U.S. protests recall Gezi and Erdoğan's divisive strategy

The protests spreading across the United States in response to the killing of George Floyd and the rhetoric used by President Donald Trump remind many observers of Turkey’s 2013 Gezi Park protests and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's way of handling the nationwide demonstrations.

On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, was killed by a white police officer that pinned him to the ground by the neck, while Floyd repeatedly told him: “I can’t breathe.”

It was a shocking scene that triggered protests across the country. Tensions are continuing to rise further with Trump’s inflammatory comments and Tweets.

On Friday, Trump called protesters in Minneapolis “thugs” tweeting: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”, a phrase with racist origins which was censored by Twitter.

Trump’s language provoked more aggression as violence boiled over in Minneapolis and other parts of the United States. Protesters hurled bottles and bricks at Secret Service and U.S. police officers behind barricades chanting “No justice, no peace" and calling for racial equality in the United States. Across the nation the police responded with a huge show of force, deploying tear gas and rubber bullets, even against peaceful protesters.

Protests in the United States matter to Turkey, as they resemble similar scenes from seven years ago in Istanbul when protesters stood up against bulldozers that were set to destroy the city’s Gezi Park in order to construct a government-sponsored shopping mall.

Erdoğan, then Turkey’s prime minister, using negative and provocative language that divided Turkey into two camps, a country of "friends and foes” – even calling the protesters “terrorists” at one point, along with many other incendiary words.

“We cannot allow lawbreakers to hang around freely in this square. We will clean Gezi Park of them,” Erdoğan said, and ordered his security forces to clear the square violently, resembling what happened at Lafayette Park in Washington on June 1.

Later, in order to save “his Turkey” as he called it, Erdoğan started singling out all critics – international or local – and labelling them as terrorists, extremists, groups serving foreign powers, and interest rate lobbies – a coded anti-Semitic phrase - in a widening witch-hunt.

“Those who work against Turkey will tremble with fear,” he warned, vowing to hold accountable all those who had supported “terrorists” many times since then.

The Gezi protests that involved over 3.5 million people were followed by a severe police crackdown in which 15 people were killed and about 5,000 were arrested, according to figures from the Turkish Bar Association.

Gezi reignited political violence and division between Turkey’s right and left and set the scene for the increasingly authoritarian path the government has been following since then.

A similar pattern is being formed in the United States under Trump’s presidency.

Trump has accused members of American leftist Antifa movement of masterminding the widespread violent protests, even though experts talking to the U.S. media say there is no evidence to support the theory.

The U.S. president did not stop there, but went further saying that he wanted Antifa to be banned as a terrorist organisation in the United States.

It is commonly agreed that there are people in the crowd who are keen to stir up violence, break windows and set fires, but the majority of protesters have been peaceful.

This is all taking place just five months before the presidential election. Trump has already warned that the radical left will get into power if his opponent Joe Biden is elected.

But what about the impact of the president threatening peaceful demonstrators outside the White House in Washington D.C. with the use of the military and clearing them with tear gas so that he could pose for a photo outside a church?

Trump’s overt use of religious and nationalist symbols, including holding a Bible at the door of a church, was also reminiscent of Erdoğan’s behaviour in 2013 when he brandished a Quran and tried to portray the protesters as irreligious.

There were very few state officials or religious authorities brave enough to stand against Erdoğan then, but it appears in the U.S. that some governors from Trump’s own party may be willing to criticise him, and the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of D.C. - which oversees the church Trump visited - said that Trump had engaged in "abuse of sacred symbols," using "sacred texts" to justify words  and actions that were "antithetical to everything we stand for."

It is still early to know if Erdoğan’s Gezi playbook will also work for Trump because these two countries and their issues remain vastly different.