Thoughts on policing in Turkey – Football and beyond

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome a special guest post from Yağmur Nuhrat as part of our series of anthropological reports From the Field

Over the past summer, international audiences became aware of severe police violence during Turkey’s Gezi protests. In summer 2013, what started out as a peaceful demonstration in Istanbul to save a public park quickly led to a national uprising against the government. The resistance was marked with intense police violence in the form of tear gas, plastic bullets and pressurized water from cannons. In October 2013, Amnesty International called these actions “gross human rights violations.”

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Taksim Square (Photo taken by Yağmur Nuhrat)

It is literally impossible to embody peacefulness in the midst of police prevention practices.


These confrontations continue in Turkey today. In fact, February 8, 2014 saw clashes between police and protestors in Istanbul’s Taksim Square as groups had gathered to protest Turkey’s new Internet censorship and surveillance bill. Taksim Square has become the object of power struggle between the government and protestors in Istanbul ever since the Gezi resistance. Now, it is impossible to organize a peaceful/civil protest in this part of town since police forces wait with tear gas, plastic bullets, blast bombs and water cannons to prevent any and all demonstrations. Protestors’ bodies and self representation is thus governed as they find themselves clutching on their collars, tightening their scarves and running around with their industrial gas masks and goggles. It is literally impossible to embody peacefulness in the midst of police prevention practices.

As the resistance pit the police and the public against each other during Gezi, some groups stood out as carrying the protests forward at critical instances: workers and union representatives who had just been disallowed to organize May 1st demonstrations, university students, Alevis, LGBT representatives and finally, football (soccer) fans. What these groups had in common was that they were rehearsed in their physical and theoretical confrontation with the police. Police violence in Turkey became internationally visible during Gezi but it was nothing new. These groups had, so to say, tasted the tear gas and had experience imagining themselves as opposed to the police (Also see my argument here).

…as people wondered how football fans were able to mobilize quickly and organize parts of the Gezi protest, the answer was clear: They were already mobilized.

Specifically in relation to football, it is noteworthy to point out that this is a heavily policed site in Turkey. An Istanbul derby with around 40,000 fans may include up to 4,000 policemen, in full armor with helmets and shields as well as police tanks and water cannons to prevent any fan clashes. In my opinion, it is safe to say that years of kick-offs under foggy tear-gas and stadiums surrounded by armored police have significantly contributed to fans’ practical and theoretical experience in clashing with the police. Therefore, as people wondered how football fans were able to mobilize quickly and organize parts of the Gezi protest, the answer was clear: They were already mobilized.

Something else that contributes to the heavy policing of football fans in Turkey is the “Law to Prevent Violence and Disorder in Sport” (aka the Violence Law), passed in April 2011. The law was ostensibly put in place to eliminate physical and verbal violence from the scene of sports (mostly football). To achieve this goal, it prescribes both an increase in actual police presence in football and allocates great authority to the state in terms of collecting information about fans. For example, the law requires that each fan must be issued an electronic ticket that includes his/her ID, permanent seat number in the stadium and any past record of unruly behavior. The databank composed of such information on each registered fan is then to be shared with the Turkish Football Federation, Ministry of Finance and Internal Affairs. Other regulations include limiting rights to travel for potentially problematic fans, and increased monetary fines and imprisonment for acts of hooliganism, monitored minutely through strategically positioned cameras and control rooms in stadiums.

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These measures are in line with those around Europe that have been taking place since the 1990s in order “cleanse” football by changing the culture of fandom. In effect, these measures have gone hand in hand with capitalist concerns where such restructuration in the site of football translates to luxurious stadium designs, more expensive seats, and higher revenues for clubs, sponsors and broadcasters. Thus, I argue that the Violence Law represents a critical moment in Turkish footballing and governmentalizing history when accruing this sort of authority to the police and the state are legitimized and put in service to benefit bourgeois ideals of reordering the public space.

Such an intervention simultaneously displaces certain fans who are not deemed as “civilized” to befit the changing face of corporate, increasingly formalized and legalized football. Such fans who continue to desire to engage with their football team with chants and cheers that include swearing, by jumping up and down in stadium stands or by lighting flares to show their support are lumped in the category of uncivilized, violent hooligans and are systematically removed from the site of neoliberalized football. They are policed in multiple ways: Through the presence of actual riot police using tear gas and pressurized water, through the presence of police and private security in matches scattered around the stadium to guard them and through the functioning of the Violence Law which aims to gather as much information on them as possible to know them.

I do not argue that football violence is a nonissue and that violent fan clashes should be tolerated. Instead, I am saying that police violence mostly works to aggravate this kind of violence in Turkey and that legal measures put forth to prevent these instances actually infringe on privacy and human rights.  I am also not arguing that we should resort to a sense of restorative nostalgia (cf. Boym 2001) whereby we resists all sorts of change in the site of football. Instead, I argue that we should be critical of the kind of changes that are unfolding, taking into consideration in whose interest they are and the stakes involved.

Yağmur Nuhrat was born and raised in Istanbul. She received her BA in sociology from Boğaziçi University, Istanbul after which she moved to the US to pursue a PhD in anthropology at Brown University. She completed her MA degree on the reception and perception of migration in Istanbul in 2008. That year, she began to work on fair play and the concept of fairness in football (soccer) in Turkey. She completed her PhD in 2013 on this subject (Thesis: “Fair Enough? Negotiating Ethics in Turkish football”). Currently, she resides in Istanbul and teaches part-time at Istanbul Bilgi University, Department of Sociology. She is a yogi and a Beşiktaş JK fan.  Readers may also want to see a piece she co-wrote with her friend and colleague Karabekir Akkoyunlu at

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