Gangs of Istanbul

Gangs of Istanbul

On July 6, four men with machetes in their hands were caught on cameras attacking Gezi protesters, who were running away from tear gas. ( The police were in the vicinity as well, but just told these guys to calm down and go home. The men with machetes were not the only non-uniformed force protesters had to battle with. Several men with batons are also recorded on cameras attacking protesters, right alongside police forces.
( These events of non-uniformed men – so far all have been men – attacking protesters has now almost become the pattern; even in the first days of the Gezi events, a man later called an “undercover police officer” was caught on cameras beating an unarmed protester. (

However, the men with machetes have just brought the level of violence to a higher significance. A machete is not a gadget you just happen to have with you regularly on the busy little streets of Beyoğlu, Istanbul. Given the fact that the Turkish police have been extremely vigilant about “illegal organizations and terrorists” among the protesters - indeed helmets, water guns, keffiyahs, goggles, gas masks have all been “legitimate” causes for prompt arrest on the streets of Istanbul in the last month ( - how can the police let go of men with batons and machetes in their hands? However, the machete guys were arrested only after the recordings of witnesses were shared on social media. The Istanbul governor caved in under pressure and police brought in the guys for questioning. Not to the surprise of many, they were promptly released by the courts.

Now, you might be wondering why a protester holding a water gun can be escorted by three policemen immediately for arrest, and the machete guys are treated with velvet gloves?

I do not know the answer, but at this point anyone reading about the Middle East would remember the other gangs, with their angry mob mentality: batons, knives, machetes attacking civilians. Most vividly, one would remember the baltajis of Egypt. Having penned a piece for the Hürriyet Daily News in November 2011, ( where I had said “non-state armed groups” were gaining prominence in the region as more and more governments utilize them. We have seen them all around the region, from Syria to Tunisia, from Egypt to Sudan.

What is specifically baffling in the Turkish case is that Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ defended the men with machete, saying: “These are our shopkeepers in the area, they are nervous because their business activities are disrupted by Gezi protesters and they owe money. All they want is this chaos to end.” I do not think most people protest – facing high risks to their health and wellbeing as well as possibility of arrest – out of the blue. I would argue that almost everyone would prefer the protests to be over, to reach a compromise. Politics, after all, is about compromise. When compromise fails, you start to see the words, “minority” and “majority” more frequently in the news, because one side is unhappy. The tyranny of the majority does not sustain a healthy, let alone an advanced, democracy as the prime minister says he desires for the Turkish people.

If there is a guy behind me with a machete, or behind another random person for that matter, my first question would not be “is he an AK Party (Justice and Development Party) supporter, did he vote for the AK Party?” No, I would like to know how justice would be delivered, regardless of his political identity. The same goes for the gang that attacked a lady with a headscarf and her baby in Kabataş during the early days of the protests. Prime Minister Erdoğan has brought this hideous gang crime to our attention several times. It is mindboggling to think a woman with a baby in bright daylight was brutally beaten and abused with several eyewitnesses in the heart of Istanbul. When will gangs of Istanbul face the justice they deserve?