Policing Protest, Istanbul Stylee

This is the second in a series of posts this week about the non-violent protests in Turkey, most of which will focus on Istanbul.  If you learn something here, please feel free to share (i.e., reblog, tweet, post to FB, etc.).   I will also be happy to repost a translation into your language.  If you are willing to provide one, please send it to me (info at the bottom of the post).  This is the first post: An Hour on Istiklal Ave, Istanbul.

One of many interesting global processes unfolding at present is the militarization (for US stories see here and here) and homogenization of police.  The militarization is driven by a variety of factors which differ across countries, but the homogenization is largely a function of the G8 and G20 meetings (e.g., see here and here).  I can offer only this on militarization in Turkey: the government is apparently planning to double the police force, and like elsewhere throughout the world, the police in Turkey are increasingly purchasing weapons and vehicles that have in the past been used only by soldiers.  If you are passingly familiar with the politics of Turkey (and I am only passingly familiar) you understand why the Erdogan government would want to do this (hint: it would put the number of police in Turkey on a par with the number of soldiers).

What I want to concentrate on in this post, however, is tactical response to protest.  Turkey is a G20 member, and as such I fully anticipated to find the G20 style of protest policing here in Istanbul.  In spring of 2012 I co-directed a project that recorded police-protester interaction during the anti-NATO (which was supposed to be a joint G20-NATO meeting) in Chicago (see herehere, and here).  The CPD (Chicago Police Department), and other government agencies, employed an advance media strategy of painting the protesters as mostly good folks, with a minority of dangerous trouble makers.  On the streets they deployed cops in shorts on bikes without riot gear who kept the protesters on the sidewalks and away from the shopping district.  At any moment during the several days of of the NATO meetings (and protests) buses full of cops in full riot gear waited, not  far from those lightly outfitted cops, ready to crackdown.  But as long as the protesters stayed within the limits of the law, the cops did not try to disperse them or beat them.  By emphasizing the right to protest and proclaiming that most protesters were good, the CPD was able to defuse the protests, and justify any force it did choose to use.

And they did use force.  The major protest event was a much contested march, book ended by rallies with speeches.  The protesters got their permits, but once the opening rally ended and the march had gotten underway, CPD switched the route, and did not inform the protest organizers.  When the marchers got near the route’s end, expecting to turn left on a street and hold their rally, they found militarized vehicles behind massive concrete barriers blocking their path, and forcing them to go right.  To shorten an already long story, the police permitted a few brief speeches on that spot, and then declared the march illegal and issued a dispersal order.  The scrum pictured below followed, and you have that overhead shot because CPD had told local and (inter)national media to set up on top of the building above the dispersal area.  Two local TV stations broadcast the two hour scrum live, and despite the fact that CPD beat over a dozen protesters, clearly violating their rights, the Chicago public overwhelmingly supported the Police Chief, his officers, and their conduct (see a Chicago TV news channel’s coverage here).  It was a complete and total victory for the police.

CPD disperse the anti-NATO march, 2012

CPD disperse the anti-NATO march, 2012 (Source: http://roguemedia.org/tag/nato)

OK, that was a long backstory that has nothing to do with Turkey.  The other day I was sent this tweet:


I don’t have the clip, but I am told a CNN reporter who was covering the early days of the Taksim Square/Gezi Park protests told his audience that he did not understand what the police strategy was, elaborating that he had covered many protests throughout the world, but had never before seen a police response he could not figure out.  I must confess, based on spending the past few days in the Taksim area, including an hour in the midst of police–protester interactions, I am with that reporter: I can’t discern the strategy that the tactics are serving.  And I am seeing lots of things I would not do (not only from the standpoint of my human rights point of view, but also, setting that aside, from an instrumental perspective of police trying to defeat protesters).

To get a handle on this we need to begin with the layout of Taksim Square and the myriad routes into that space.  The first mistake that the government made was deciding to close the park.  In Chicago the government made sure that the protesters would only be in spaces where they could be easily controlled.  Taksim Square is a nightmare to try to control (as long as one is not willing to use massive deadly force—it would be quite easy to control using live munitions from the tops of buildings, but that is a non-option in Turkey).  The first pic below shows about 2/3rds of the many routes into the square (which is on top of a hill).

Taksin Square, Istanbul (Credit: http://www.greenprophet.com/tag/taksim-square/)

Taksin Square, Istanbul (Credit: http://www.greenprophet.com/tag/taksim-square/)

Gezi Park begins in the lower left corner of the photo, and extends out of the shot.  The other end of the square does not have as many routes pouring into it, but there are more than just the two you might get in many cities.  This past Saturday I (along with residents, would be protesters, or anyone else) was unable to get to the protester-police interactions because the police had effectively cordoned off all of the approaches to Taksim except the one toward the upper right of the photo, and after several up-and-down the hill efforts that were foiled, I was unwilling to walk all the way around to that part (i.e., Istiklal Ave).  In other words, while the police can set up a perimeter around over 3/4rtrs to 4/5ths of the routes into Taksim, they simply do not have the personnel to try to close off the Istiklal area’s entrances.  If I had to guess, roughly the same number of police it takes to cordon off the area that they did shut down would be required to try to shut down the Istiklal area.

Here’s the next thing: the Istiklal area has a maze of side streets connecting the various arteries.  So the only thing that makes any sense to me would be to set up a ring of cops and vehicles across that wide arc toward the upper right of the photo.  But they do not do that (again, personnel is almost surely the reason).  Instead, they send roving bands of cops in full riot gear down Istiklal and the other major route into the Square, supported by water canon trucks and these smaller vehicles which have a tear gas gun mounted on a turret.  Here’s a photo of one of these units chillin about 2/3rds of the way down Istiklal (away from Taksim) on Sunday afternoon.

Bored riot cops on Istiklal Ave

Bored riot cops on Istiklal Ave

These cops and vehicles move up and down the streets, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the protesters.  And here’s the deal: there is no way for the police to win that game.  Indeed, it is a fun game: think of it as a high stakes version of capture the flag (or just plain old tag).    And if you spend some time among the protesters as they play cat-and-mouse you will immediately see that the young (and youthful) among them definitely see it that way.

Tomorrow I will write about why the protesters’ strategy and tactics make the police strategy and tactics guaranteed to fail.  Let me now turn to some other examples of mistakes the Istanbul police are making.  First, don’t shoot and kill unarmed protesters (see here).  The best way to prevent this is to deploy police without live munitions.  Twenty four hours per day some of Istanbul’s cops are standing around with live service revolvers, and there are even a small number carrying live automatic rifles (the combat kind).  This is stupid, and frankly it is a credit to the cops on duty that there has been only one shooting thus far.  While I do not know the ammunition distribution (it is presumably mostly plastic bullets), every uniformed cop I saw had a weapon.  Both weapons and “non-lethal” munitions should be distributed to only a small minority of officers, and nobody should have live munitions.

Second, don’t leave the cops on duty for extended periods.  In this video a cop claims that he had not slept in 66 hours.  Other reports indicate that during the height of the protests the police were told to catch sleep on the buses (they were not allowed to go off duty and rest).

Third, give them a job they can do.  I am always less concerned about an individual cop who commits abuse than I am about the system in place within which s/he commits abuse.  Cops are human beings, and believe me, their job sucks.  Being a protester in Istanbul is fun.  Being a cop is terrible right now.  I do not make this observation as an excuse for abuse: there is no excuse.  But there is explanation.  And with respect to the protests, the political leadership as well as the leadership of those on the police force is seriously wanting in Istanbul today.  Those in leadership have been involved in the same training sessions as other forces throughout the G20, yet there is no evidence of it.  I was told by someone here that he has a  friend who transferred out of an administrative police career due to just such frustrations.  Last week I was at a conference in Budapest and I happened to sit next to a student who had been in Istanbul when the protests began.  He is a consultant to the UN’s special rapporteur on torture and was literally in town giving a three day workshop to Itsanbul cops about how to respect people’s rights under the Convention Against Torture.  On the second day of the workshop 50% of the attendees were pulled out and put on the street, so they shut down the workshop.  The point is: Istanbul’s police know better.  Why they are choosing not to approach this differently is something I cannot explain.


Please send me your translation of this post at: will [dot] moore [at] buffaloes [dot] com, and be sure to tell me what language it is.  😉

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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2 Responses to Policing Protest, Istanbul Stylee

  1. Pingback: Nonviolent Protest, Istanbul Stylee | Will Opines

  2. Pingback: Majority Rule, Popular Mobilization, and the Use of Live Fire | Will Opines

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