police were not able to adequately handle that situation.
Everyone who is fed up with the Turkish media’s unapologetic propaganda was expecting this distortion of facts. And all the media outlets used similar phrasing to make sure everyone put out the same story.
In Turkey, when police or Erdoğan supporters beat or attack protesters, whenever dissidents or activists are exposed to state violence, or whenever they arrest someone just for raising their voice in opposition, we see and hear the same story.
Let’s take Yusuf Yerkel for example. He was one of the advisers of then prime minister Erdoğan when the 2014 Soma mine disaster, which killed 301 miners, happened. When Erdoğan visited Soma with him, protesters, many of whom were family members of the miners, gathered to meet them. Police decided to attack the protesters and they held Erdal Kocabıyık, a protesting miner, on the ground. That’s when Yerkel was caught on camera kicking him.
Earlier in the day, Kocabıyık had kicked one of the cars owned by the government. Kocabıyık first was fined 500 Turkish liras for “vandalizing government property” and then received a 10-month jail sentence. All Yerkel received was seven days off work with a medical report, because he hurt his leg. In 2016, a court even ruled in Yerkel’s favor, saying that the famous photograph that captured what he did should be taken down for defamation reasons. That is censorship.
Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, has built a strong narrative to make sure that things will never change. Since 2002, they have taken every step to make their ideology and themselves synonymous with the state. Because of this, all opposition against them can be presented as an attack on the Turkish state.
Criticizing the government or any AKP politician is viewed by them as a crime against the state itself. Demanding change is understood as demanding the destruction of the state. This became crystal clear around the Gezi Park protests. And since then, they’ve only become more aggressive and brutal.
That’s the way autocratic narratives work. All a leader has to do is make sure that anyone opposing them is seen as a threat and a terrorist. That signals to thugs that attacking so-called “terrorists” is a good thing and won’t be punished.
That’s exactly what’s been happening in Turkey for a long time. Anyone criticizing Erdoğan, AKP or their politics gets labeled a terrorist or foreign spy and becomes a target. People around Erdoğan – his supporters, the police, and the media – just wait for a chance to teach them a lesson.
Today in Turkey, there are hotlines for citizens to inform officials about potential terrorists. Recently they have also decided to bring back neighbourhood watchmen to keep people “safe”. The government denies that it jails people for the crime of reporting. Rather, Erdoğan insists that all detained journalists in Turkey are terrorists, criminals, and child molesters.
Since the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, the government has removed thousands of people’s jobs, legal rights, passports and more by means of statutory decrees as a part of the ongoing state of emergency, turning them into legal zombies.
And if you go on a hunger strike just to get your rights back, as Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça did, not a single government official will care about you, police will attack your supporters and one day they’ll raid your house at night to arrest you – as they happened to Gülmen and Özakça on Sunday. Even though you were protesting at the same spot for weeks, every single day.
What happened in Washington DC was a business as usual in Erdoğan’s Turkey. It was a glimpse into a place where being critical of the government renders you subhuman, deserving of everything that comes your way: kicks, choking and death threats. What the world saw was just a small scene from Turkey’s new normal.