Whose lives matter in Turkey?

Though some of the correspondences are superficial, the coincidence of the protests in the U.S. erupting just as people here are commemorating Gezi has lead to some soul searching about the similarities and differences in state violence and racism in both countries.

“The darkness that took Berkin, Ethem, Medeni, Ali İsmail, Hasan Ferit, Abdullah, Ahmet and Mehmet away from us in Gezi is the same darkness that stopped George Floyd's breath. We were against it back then, we are still against it today.”

Thus spoke Can Atalay, an activist lawyer and member of the Taksim Solidarity Platform. On Monday, the group gathered on Istiklal Avenue to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Gezi Park protests of 2013.

Atalay made a powerful rhetorical move in linking the names of the young “martyrs” killed during the uprising in Turkey with George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who was killed by police on May 25th in Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, pressed his knee to Floyd's neck. Floyd’s murder sparked mass protests in cities and town in all 50 states. 

These protests, the largest of their kind in the U.S. since the Ferguson uprising of 2014, have had international repercussions. Solidarity actions have taken place in Brazil, Greece, Ireland, Nigeria, South Africa, and beyond.

Inevitably, people in Turkey have also responded to the brutal murder of George Floyd. Everyone from politicians to musicians have issued statements. These have lead to some necessary conversations about racism in the country. On social media, many have pointed out similarities between the protests of 2013 in Turkey and 2020 in the U.S. The banging of pots and pans to show support from home, the battling with tear gas, the iconic commandeering of a small crane, a “woman in red” standing up bravely to the police: the images pouring in from the U.S. inevitably bring up memories of Gezi.

Though some of these correspondences are superficial, the coincidence of these protests in the U.S. erupting just as people here are commemorating Gezi has lead to some soul searching about the similarities and differences in state violence and racism in both countries.

People analyze the events in the US according to their own perspective. For example, among those who issued statements on Floyd’s murder was President Erdoğan, who took to Twitter to condemn police brutality in the US: “The racist and fascist approach that led to the death of George Floyd in the U.S. city of Minneapolis as a result of torture has not only deeply saddened all of us, but it has also become one of the most painful manifestations of the unjust order we stand against across the world.”

Some found the president’s statement against racism and police brutality perplexing, to say the least. For people critical of the government, there are actually strong parallels between the way Black people are brutalized by the police in the US and the way minorities and dissidents are treated in Turkey.  

For example, Aydın Selcen in a recent column described Floyd’s killing not as a distant affair but a “looking glass” revealing Turkey’s true face. For him, this mirror reveals Circassian slaves, the confiscation of Armenian property, Sunni Muslim supremacy, and other acts of historical violence. The suggestion is that one cannot condemn racism in other countries without also grappling with past and ongoing oppression at home. 

The “looking glass” metaphor offers a helpful to analyze another group of people in Turkey who have been commenting on Floyd’s murder: those critical of the Turkish government. In the cultural realm, many figures who remain sympathetic to the “spirit of Gezi” took to social media to honor George Floyd and condemn racism. Many of the musicians I have written about here, from rocker Gaye Su Akyol to post-punk band She Past Away, shared resources about Black Lives Matter or participated in the social media campaign #BlackoutTuesday. 

Yet ironically, some of the liberal/left-leaning voices in Turkey who rushed online to condemn Floyd’s killing share something in common with those officials who only condemn racism when it happens elsewhere: an unwillingness to take a full long look in the mirror. 

It is undoubtedly positive for progressive artists in Turkey to respond to global events and express solidarity with international struggles against racism. But these same figures are far less outspoken when it comes to violence perpetrated against oppressed people locally. For example, artists gave no resounding expression of solidarity with the Hrant Dink foundation when it received death threats last week, or with the 20-year-old Kurdish man recently stabbed to death in Ankara (it was initially thought that he was killed for listening to Kurdish music). 

While there are many reasons that cultural figures with a public platform in Turkey might be nervous about speaking up on certain issues, there are some who are willing to pay attention to events abroad while also shining a mirror on their own home.

The rapper Ezhel, for example, shared a statement on Instagram that criticized the hypocrisy of condemning racism internationally while skating over it domestically. He wrote: “Turkey has discrimination in terms of language, religion, culture, ethnicity. While the whole world is rising up against racism, I hope that every kind of racism in our country will also disappear. Long live the brotherhood of the Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, and Greek peoples. Down with racism!”

Ezhel then shared some of the vitriolic comments he received in response to his message, asking “Are you ready to see the racists?” These included messages by one person who threatened to kill any Armenian he sees. Another stated that Turks and Kurds were brothers but “Armenians and Greeks have no place in our country.” These examples of hate speech only proved the rapper’s initial point. 

Ezhel responded by sharing songs by Udi Hrant and Stelios Kazantzidis, whose work shows how much is shared musically and culturally among the peoples of this region. 

Whether racism or oppression is occurring in our own city or across the ocean, in the past or in the present, the principled response can only be a consistent one. As the representatives of the Taksim Solidarity platform declared as they commemorated Gezi on Monday, “We were against [the darkness that kills innocent people] back then, and we are still against it today… We are one and together despite thousands of kilometers between us.”

September 27, 2021 A fight for housing and joy