Why Protests Are Getting Personal

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Protesters carrying loaves of bread in support of Gezi victim Berkin Elvan and his family

On Tuesday this week, the familiar sounds and smells of street protests erupted yet again in streets and campuses across Turkey. The protests marked the death of 15 year old Berkin Elvan, who had been in a coma since June when he was shot in the head by a tear gas canister in Istanbul. The following day, after hours of peaceful protest on the streets of Istanbul following Elvan’s funeral, riot police began firing tear gas canisters on tens of thousands of people protesting a boy killed by a tear gas canister.

Already, two people have died in these new clashes – 30 year old policeman, Ahmet Küçüktağ, who suffered a heart attack after inhaling tear gas and 22 year old Burak Karamanoğlu, rumoured to be part of a group of pro-government activists involved in a fight with far-left activists during the protests. Meanwhile, politicians bicker about the coming elections and accuse each other (rightly) of manipulating voters by siding strategically with the various dead. This is the ugly side of Turkey’s so-called democracy.

As usual, anger has marked the protests – anger that nothing has been done to find or punish the police that shot the canister at a 15 year old boy buying bread for his family. Anger that tear gas was fired into the mouth of the hospital where Elvan died, merely because people were gathered there. Anger that his death has not received recognition where it should. After Elvan’s death yesterday, his anguished mother emerged from the hospital and shouted: “God did not take my son. [Turkish PM] Erdogan did.” The last part of this sentence was omitted with an awkward pause by an anchor who was reporting Elvan’s death on national news channel NTV.

Around 2 million people marched on Wednesday across the country, and over 400 people were arrested, many of them high school and university students in Ankara. As Istanbul and Ankara in particular descend into the familiar Gezi-era turmoil of arrests, injuries and death, Erodgan appeared on television handing out flowers at a political rally in Mardin, south eastern Turkey. Turkish opposition leaders, the President Abdullah Gül and even the America-based cleric Fetullah Gülen sent condolences to Elvan’s family on Tuesday and many members of the opposition chose to attend his funeral. From Erdogan, there had been not a word about Elvan’s death or the protests that followed until he declared on Thursday that the protests “would not negatively affect the economy”. Yesterday, he insinuated that the (then) 14 year old Berkin Elvan was involved in a terrorist group and defended the police who had shot the tear gas canister at him in June, dismissing his parents’ story that he had gone out to buy bread as “lies”. Conversely, he has called for sympathy for the two men who have died in the protests of the last few days.

It is deeply worrying that politicians have used Elvan’s death, and the deaths of those that followed him his week, as political tools, but not surprising given the corruption scandal-fuelled, pre-election tension ratcheting up by the day (municipal elections will be held on March 30th). On Wednesday, an MP from the ruling AKP party speculated on Twitter that Elvan’s life support machine was switched off on purpose to create chaos before the elections, prompting a direct rebuttal from the hospital in question. Another AKP MP directly blamed Elvan’s parents for his death because they let him out to buy bread during the protests. While mourners attended Elvan’s funeral, ex-EU minister Egeman Bağış tweeted that those who opposed the government were “necrophiles” (he later erased this tweet after an outcry). Finally, it seems to be the general consensus among MPs of the ruling party that this one boy’s death is causing an unnecessary ruckus considering the situation in Syria.

The grotesque response of certain Turkish politicians does not need spelling out. What is more worrying, and less painfully obvious, is the fact that the Prime Minister might well profit from the protests caused by this innocent teenager’s death. During the Gezi protests last year, Erdogan used the atmosphere of fear to polarise the Turkish public, to paint protesters as dangerous troublemakers and to galvanise his voting base into a frenzy of loyalty. Conspiracy theories are common fodder in Turkey, and the sad truth is that many of those created today will be widely believed tomorrow. An AKP MP claiming that Elvan’s life support was turned off strategically close to elections is not only not publicly vilified as he should be – he is given credence.

This is what we have in Turkey – unaccountable people in power, elected in an atmosphere of confusion and fear. While no police have been held accountable for Elvan’s death in the past nine months, thousands of police have been “relocated” after members of Erdogan’s circles were investigated for corruption in December. Retribution is selective and strategic, and that is just one of the many reasons why Turkey is a very undemocratic place right now.