Europe's largest courthouse, Istanbul's towering palace of justice, played host on Tuesday to a startling scene of revolutionary violence. Two leftist militants took a prosecutor, Mehmet Salim Kariz, hostage in his office. Acting in the name of the far left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), the men released a photo with a gun to Kariz's head and issued demands that would not be met. A shootout with police left the hostage-takers and the hostage all dead by night.
Bandying anti-police slogans and breaking windows is enough to be labeled a violent radical in the U.S. Marxist-Leninists here are more likely to sell a weekly rag with "worker" in the title than take up armed struggle. The idea of beret-clad hostage taking feels as distant as the journey from Istanbul from New York. But the context of the DHKP/C's action is not foreign: The militants demanded that police be held accountable for killing a teenage boy, who was demonized posthumously by the authorities and whose death-by-cop led to mass protests.
Kariz had been the lead prosecutor in an investigation into the police killing of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan. The teen was struck in the face by a tear gas canister while walking to buy bread during the height of anti-government protests in June 2013. He fell into a coma and died nine months later, re-catalyzing demonstrations and popular rage. No police have been brought to trial and Elvan's image has become a ubiquitous symbol of resistance. A friend of mine in Istanbul said even his unibrow became a protest emblem—two connected arches, like a seagull's open wings.
As no strangers to entrenched police impunity, we in the U.S. shouldn't be mystified by the DHKP/C's actions. The fatal hostage taking, and a follow up shooting attack at the Istanbul police headquarters on Wednesday, were acts of profound violence. But this is not senseless violence. It makes total sense. The militants took the prosecutor hostage and announced their demands, including a confession on live television by police to the killing of Elvan, that charges be dropped against anti-government protesters, and that the police be tried in a "people's court."
The armed militants, designated a terrorist group in the U.S. and Europe, knew that no such demands would be met. The Erdogan government has been criticized for maintaining a police state. Police are always state apparatus; in Turkey, they're Erdogan's army, too. Impunity reigns and no "people's court" would be countenanced. The DHKP/C knew that in recent history, hostage situations have essentially entailed death via police raid.
The hostage taking was about issuing, not winning demands. It recalls the 19th century anarchist tradition known as propaganda of the deed—a typically extreme political act, intended to spark general revolt. High-profile killings and kidnappings of heads of state exemplified the tactic, like the assassinations of Czar Alexander II of Russia, President Carnot of France, King Umberto of Italy, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and President William McKinley of the United States.
Whether the DHKP/C hostage taking will provoke more anti-government dissent in Turkey is unknown. Protests in the Istanbul neighborhoods with deep ties to the group were met reliably with tear gas Tuesday night. Then, two DHKP/C members followed up on Wednesday with a shooting attack on the city's police headquarters (one assailant was killed, the other wounded and arrested).
Propaganda as deed fails if popular dissent doesn't follow. And while the radical violence may well continue, it risks vindicating the government's fierce crackdowns on protesters and increased police militarization.
But this argument—that state oppression is vindicated when anti-state action is violent — is as old as revolutionary violence itself. It's a pernicious logic that preserves a state monopoly on violence. And it's of particular note that it doesn't require armed groups like the DHKP/C to proliferate.
In the U.S., there is not only a fear of justifying state violence, there is a presumption that riotous behavior justifies military-style crackdowns on protesters. During Occupy's heyday, Chris Hedges called the few black-clad anarchists who graffitied an Oakland police station and broke a window a "cancer" on the movement. Such logic (state logic, to be sure) condones the repression of all but the most defanged protest.
We don't have DHKP/C-style militant groups on home soil today. It has been decades since armed leftist radicals were a feature in the American political landscape—black power militancy and Weather Underground-style violence was largely jailed or assassinated by the late '70s. Hostage taking in Europe hasn't been much of a leftist game there either since the mid-1970s with the Baader-Meinhof guerillas in Germany. It's too early to say whether we're seeing a return to this sort of militancy.
We might fiercely disavow the DHKP/C tactics, but the sentiment is hard to reject. It was felt by protesters in their thousands when a Ferguson grand jury announced that Officer Darren Wilson would not face charges for shooting dead unarmed teen Mike Brown, and when no indictment was brought against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner. The past year in U.S. policing has lodged the idea in our protest imaginary that justice will likely not come from the state. It's a circumstance, as in Istanbul, that doesn't necessarily demand revolutionary violence, but would certainly account for it.