North Africa, West Asia

Tracing the impact of the Ferguson uprising in Turkey

It seems that the time has come for Erdogan to return the favour and make a similar phone call to Obama. He has an excuse to do so now, which can only spell more heartache.

Oguz Alyanak
10 December 2014

The protests in Ferguson is a wake-up call for many Americans to become more aware of the continuing racial divide in the US and to speak up against police brutality. Without a doubt, the recent failures of the American justice system should serve as a stark reminder for us all that injustices have always been a part of the norm in the US, and it is this very norm that needs to change. As Albert Burneko, in his widely circulated piece, aptly argues, “this is what America does. It is not broken. That is exactly what is wrong with it”.

In Turkey, however, the Ferguson uprising stimulates a different kind of discussion - one that raises more worry than optimism for its  future. Contrary to the revolutionary waves rippling across American cities, in Turkey, the repercussions of Ferguson further strengthen authoritarian tendencies. The uprising plays directly into the hands of skeptics, providing them with an opportunity to justify the violent suppression of critical voices. For those who have supported the Turkish government and police during the popular protests that brought the country to a near shutdown back in 2013, Ferguson is a dream come true.

The infamous Gezi phone call

In the summer of 2013, during the peak of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, the then Turkish Prime Minister and now President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, received a phone call from Barack Obama. The call, which was in response to Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian methods of managing discontent in Turkey, was meant to do more than criticize, but to advise the Turkish government to abide by policies rooted in the rule of law, and to sustain an environment that promotes freedom of speech and expression.

Obama’s communication with Erdogan was aimed at sharing American wisdom on ways of handling popular protests in a “democratic” manner. It was a perplexing moment considering the ways in which American police forces had responded to the protests in major cities - such as New York (Occupy Wall Street), (Occupy) Chicago, Washington (Occupy) D.C. and (Occupy) San Francisco - in a period less than two years before the Gezi Park protests. Reports were bursting with documented accounts of misconduct in the use of pepper spray, rubber bullets, stun guns, as well as the dismantling of encampments through midnight raids, and mass arrests, all of which pointed to a clear violation of the very values that Obama was advising Erdogan to follow.

Since the early days of the popular protests in Turkey, numerous US officials in Washington made public declarations that reflected their disquiet at the Turkish authorities and media, as well as the police’s violent handling of the protests. The harassment of the Istanbul-based CNN correspondent Ivan Watson in Gezi Park, and his eventual detention stoked further disapproval of the Turkish government, leading to subsequent press releases by numerous human rights groups that rebuked Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian methods in dealing with criticism. 

However, Erdogan did not listen to much of what Obama or the human rights groups had to say. Not that anyone would have expected such a move from a leader as stubborn and powerful as he is. He continued with his zero tolerance policy, detaining any journalist that displeased him, forcing media moguls to fire their columnists who were critical of his policies, and legitimizing police violence on the grounds that the protestors were a threat not only to his authority, but also to national unity and economic stability.

Over night, the poster child for freedom of the press, Ivan Watson, was transformed into a “bootlicker” and a “spy” in Erdogan’s narrative. The symbol of victimhood for police brutality, the 15 year old Berkin Elvan who was hit on the head with a tear-gas canister - which left him comatose for 269 days, and eventually led to his death - imperceptibly became that of a “terrorist”.

Inventing Turkey’s very own Ivan Watson

Fast-forward a year, and Americans are experiencing yet another episode of popular protests. Since August 2014, in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, thousands have marched on the streets of major cities around the US, blocking traffic and demanding justice. 

Protestors have clashed with police in riot gear, facing tear gas and rubber bullets. Molotov cocktails were fired, and stores were looted and burned to the ground as dozens were arrested. Among those who were affected by police violence in the US was Bilgin Sasmaz, who was covering the Ferguson uprising for Anadolu (News) Agency. Sasmaz was “threatened by the police, beaten and detained for five hours”.

Unlike Erdogan, who picked on Watson, Obama did not call Sasmaz, or any other reporter, a "spy or a bootlicker". Nonetheless, the detention of Sasmaz provided Turkish authorities and pro-government media with a golden opportunity to criticize US officials for their double standards.

At a press conference, the Deputy Department Spokesperson of the US Department of State, Marie Harf, was asked whether it is not “some kind of hypocrisy to decline or remain silent against US police forces using violence against [journalists]”. In her response, not only did she reject the accusations of hypocrisy, but like President Obama, argued that “here in the United States, when there are problems – when we have to course correct and fix things, we do so transparently and honestly and openly. And I would call on other countries, including Turkey, to do the same thing. And when they don’t, we will continue speaking out about it.”

The Spokesperson’s response is far from satisfactory, and the journalist that she is addressing in this press conference continues with critical follow up questions to prove this point. However, what I find particularly worrisome is not how US officials rely on schemes to evade criticism, but rather the repercussions of such practice in countries like Turkey where larger segments of the public remain vexed with the US’ ambiguous rhetoric on democracy.

The increasing militarization of police forces in the US, as well as the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown or Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner have further boosted the skeptics’ point of view that those making moral appeals during the Gezi protests were terminally guilty of double talk. 

In a speech President Erdogan gave at a recent reception, he argued exactly that: “There it is, the events in Ferguson. In Arizona. he [Eric Garner] does not have a gun in his hand. They bring him down to the floor, bang his head to the ground, and kill him by strangling him. No gun, no Molotov cocktail. Did our police here kill a citizen? Did they point a gun at them [Turkish citizens]? Will a policeman not defend himself when he is about to get killed? When he does, he is found guilty by the parallel [partisan] judiciary and is sentenced to eight years.” It seems that the time has come for Erdogan to return the favor by making the same phone call to Obama.

The US criminal justice system did not deliver justice for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner or the dozens of others “felled by bullets.” Law enforcements have shifted to ever more aggressive methods through which protestors are silenced in the US. These corrupt examples should not become exemplary for justifying the use of police violence and police-inflicted death on innocent protestors in Turkey or elsewhere. Sadly, they do. When someone accuses you of misdemeanor, and commits the same misdemeanor him/herself a little later, and more particularly, when that someone represents a superpower such as the US - a country that is known for its attempts to “democratize” the Middle East and elsewhere - it is hard to maintain a sober attitude. This is what gives more power to the skeptics’ rhetoric in Turkey.

That the American police is acting in a manner not so far from the ways the Turkish police handled protests in 2013, or the American judiciary is siding with the police and not the victims, or the American media is providing a biased broadcast of the events lead those who express skepticism about the Gezi Park protests in Turkey to feel vindicated in their disbelief. Add to that CNN’s decision (Amanpour) to broadcast a feature on the Turkish president's ill-fated remarks on gender equality in Turkey (“women not equal to men”) alongside the Ferguson protests on November 25, which elicited heavy criticism from Erdogan and his pro-government media in Turkey for showing CNN’s bias in neglecting America’s own problems. The skeptics in Turkey were provided with a rhetorical arsenal quite sufficient to defend their position.

As a human being, and not just a doctoral student at an American university or a resident of St. Louis, it is my duty to speak up against injustices committed in the US. As I walk alongside other fellow Washington University students in solidarity, pass by cardboard figures of dozens of unarmed black lives that have been brutally taken by police officers in the US, I feel discomfort and heartache. Knowing that I am not alone in my emotional state both saddens and strengthens me.

However, the pain for me only grows as I witness how failures in the US are used to justify the failures in my native Turkey. Neither the killing of eleven protestors and the injuring of thousands during the Gezi Park protests, nor the symbolic and “too lenient” eight-year prison sentence for a policeman involved in the murder of a protestor (which, in Erdogan’s speech cited above, it seems the President finds too harsh) can be justified by looking at the product of another unjust (American) system. We are seeing more of this happening in Turkey. For those unconvinced by the Gezi Park protests, Ferguson is not a moment to face up to their own bias. Instead it becomes a confirmation of the facts of life that can only add to its strength. 

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