“There is no state power behind us […]; there is the voice of the dead people who constantly walk along with us, that’s all.”

hese were the words of Türkan Elçi, whose husband Tahir Elçi, a prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer, was shot to death in 2015 during a press conference in Amed (Diyarbakir), the unofficial capital of Northern Kurdistan (Southeast Turkey). The press conference was organised to address the escalating violence in the region. A few minutes before his murder, Tahir Elçi had told the press: “We don’t want guns here, clashes, or [police] operations” (Amnesty International, 2020).

It took Turkish courts four and a half years to start investigating Tahir Elçi’s murder. Three policemen who were present at the scene were added as suspects in the case, only after the research group Forensic Architecture published a detailed forensic investigation report of the video footage of the incident. The report concluded that Elçi was most likely killed by one of the three policemen (Forensic Architecture, 2018). Like many other incidences of Kurdish death at the hands of the police or paramilitary forces, the case remains unsolved.

Tahir Elçi himself was renowned for challenging police impunity and advocating for the victims of unresolved state crimes in Northern Kurdistan. He brought several cases before the European Court of Human Rights concerning the forced evictions of Kurdish villages, disappearances, killings, and torture of Kurdish people. In the history of Turkey, there are countless human rights violations that Tahir Elçi and other human rights defenders have brought to light (Kurban, 2020). Having been established as a Sunni-dominated Turkish state in 1923, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s many non-Turkish and non-Sunni Indigenous populations, have since faced pogroms, massacres, mass displacements, lynching, and other forms of state or state backed civilian violence. The Turkish nation-state formation project which “alternated between genocidal, assimilationist, and unevenly developmentalist policies” (Adalet, 2022: 1), entailed the colonialization of predominantly Kurdish territories (Adalet, 2022; Beşikçi, 20004) and effectively transformed Kurdish spaces into emergency zones, where Kurdish populations have “become subject to the unbound sovereign power of the state” (Secor, 2013: 44).

As Türkan Elçi argues, there is no state power behind Kurds. In fact, living under colonial rule where violence against the colonised is not an exception but the rule, state power works against Kurdish people; it reduces them into killable subjects. However, despite the ongoing colonial violence in Northern Kurdistan and various covert and elusive counterinsurgency techniques that are designed to divide Kurdish society from within and isolate Kurdish resistance from other segments of the society, Turkish ruling elites could never manage to quell the left-wing Kurdish resistance (Yonucu, 2022). While the first half Turkan Elçi’s above statement is essential for understanding why Kurds have been subjected to necropolitical violence in Turkey, the second half is crucial for understanding how resistance stays alive under an oppressive rule. The dead people who continue to walk along the living are major political actors who help keeping the resistance alive.

In this piece, I argue that to understand how, despite the grave consequences, certain communities and individuals continue to act out against police power and punitive security states, we need to take into consideration the invigorating power of what I call ‘inspirational hauntings’ the hauntings of past resistance and rebellious and defiant subjects who seep into the present and serve as encouraging and emboldening political and ethical resources. After her husband’s murder, Türkan Elçi studied law and became a human rights lawyer, fighting police impunity. Like countless other Kurdish activists and guerrillas who were killed by the Turkish security state, Tahir Elçi has now become an ever-stronger source of inspiration for younger generations who feel indebted to fallen ones and feel an ethical responsibility to keep their struggles alive. Leyla Neyzi and Haydar Darici (2015), for instance, shows that Kurdish youths’ feeling of indebtedness to the deceased guerrillas urges them to take a more active part in the anti-colonial struggle. In a similar fashion, my activist interlocutors from Istanbul’s racialised working-class neighbourhoods, underline how deceased revolutionaries and guerrillas are their main source of inspiration in the fight against capitalism and colonialism. “We must defy fear and continue their struggle as our own,” “ We are indebted to the those who sacrificed their lives while fighting capitalism and colonialism,” “We must keep their resistance alive,” “We must keep them alive”  they tell me time and again when I ask them how could they continue to express their rage against the police and refuse docility and complicity despite the draconian anti-terror laws, intense police violence and endless pressure to capitulate and become police informants. Walking alongside the living, those activists who were murdered by the security state continue to roam the earth, connect not only the past oppression but also the past resistance to the present.

Avery Gordon’s (2008) ground-breaking exploration of the “ghostly matters” as a subject of social analysis gave rise to significant discussions on the afterlives of past injustices, violence, and oppression over the last decades. Her conceptualization of haunting as an “animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known” (Gordon, 2011: 5), has been particularly helpful in exploring how haunting, by calling forth ethical questions, create a need-to-do-something. Gordon shows how, those who lost their lives due to social violence, continue to seep into the present and interrupt the politics of the day to demand justice and recompense (Gordon, 2008). Studies on haunting mostly focus on the histories of oppression.  However, as Sara Salem, in her work on the afterlives of Nasserism (a project of social justice and Arab socialism) demonstrates, haunting also offers liberatory possibilities: “haunting inspires, pushes, nurtures, and cultivates hope” (Salem, 2019: 275).  To understand how haunting inspires action and resistance, it is important to remember that histories of the oppressed are not just about oppression but also resistance. That is to say that in certain social and historical contexts, as in the case I analyse here, hauntings of oppression are deeply entwined with hauntings of resistance. Hence, as I elaborate on elsewhere (Yonucu 2023) to understand the inspirational power of hauntings, we need to be attuned to the hauntings of past resistance and their unique psychic effects, alongside the haunting of oppression.

Gordon does not explicitly write about the hauntings of resistance. Yet, her analysis of Argentina’s Madres de la Plaza de Mayo — the mothers of the disappeared people during the country’s Dirty War — offers an excellent example of the intertwinement of hauntings of oppression and resistance. Madres de la Plaza de Mayo “were one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of the military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983”. This era of military rule saw the disappearance of 30,000 Argentinians, the overwhelming majority of whom were left-wing activists (Howe, 2006: 43). The people who disappeared were not merely victims to a horrific violence, however. Their disappearance was a direct consequence of their fight for justice. What is lost when they disappeared, then, was not just their bodies and lives, but also their roles in organised resistance. Hence, the disappeared do not linger on earth just as the ghosts of those who were subjected to brutal violence. Rather, they represent ghosts of those who were subjected to cruelty because of their struggle for justice. In other words, the voices of the disappeared do not only remind us of the past violence but also the past resistance. They do not merely demand accountability for those responsible for their disappearances. They also demand the acknowledgement and continuation of their resistance, which the ruling elites of the time were so committed to erase from the society and collective memory. Gordon (2008: 111-112) argues how, with an “extraordinary absence of fear”, the mothers became the “guardians and inheritors” of their “children’s political aspirations for social justice”. Similarly, in Turkey, Saturday Mothers (mothers of the disappeared activists) and the Peace Mothers (mothers of Kurdish guerrillas), became fearless political actors, addressing atrocities of the state and demanding justice, despite the police violence, detentions, and harassment (Karaman, 2016).  I suggest that defying fear and feeling the need to protect and inherit the deceased people’s political aspirations and struggle, are among the unique psychic effects of being haunted by ghosts of those who lost their lives while fighting oppressive social structures. And such effects are not limited to the mothers.

While I was conducting research among racialized and working-class Kurdish and Alevi activists in Istanbul, I was often amazed by their radical refusal of fear and complicity despite serious consequences. Many of my interlocutors were sentenced to decades in prison, lost their jobs, or tortured by the police for simply refusing to work as police informants. For them defying fear and continuing to the struggle for justice and liberation was a debt that circulates from generation to generation. I heard the following words from countless interlocutors: “We are indebted to all those people who lost their lives while fighting this fascist state,” “The only way to pay our debt is to continue their struggle as our own.”  Inheriting the struggle of the fallen ones is not just about keeping their struggles alive, but also about keeping them alive as people. “We must keep them alive, we must live them” is another common phrase, I heard from my young activist interlocutors.  Haunting, as Gordon argues, connects past to present and history to biography. But as my interlocutors’ desire to “live” the fallen ones suggest, haunting can also create a corporeal, embodied connections with the living and the dead. Some of my young interlocutors told me that they feel that they resurrect the dead in their own bodies at the moments when they act out and express their rage against the police violence. One young man, while describing his response to a violent police attack in his neighbourhood, told me, “When I take a stone in my hand to throw at the police, I say, this is […] for Hasan Ocak [a disappeared Marxist school teacher].” In that moment, I feel like Hasan Ocak comes alive in my body” (Yonucu, 2022).

To sum up, oppressive social structures and relations and police violence do not always manage to supress resistance or to push it off the stage into the forms of covert resistance elaborated by the likes of James C. Scott (1985). Despite the necropolitical violence, torture, and decades long imprisonment, certain racialised, colonised, and impoverished populations continue to act out against repressive security states. To understand how resistance and radical refusal of docility and complicity continues we need to take the political agency of the no-longer into account and pay attention to the voices of the dead, which calls the living into action.


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Deniz Yonucu is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University. Her monograph Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul (Cornell University Press, 2022) is the winner of the 2023 Anthony Leeds Prize for the best book in urban anthropology.