Not for bread alone: Berkin Elvan

from a friend of Autonomies

“We live under an occupation, under police occupation”
The Coming Insurrection

“À chaque instant de son existence, la police rappelle à l’État la violence, la trivialité et l’obscurité de son origine”
Introduction à la guerre civile,

The police is the most present and the most visible physical expression of the state. It has been a lawful companion to dissidents all over the world. What remains of the assumed function of the police as a protector of the citizens? Virtually nothing. And the clashes between citizens and the police that populate half of the news headlines today are the perpetual reminder that the police are never a protector, always a perpetrator. The presence of the police as a measure of security no longer holds. The police, as a faceless death machine, provide a space of state extension and epitomize its violence. The assumption that the police’s presence is ‘almost’ always benign must be abandoned. Increasingly, the police today assume a necropolitical function. The murder of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa in 2001 testifies to such. Today, we can no longer talk about the police as such, today, we have a very specific form of police, which specializes in deciding who lives and who dies. The police today are a necropolice.

The rage of a people who were brutally repressed in June 2013, in Turkey, surfaced again with the death of 15 year old Berkin Elvan, who volunteered one morning to go out and get a loaf of bread for the family. Instead, he received a hit on the head with a tear gas canister, courtesy of the Turkish police. Berkin spent nine months in a coma and his death was announced on Tuesday by his family. Berkin was not a protestor, he was a so-called citizen.

Things were seemingly calm after the events of June 2013, except for a few scattered protests, notably the protests held on the 27th of December in Taksim Square. The debates about Occupy Gezi protests favored a rather pessimistic view about the future of the movement in general. Even the corruption scandal that forced four ministers in Erdogan’s government to resign did not incite any significant protests and failed to revive the spirit of Gezi. In the meantime, Erdogan continued with his dictatorial policies. The last of which was the enactment of a censorship law concerning the internet this last February. But the anger of the opposition and the protestors finally broke when the death of Berkin was announced on Tuesday. The return was necessary, although it only self-actualized in tragedy.  People descended again into the streets, in mourning and in rage and to the shock of many.

But it is not only death that incites the people’s rage, but also its circumstances; for one might ask the question: What can one expect of a government that confiscates the right to a loaf of bread with tear gas? But any story that involves bread and the police can only end in tragedy. The transformation of the tragic into an antagonistic force is the political task of the people who found themselves on the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday all over Turkey. The slogans displayed during the demonstrations reflected such transformation. “We are going to buy bread” quickly became an allegory for “we are going to protest”. Crowds of sympathizers gathered in the hospital where Berkin died and attacked vehicles of the police. The promise of the autonomous organization of the street that was suppressed in the summer of 2013 in Turkey became again an urgent matter. The clashes that started around the hospital where Berkin died soon spread in Istanbul and expanded all over Turkey. Pictures of Berkin and bread were raised in the face of police forces; “Berkin Elvan is immortal” was a prominent slogan. But yet again, the police predictably responded with tear gas and water cannon. In this particular case, fingers are openly pointed at Prime Minister Erdogan, who infamously declared that he was the one who gave orders to the police during the clashes in June to 2013. Between the defense of trees that triggered the protests in June and the defense of bread that has now sparked the protests in Turkey, the multiplicities that have gathered in the summer in Turkey are now reunited in rage. They however “got their orders from Berkin”.

The death of Berkin connects dots that are at the center of Turkish politics: bread, police brutality and government compliance. The dreams of Occupy Gezi were not abandoned, just rearranged. The police will be there to protect the state, but then, so will the rebellious masses. 


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