A brief history of the command ‘look down’ in Turkey

A video from the protests against President Erdoğan’s appointment of a rector to Boğaziçi University depicts a police officer shouting at students to “look down” and police officers rushing in to beat them shortly after. This, in fact, is not a new command in Turkey. Six years ago in Hakkari the same command was used to force down the heads of Kurdish workers. Those methods which were used to force down the Kurds now exist as a means of forcing down many more opposition heads. 

A video was shot on a street near Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, where month-long protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of Melih Bulu, the new rector of the university. In the video, police can be seen closely monitoring the students. Then somebody yells “rude ones,” but who said it cannot be seen. Then someone in charge immediately steps in and shouts at the students “Look down. Look down. No group activity.” Then he shouts, “Come here. Come here,” and police officers immediately rush in to beat the students.

Doesn’t this seem like a strange phrase? Look down. What is this? It is a command, of course. But why should they ‘look down?’ And where exactly is ‘down?’

The Turkish Police Force, in a statement which was put out on Twitter a  day after the incident, argued that the phrase "Look down" was never uttered by the police officer and that he actually said the Turkish word "from below," which sounds similar to "look down," but is meaningless when used alone. 

However, this phrase is very familiar to those of us who live in this country. For someone who is walking, down is the ground. So, this order can be interpreted as “Do not lift your head; look down. Do not look around. Do not look at me. Do not look at anyone.” This is a command meant to weaken you. It is supposed to constrain the individual to the spot he or she is in at that moment. It shuts down all communication and interaction.

And we have heard it before!

Six years ago, on Aug. 8, 2015, a video went viral that was shot in Turkey’s southeastern province of Hakkari. The same command was used there, but with a slight difference. It was a much clearer command on that occasion: “Don’t look at me, man. Everybody, look down.” 

This incident in Hakkari occurred on Aug. 5, according to a report from Nedim Türfent. He is one of the many reporters currently in prison. He is in prison because he reported what was really happening. In that video the command was given by security personnel in charge. The location was a construction site. At that time they had handcuffed around 50 Kurdish workers and forced them down onto the ground. He was standing over them yelling.

This official did not want those on the ground to look up at him or look around at each other. He yelled, “You will see the power of the state, the Republic of Turkey. I know all of you! Whoever is a traitor, whoever is betraying us, there will be recompense. They will be paid off. What the hell did this government do to you? What did the government do to you? All of you, all of you, will get your reward. You will see the power of the Turk! Is that right, now? DON’T LOOK AT ME, man. Everybody, look at the ground.”

His face cannot be seen in the video. He stands out of frame, but we can see his hand shaking with rage. The camera is pointed at those on the ground and those holding them down. There are men with automatic rifles, wearing masks. There were armored and unarmored vehicles around. The men are pacing around the heads of those on the ground. We cannot see their faces. There is no face seen in the video at all. Not the faces of those who were caught or those who caught them are visible.

There was an investigation launched into what happened after the video came out, but lawlessness followed. Nothing happened to those who orchestrated this scene of torture. There were at least 52 people on the ground. 46 of them were immediately released and six went to the court. Four were arrested. At the end of the trial, two of them were sentenced to 28 years in prison. Nedim Türfent, who reported on the incident, has now been arrested, not because he did this specific story, but because he is a journalist.

Those methods which were used to force down the heads of the Kurdish men now exist as a means of forcing many more heads down. There was no opposition to this method, rather, it was more widely applied. There were only three deputies who “opposed” at the police headquarters and stood by the students.

From the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), there were at least seven deputies at the police headquarters standing in solidarity with the detained students. This is likely because the HDP deputies are more familiar with this command, as if it was printed on their foreheads when they were born. Such dehumanizing commands are carved in their genes, these orders to “look down.”

The HDP deputies have seen the path that starts from “Everybody, look down,” uttered at Hakkari first and now command at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University.

They understand too well the connection between those political appointees which replaced Kurdish mayors in Kurdish municipalities and the politically appointed rector assigned to Boğaziçi University. They already know the snipers on the roofs. They know why Nedim Türfent is in prison.