Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul

Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul by Deniz Yonucu (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2022)

Reviewed by Elif M. Babül, Mount Holyoke College

Deniz Yonucu’s remarkable book traces the history of politics and policing in one of Istanbul’s predominantly Alevi, working class, dissident neighborhoods, which she calls “Devrimova.” Following philosopher Jacques Ranciere, Yonucu takes politics and policing as antithetical to one another, both with the goal to transform populations. She asserts that policing produces and manages disorder to serve “capitalist, racist, colonial, patriarchal nation-state” (158). Policing consolidates the separation of different groups within the population, rendering them both “compliant and…ready to be mobilized against a real or imagined enemy” (158). Contrary to policing, politics impels people to act together either in concert or in dissensus (34) thereby opening up “new spaces, roles, and relations via practices of world building” (158).

To analyze the tension between politics and policing in Devrimova, Yonucu traces various counterinsurgency policies historically implemented in the neighborhood, ranging from overt-spectacular militarized state violence, intense police surveillance, undercover policing, agent provocateurs, instrumentalization of gang activity to low intensity conflict, affect and emotion generating provocative counter organization, violent interpellation, lawfare, and promoting sectarian imaginaries. Parallel to those, she shows how political activity in the neighborhood shifted from experiments with direct governance in the 1970s, cultural and recreational activities, educational initiatives, and protests to practices of securitization, revolutionary violence, masked and armed masculine vigilantism, and mimetic production of policing that involves sectarian and ethno-nationalist practices in the 2000s. While deeply embedded in the particular locality, Yonucu’s analysis also charts out the global sources and context of counterinsurgency strategies practiced in Turkey. She details how colonial warfare techniques utilized in Malaya, Algeria, and Northern Ireland, trainings provided by the US and UK security forces during the Cold War era and its aftermath, CIA reports on left wing dissidence in Turkey, and NATO’s 2011 Allied Joint Doctrine of Counterinsurgency are all sources for Turkish counterinsurgency policies.

Yonucu’s analysis illustrates how the space and the psyche appear as the two main axes for the organization of both counterinsurgency and politics (11). Urban spaces like Devrimova generate and maintain practices of dissensus and solidarity among Kurdish and Alevi working class inhabitants. Same spaces are also the target of counterinsurgent intervention that transforms them into places of confinement, containment, and fragmentation of revolutionary energy and activity. Similarly, the psyche is central to the ethical making of revolutionary selves, where indebtedness to revolutionary martyrs becomes the source of inspiration and courage that oblige Devrimovans to continue their political engagement when policing assumes the form of total war against politics. Nevertheless, the psyche is also central to counterinsurgency policies, where violent interpellation of revolutionaries that mark them along ethno-sectarian lines generate fear, schism, violence, and docility.

Yonucu explains how in mid-90’s the policing of dissident urban spaces assumed a specifically counter-organizational form that aimed to contain and manage revolutionary violence in the neighborhood, which transformed racialized, dissident urban spaces into permanent conflict zones and ethno-sectarian enclaves (73). In tandem with that shift, the figure of the revolutionary transformed from a protector to an armed, masked, masculinist vigilante, losing its legitimacy among the neighborhood populace. Nevertheless, Yonucu also shows that this mimetic revolutionary violence occupies a gray zone that straddles “policing and politicking at the same time” by “making the neighborhoods dangerous places for drug dealers and gangs” particularly during “an era when a significant percentage of urban poor youth across the globe are destined to become drug consumers and dealers” (15). In the post-Cold war, post-colonial, neoliberal, global-capitalist new world order, the figure of “the revolutionary” is not an “anomaly” or a relic of the past (6). It is a powerful political figure that maintains its relevance in dissident urban places like Devrimova. Furthermore, at times of larger urban uprisings, like the Gezi Park protests, the relevance of the revolutionary carries the potential to also transcend the neighborhood boundaries and shape country-wide dissident practices and imaginaries (138-157).

The puzzle that Yonucu opens the book with – namely, the conflictual and enduring coexistence of intense police surveillance and militarized spatial control alongside armed and masked revolutionary vigilante and gang activities (4) – is resolved by the paradox that the book unearths – that counterinsurgency is in fact dependent on political struggle (161). That is why policies and practices of counterinsurgency seek to generate disorder and incite counterviolence that are contained in places where racialized dissident populations live, in order to control and manage dissent (5). Nevertheless, “counterinsurgency is also productive of political struggle” (161) because it exacerbates the conditions, experience, and sense of injustice. Yonucu notes that enduring combination of state violence and counterinsurgency policing “has never successfully managed to snuff out the spirit of left-wing dissent in Turkey” (159). What low-intensity conflict and counterinsurgency methods have instead achieved is “to remake the world a more malign place” (161) that is particularly unsafe for the racialized, “oppressed populations, whose togetherness has the potential to transform the established order” by generating the revolutionary energy (160).

Police, Provocation, Politics is the product of long-term engagement and deep care, reflecting its author’s profound familiarity with the topic and the interlocutors. It is based on rich data collected via participant observation, interviews, archival research, complemented by analysis of memoirs, reports, journalistic accounts, and other media products. Presented with eloquent organization and lucid writing, the book exhibits ethnography at its prime. Another aspect of Yonucu’s writing is the commendable citational practices. Yonucu pays special attention to engage with scholarship produced by local scholars at different academic ranks, who write in both English and Turkish. She references MA theses, PhD dissertations, manuscripts published by local, small-scale publishers, as well as scholarship issued by international journals and Euro-American university presses. She displays equal care while conversing with both junior local scholars and internationally-renowned names. As such, Yonucu’s writing makes an invaluable contribution to both our understanding of the dialectical relationship between contemporary urban policing and politics, as well as the democratization of the scholarly field.

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