Turkish police take brutal action: come willingly or we’ll drag you along

Students get arrested by the Turkish police while participating in a Pride Walk. Photos: Irem Zoodsma

I have been wondering whether I should write this op-ed for weeks. I am in Istanbul as an exchange student and I was arrested on university premises while participating in a Pride Walk. I’d like to share my experience of what happened. This opinion piece has been rewritten four times already and I think I’ve set a new personal record in terms of procrastination. So what is it that I’m struggling with?

Perhaps it has something to do with the assignment I gave myself: don't make it a stereotypical article with a Western European view of Turkish society. One that describes a Western European woman travelling to the Middle East and being unexpectedly confronted with a violation of her human rights. Shocked by the events, she says how deeply they have affected her and that she feels sympathy for her fellow students.

When my exchange is over, I will go back to my life in the Netherlands. The students here in Turkey have to live with the constant threat of being arrested for expressing who they are. What I fear – and would like to avoid – is that my op-ed becomes like so many others: one that ignores the complexity of the subject and unwittingly contributes to the stereotypical perception of countries that are not part of the West.

Sanctuary under threat
The situation is simple at first glance: the government is bothered by the top universities in the country, which are traditionally secular. They appoint pro-government rectors in several universities who are supposed to destroy the left-wing, secular and independent ethos that prevails there.  Just like at other universities, desperate students and lecturers in Boğaziçi are responding with protests. Their last sanctuary is disappearing.

Queer students just have to shut up, end of discussion. One of the first measures is closing down the LGBTQ club. After a year of heavy protests that were usually cut short by violent means, it seems as though everyone is slowly resigning themselves to their fate, with the exception of a few students and teachers. End of story, end of democracy. An everyday occurrence in a country where democracy is more of a brand name than an actual endeavour. But after four years of studying Liberal Arts & Sciences, I now know that it’s never that simple.

New reality
I’m taking you with me to the place where I’ve learned more about the added value of a university to society in the past few months than in my last seven years studying at Dutch universities.

If you’re attending Boğaziçi, it has taken you years to get into one of the best public universities in the country. In addition to a large number of bright students, Boğaziçi also has the highest percentage of boys who wear nail polish per square kilometre in Turkey. The students affectionately call their university a safed space.

There is room here for young Turkish people to develop themselves while being independent of their parents, social pressure and culture. There is room to ask all kinds of questions about what kind of person you are without having to justify yourself to the people around you. Unfortunately, a new question has been raised: will you join the protest?

Sadly, in Boğaziçi's new reality, there is a political-ethical conflict hanging over your very young student's head. Will you risk being politically active at a place that is actually meant to give you an academic and diverse awareness of the world around you?

As in the rest of the world, student life is being politicised here. For some students, resistance is not a question but a given. Queer students and their lifestyles are under pressure. Following the appointment of the illegitimate rector, the LGBTQ club was the only one on campus to be shut down. When being yourself is apparently a political issue, you take drastic action.

Taşoda Music Festival
‘You’re a true Boğaziçi student now.’ I was awarded this honourable title by a few fellow students after they heard that I’d been arrested during the Pride Walk at the annual Taşoda music festival. Ever since the new stick-in-the-mud rectors were appointed, all events have been problematic. Initially, it looked like it would be the X-ray machine at the entrance to the grounds that was going to ruin the party. No alcohol, thus total sobriety. With all due respect for sobriety, we are talking about a student festival. X-ray protests were already on the agenda, but the absence of alcohol was not the biggest problem; it was the presence of the queers.

Just before the start of the festival, we were supposed to walk in a pride parade across the grounds to the entrance. When I walked to the square to join the parade, security was already there to block our way. They had prohibited the parade to the entrance. No real reason was given, but one thing is for sure: it was illegal. Fuck the entrance, we will just walk another route. Behind the economy building, a speech was given, which made some people nervous. It would be easy for the police to surround us in this location. We didn’t have to be nervous for long, because the riot police were already coming our way, they came running around the corner; now we can feel scared at peace.

Arrested by the police
Together with 68 other students and a lecturer, I was quite forcibly arrested by the Turkish police. The police are not allowed to simply walk onto university premises. The only one who can make such a call is the rector, who is responsible for the safety on campus. With all due respect for the responsibility of maintaining order on university premises, voluntarily unleashing violent police officers on a bunch of young people in glitter does not seem like the most peaceful option to me.

Multiple police officers grabbed me by the arms and I was hit in the face with a police shield. Afterwards, I was thrown into a circle surrounded by police officers. Another student was beaten black and blue. Next to me, a girl is thrown to the ground. I pick her up; terrified, she puts her hand on her throat and says that a police officer had strangled her. “You’re going to strangle me,” she’d told him. “I’m going to kill you,” had been his reply. Someone was having a panic attack: “They’re going to arrest us while they’re beating us up.” She paces around the circle in panic. The policemen around us start laughing at us. One of us approaches the chief officer and explains in no uncertain terms that this is unacceptable and illegitimate. It makes no difference; if justice is not what you stand for as a police officer, then you might as well be deaf.

We’re given a choice: either you come willingly to the police vans or we’ll drag you along. A choice of two evils: do you willingly go along with people who have no respect for you or for human rights? To go with them feels like a voluntary surrender, but to keep standing there feels like a foolish game of cat and mouse; both options suck.

I remain standing there for a long time until a girl walks up to me and asks if I want to walk with her. “Of course.” Hand in hand we walk to the van where we’re cuffed and we take our seats. The last people who do not come along willingly are taken away by force. Someone’s head is slammed against a police van.

Medical check
Perhaps being arrested wasn’t even the worst part. It was the realisation that many fellow students didn’t care what happened to us as we drove off. Nobody came to see us off except for a few students and lecturers.

Afterwards, we were given a medical check at a hospital to make sure that we had not been arrested too violently. We were released after ten hours. On the way back, a boy next to me expresses our sentiment: “If I have to see one more fucking hetero today...” The only upside to all this is that I met a nice girl in the police van who I’m now dating. That’s what you get when you put a bunch of queers together in a van.

I doubt whether I will be going to the festival. There was hardly any reaction when we were arrested. They turned up the volume of the stage so that our screams couldn’t be heard. Some choose not to go. I decide to go anyway after complaining to a friend about the apolitical reaction of most students. “Irem, we’re tired. We have been doing these protests for a year now. I agree that the organisation and the students didn’t respond appropriately but we also need fun. At some point, you can go back to the Netherlands but we will still be here in this shit. We need days like this.”

Idealising Western countries
Many Turkish students idealise Western countries such as the Netherlands. The European as a civilised and free citizen is a persistent concept deeply ingrained in the Turkish collective memory. I agree with them that the chances of being arrested on the Drift or any other location at UU because I’m attracted to all genders are slim.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t advise Turkish students to look to our Lower House as an example of civilised Dutch people. Right-wing extremist politicians such as Thierry Baudet, Gideon van Meijeren and Geert Wilders constantly accuse scientists of being biased and untruthful. Moreover, it’s highly doubtful whether a nation can claim to be civilised if it allows extreme-right politicians to continuously attack certain population groups, including the Dutch-Turkish community, in the heart of its democracy. In the supposed promised land, it’s not uncommon to be told on an almost daily basis that you come from a backward culture.

Freedom of speech
Moreover, our universities are harassed and ridiculed by people who consider racism, lying, death threats and name-calling to be ‘freedom of speech.’ But then again, freedom of speech has become a complete caricature of itself. A stick is used to knock all reason and rationale out of the debate. “But it’s my opinion,” cry the adult children who apparently aren’t allowed to say anything anymore. If your freedom lies in your underbelly, I advise you to go on a diet, not to eat more rubbish.

If there’s something I learned in Boğaziçi, it’s that we don’t stand against people with a different opinion in both the Netherlands and in Turkey, but against dangerous intolerance. Be careful of our democratic institutions, because as soon as these kinds of people have more at their disposal than just their big mouth, I can say with 100 percent certainty that they will attack our freedoms as well.

Does that mean Boğaziçi is already lost? No, resistance is still alive. They’re not done with the rector yet, siktir git Naci.