Counterinsurgency and Insurgent Safety in Istanbul

Editor’s note: This is the second post in The Metropole’s theme month on Istanbul. You can see additional posts in the series at the bottom of the page.

By Deniz Yonucu                                                                       

The Black Lives Matter Movement was not only successful in drawing large-scale attention to police violence enabled by deeply embedded racism both in the United States and internationally, but also in bringing past experiences and discussions regarding abolitionism and non-carceral community safety practices back into the debate. Over the past five years, radical voices that aim to abolish carceral logics and explore alternative anti-racist, anti-capitalist community safety practices became clearly audible. For racialized communities, who have been targeted by both state and civilian violence, developing non-state mechanisms of public safety is of vital importance. In this short piece, drawing on my recently published book, Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul,[1] I focus on the long tradition of alternative forms of self-governance and community safety practices in Istanbul’s working-class neighborhoods inhabited predominantly by Kurdish and Turkish Alevis.[2] These practices resemble what Meghan G. McDowell calls “insurgent safety”—“locally determined anti-capitalist ethics and practices” that “refuse the logics of the carceral state” and aim “to build a world where safety is not predicated on banishment, mass criminalization, or policing in any form”—and have been the main targets of counterinsurgency in Istanbul for several decades.[3]

May Day protests in Istanbul, 2008. Though the protests pictured here and below did not take place in the same neighborhood described by the author, but rather in Taksim Square, they are indicative of the history regarding such efforts Courtesy of The Turkish Life.

Insurgent Safety in Istanbul   

For Istanbul’s racialized Kurdish and Turkish Alevi workers, who have been subjected to various forms of state and state-backed civilian violence, building their own sanctuary spaces in order to defend against such “adverse forces” and the construction of their own safety mechanisms have always been an important part of their survival strategy. In line with the massive migration wave to big cities from rural towns, Istanbul’s first predominantly Kurdish and Turkish Alevi working-class neighborhoods began to emerge informally in the 1960s and 70s. The revolutionary organizations of the time, which considered Alevi and Kurdish working-classes the most oppressed group in Turkey and hence their “natural allies,” took an active part in creating sanctuaries for them by helping them build their own neighborhoods.[4] As I illustrate, these collective space-building practices went well beyond the efforts to create safe shelters as protection against outside threats but also paved the way for a “world-building practice” that allowed women and men to come together to experiment with local, direct self-governance.[5]

The most extensive and well-known of these self-governance practices took place in the Bir Mayıs (literally, May Day) neighborhood, where workers established a people’s committee (halk komitesi), during the second half of the 1970s.[6] This neighborhood, similar to counterparts such as Gazi Mahallesi, Okmeydani, Cayan Mahallesi, and Armutlu, was constructed mainly by Kurdish and Turkish Alevi workers who sought jobs and refuge in Istanbul in the 1970s. Considered cornerstones of the “communist threat” both by the Turkish security state and the CIA during the Cold War era, Kurds and Alevis were especially vulnerable to anti-communist counterinsurgency, which included the mobilization of nationalist and Islamist groups against leftists.[7]  

With the erection of the first shacks in these neighborhoods came frequent clashes with state security forces, who entered the neighborhoods often with military vehicles and bulldozers to demolish the structures. Nationalists and Islamists also regularly engaged in lynching in those urban spaces.[8] This, in effect, made self-defense one of the most urgent issues of the people’s committees. Accordingly, one of the first tasks of the committees was forming public safety (asayiş) groups. Divided into three sub-groupings—neighborhood patrol groups, border patrol groups, and escort groups—public safety groups provide insight into the scope of everyday violence endured by these communities.

Neighborhood patrol groups watched over communities both at night and during the day to maintain neighborhood safety. Aware of the fact that state security forces employed agent provocateurs to provoke racialized and dissident communities into violence so as to stigmatize them and effectively delegitimize their political struggles and demands, one of the main tasks of this group was to prevent fights and outright conflicts in the community.[9]

Border patrol groups were responsible for protecting the neighborhood’s boundaries, in part by informing residents as soon as they spotted racist and Islamist mobs or military vehicles and bulldozers approaching the neighborhood. In the case of such threats, the members of the patrol groups would blow whistles to call the residents into the streets as a means to form a unified defense against possible attacks. Isaac Işıtan’s documentary on the demolition of the Bir Mayıs neighborhood on September 2, 1977, for instance, illustrates both the scope of the state violence against the community and the community’s united self-defense. It demonstrates that despite the police’s use of lethal force, which resulted in the deaths of nine residents, hundreds filled the streets to prevent the neighborhood’s demolition.[10] Lastly, escort groups were designed to protect the residents in the vicinity of the neighborhood, where they were frequently subjected to racist attacks. Women, who worked mainly in affluent areas of the city as housemaids, and who, unlike factory workers, had to go to their job alone or in small numbers, were especially vulnerable. Members of the escort groups accompanied them to the bus stops outside the neighborhood in the mornings and then back in the evenings. Many elderly women I interviewed asserted that it was thanks to these escort groups that they could work and earn their own money which helped them to challenge traditional gender roles.

Not unlike the Black Panthers who approached community safety from a wider perspective to include “programs for survival, ranging from the provision of free shoes and education to land banking and the school breakfast program,” the people’s committees in those Istanbul neighborhoods, too, included broader anti-capitalist safety policies.[11] Inspired by Soviet-style local self-governance, the committees formed various working groups focusing on subjects including electricity, water, health, and urban development, often in collaboration with revolutionary students. For example, medical students provided residents with basic health care services and public health education. Urban planning students helped residents distribute the land justly, as they transformed their shacks into houses and planned the streets and public spaces. The Marxist principle of “to each according to their need” was applied in decisions regarding the just distribution of land, with need calculated according to the number of family members per household. Today there are still several local organizations in these neighborhoods which help residents fight the obstacles created by capitalist structures. The education cooperative Mayısta Yaşam, for instance, continues to maintain solidarity between leftist university students and neighborhood youth by offering free university entrance courses.

The committee experience also opened up a transformative space for defacto feminist politics. As such, the women who took part in the committees began to challenge the patriarchal distinction between the public and private spheres and brought traditionally private matters into public discussion. Difficult issues of domestic violence, male alcoholism, and the gendered dimensions of household finances were eventually brought to the people’s committee meetings where residents discussed community issues publicly and sought non-carceral resolutions. In the cases of irresponsive and alcoholic husbands, the committee’s solution was to request spouses hand over their salaries to their wives at the beginning of each month. Committees also disallowed abusive partners from going home until they proved that they had changed. Though met with resistance by many men, women’s participation in the people’s committees was an empowering experience for women, one that still brings a smile to the faces of the women who participated in the committee activities.

Turkish security forces oversee May Day protests, 2008. Courtesy of The Turkish Life.

Defame and Destruct

While people’s committees allowed Istanbul’s racialized urban working classes to create their own sanctuary spaces in the city and experiment with local self-governance (a key component of radical democracy), for American and Turkish counterinsurgents they were a “crude form of sovereignty,” a form of “terrorism” that challenged the sovereignty of the state.[12] As the people’s committee experience began to gain popularity in the other parts of the country, the Turkish mainstream media launched a condemnation campaign against the people’s committees. In September 1977, for instance, one pro-government newspaper warned the public that “the enemies of the state and the nation” were establishing “liberated zones”—zones that cannot be controlled by the state.[13] This was soon followed by the aforementioned state security attack in the Bir Mayıs neighborhood. Six months later, mainstream newspapers once again carried the people’s committees into their banner headlines and front pages, condemning them as “havens for anarchists.” Wherever there were people’s committees, the communities were portrayed as violent, unruly, and uncontrollable.

Newspaper commentaries on such areas were accompanied by police operations which often resulted in the persecution of the people who took part in these efforts. In subsequent decades, whenever the residents of Bir Mayıs and of similar neighborhoods attempted to rebuild people’s committees, they have been met with defamation campaigns by the mainstream media; their attempts labeled “terrorist activity.” Such media campaigns played a significant role in stigmatizing sanctuary spaces as “no-go areas” and in further racializing their Alevi and Kurdish inhabitants as “unruly people” who pose a threat to the well-being of the state and the nation.

Legacies of the People’s Committees and Provocative Counterinsurgency

Despite the condemnation campaigns and the persecution of the people who took an active part in the people’s committees, the committee experience still serves as an inspiration for the residents of Bir Mayıs and similar neighborhoods. The legacy of the committees continues to encourage them to come together in dealing with everyday problems and situate these problems within the larger context of capitalist, racist, and patriarchal structures. Not dissimilar to the favelas of Sao Paulo, banlieues of Paris, ghettos of Chicago, or many other urban spaces inhabited by racialized and dispossessed populations, these neighborhoods, too, have been suffering from gang violence and drug dealing activities since the early 2000s. Like their global counterparts, they have been simultaneously overpoliced and underserved. That is to say that police are not available when it comes to providing safety against drugs and gang violence. Instead, they appear as a punitive and life-threatening force. Many community activists have been organized in neighborhood associations and continue to experiment with non-carceral and non-punitive community safety practices to keep the neighborhoods free of gang and drug related activity. These non-carceral community safety practices consist of a wide range of activities, including organizing sport teams as a means to foster a culture of solidarity, anti-capitalist reading groups to help young people see the connections between capitalism and criminalization of the poor, masculinity workshops to help local youths critically reflect on their attraction to the gang culture, and opening local rehabilitation centers for drug users.

Istanbul police show of force in the face of May Day protests, 2008. Courtesy of The Turkish Life.

But as I illustrate throughout my book, Police, Provocation, Politics, the security state invests an enormous amount of resources to manipulate and undermine such alternative practices as those discussed here. The Turkish security state, in its attempts to stigmatize such alternative world-building practices, has employed various provocative counterinsurgency techniques that encouraged and facilitated the use of violence among these racialized and dissident communities. What perplexed me the most when I was conducting ethnographic research in a working-class neighborhood predominantly populated by Kurdish and Turkish Alevis, was to see that the most community-minded activists, who were experimenting with non-carceral and non-punitive forms of community safety, were among the main targets of anti-terror laws. Many of those activists, who organized reading groups, masculinity workshops, public discussions and demonstrations against gang and drug activity, were sentenced to decades-long sentences for terrorism charges. As I have discussed elsewhere, selective targeting of those activists and the continuing presence of the state security apparatus and gangs as major security threats paved the way for masked and armed vigilantism that mimics the official policing practices in those urban spaces.[14] The Turkish counterinsurgency’s relative success here lies in its ability to transform certain socialist community safety groups into safety threats against the communities that need their protection. In Police, Provocation, Politics I demonstrate that such a form of counterinsurgent policing—one that is concerned with creating disorder by provoking violence and conflict—is informed by a colonial school of warfare and Cold War/decolonial era counterinsurgencies. This counterinsurgency technique has been applied in many other urban spaces, ranging from Catholic neighborhoods of Northern Ireland to townships in South Africa.

While security states learn from each other and continuously hone their counterinsurgency skills to destruct alternative forms of justice divested from the state, communities who suffer from oppressive social structures can be tremendously creative and resilient in their attempts to experiment with new modes of democratic living. Within this frame, urban history has a great deal to offer in bringing past experiences into conversation with current attempts to create insurgent safety mechanisms and helping help racialized and dispossessed communities learn from the past and one another.

Additional posts in the series on Istanbul:

Deniz Yonucu is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography, Politics, and Sociology at Newcastle University. Her work focuses on counterinsurgency and policing, surveillance, resistance, memory, and racism. Her book, Police, Provocation, Politics Counterinsurgency in Istanbul (Cornell University Press, 2022), presents a counterintuitive analysis of policing, focusing particular attention on the incitement of counterviolence and perpetual conflict by the state security apparatus. She is Directions Section co-editor of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) and co-founder and co-convenor of the Anthropology of Surveillance Network (ANSUR). Her recent work appeared or is forthcoming in Current Anthropology, IJURR, Social and Legal Studies, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies and Critical Times.

Featured image (at top): Street railroad and people on the Galata Bridge with boats below, Istanbul, Turkey. Galata Köprüsü, Istanbul (ca. 1940-1953), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Deniz Yonucu, Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022).

[2] A historically stigmatized and ethnically heterogeneous belief group in Sunni-Turkish majority Turkey. While the majority of Alevis identify ethnically as Turkish, there are also Kurdish, Arab, and Zaza Alevis. The latter groups are stigmatized and racialized due to their ethnic identities as well as their belief.

[3] Meghan G. McDowell, “Insurgent Safety: Theorizing Alternatives to State Protection.” Theoretical Criminology 23, no. 1 (2019), 70.

[4] Martin van Bruinessen, “Kurds, Turks and the Alevi Revival in Turkey,” Middle East Report no. 200 (1996), 7-10.

[5] Linda M. G. Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[6] Şükrü Aslan, 1 Mayıs Mahallesi: 1980 Öncesi Toplumsal Mücadeleler ve Kent (İletişim Yayınları, 2008).

[7] See the CIA’s publicly available report on this:

[8]  Tanıl Bora & Deniz Yonucu, “State and Civilian Violence Against ‘Dangerous’ Others,” in Authoritarianism and Resistance in Turkey, Eds. Esra Özyürek, Gaye Özpınar, and Emrah Altındiş (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2019), 229-235. Also at

[9] Gary T. Marx, “Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant.” American Journal of Sociology 80, no. 2 (1974): 402-442.

[10] The documentary also presents live footage of tens of men, women, and children passing bricks from hand to hand while singing a song on collective production while they were rebuilding the demolished shacks. Available at: 2 Eylül Direnişi Belgeseli 1 Mayıs Mahallesi – YouTube.

[11] Raj Patel, “Survival Pending Revolution: What the Black Panthers Can Teach the US Food Movement,” in Food Movements Unite, Ed. Eric Holt-Giménez (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2011): 115-137.

[12] Sabri Sayarı and Bruce Hoffman, Urbanization and Insurgency: The Turkish Case, 1976-1980, RAND Note N-3228-USDP, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1991),

[13] Aslan, 1 Mayıs Mahallesi, 124.

[14] Deniz Yonucu, “Urban Vigilantism: A Study of Anti‐Terror Law, Politics and Policing in Istanbul.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 42, no. 3 (2018): 408-422.

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