‘It’s not harmful’, Interior Affairs minister Sahin said, referring to tear gas. Still, over the last couple of years, seven people have died in Turkey from the effects of tear gas. For example: two had a heart attack after they were sprayed with tear gas, one died after a tear gas canister hit his head. So, now there is a discussion going about whether or not tear gas is harmful. I would like to raise another question: why aren’t the Turkish police better trained to manage demonstrations, instead of letting them get out of control?
Let me take the death of Metin Lokumcu as an example. He was a teacher from Hopa, a town on the Black Sea coast, not far from the Georgian border. Last year, the AKP election campaign paid Hopa a visit, and of course PM Erdogan was going to speak. In Hopa, the AKP is, to say the least, not much loved. People gathered to demonstrate against the governing party, among them Metin Lokumcu. The demonstration got out of hand, stones were thrown, water cannons and tear gas were used. Matin Lokumcu died, as it turned out later from a heart attack, possibly caused by panic over the tear gas used.
When the Turkish police use tear gas, they do it in a big way: shot from a riot vehicle at the crowd in general. A few stone throwers are enough to make the police react, sometimes not even one stone thrower is needed for them to take action. Often, just demonstrating is enough. The examples are numerous and all recent: students being attacked by police for protesting against certain politicians visiting their university, union members dispersed while protesting against changes in the education system, leftists in a battle with police while demonstrating against the death of Metin Lokumcu, and so on.
Are the protesters doing nothing wrong? Are they all angels? That is not the point. If there were large scale riots, then the use of teargas might be justified, but that has seldom been the case in the demonstrations at which teargas was used. When just a few people in a crowd throw stones, tear gas should be out of the question, because it can seriously damage the health of people who had peaceful intensions and were just there to exercise their right to demonstrate. But also because teargas only increases the tension – if you didn’t have stone throwers already, you will sure have them after using tear gas.
It is the responsibility of the police and of the Ministry of Interior Affairs to manage demonstrations properly, to make sure they don’t get out of hand. Indeed they have to make sure people can safely exercise their democratic right to demonstrate. The Turkish police are far from doing that. And the first step towards it is to ban the use of tear gas against peaceful protesters – the type of protesters that are by far the majority in Turkey.