WASHINGTON, DC—Chaos broke out in front of the White House on Wednesday when a Turkish Embassy employee was seen flashing a fascist salute at a group of protesters demonstrating against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, provoking a near-riot until police intervened.
“Baby killer Erdoğan!” the pro-Kurdish demonstrators had been shouting. “Turkey out of NATO!” The man—later identified as Berkay Altinok—was seen arguing with a group of anti-Erdoğan protesters carrying Kurdish flags outside the White House. While walking away, Altinok made the politically-charged sign of the Gray Wolf, prompting several protesters to peel away from the pro-Kurdish rally and give chase across Lafayette Park.
Inside the White House, Erdoğan was meeting with US President Donald Trump, trying to smooth over heightened tensions between their countries.
“The gray wolf sign is not only associated with the Erdogan-allied far right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), but also with decades of paramilitary vigilantism responsible for pogroms, extrajudicial executions, and hate crimes,” wrote Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s parliament, in an email to the Armenian Weekly. Erdemir said it would be “correct” to describe the salute as “fascist.”
One man was knocked down as police on horses rode in to protect the fleeing counter-protester. Protest marshals and organizers in yellow armbands ran to the front of the crowd, shouting at their fellow protesters to ignore Altinok and avoid clashing with the police lined up along H Street.
A protester also reportedly shoved Tuna Sanli, a reporter for Turkish state television. “I extend my sincere best wishes to TRT News reporter who was attacked by the enemies of Turkey during live stream in Washington,” the station’s Director General Ibrahim Eren wrote on Twitter. “We will continue to transmit the truth without fear, no matter which part of world we are.”
The incident evoked memories of a violent international incident in May 2017, when Erdoğan’s entourage attacked a group of Kurdish, Armenian and American demonstrators outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence at Sheridan Circle. Eleven people were injured, and the House of Representatives unanimously voted to condemn Turkey over the incident. No one was hospitalized during Wednesday’s incident, during which protest organizers successfully turned back the angry crowd as Altinok slipped behind police lines.
The protesters had been riled up by an incident about half an hour earlier, when a group of young adults wearing Turkish flag hats lingered outside the rally. When approached for comment, they refused to talk to the Weekly. A group of pro-Kurdish protesters began to swear at them, prompting the counter-protesters to beat a hasty retreat while making Gray Wolf salutes.
Afterwards, the atmosphere seemed to calm down. Protesters danced in a circle to Kurdish music, and a group of women from the Nashville Kurdish community talked about the long ride home. “As refugees, we have a duty to do this,” said Shermin, one of the women. “I can’t imagine what the people are going through.”
Guy Stewart, an American who had fought alongside the Syrian Kurds against ISIS as a volunteer, told the Weekly, “As long as we draw breath, we’ll fight.”
Ömer Pacal, a protester who witnessed the scuffles, told the Armenian Weekly that he recognized Altinok as a Turkish Embassy employee named “Berkay” who “always” shows up at pro-Kurdish protests.
Altinok is listed as a media analyst and tourism and commerce expert at the Turkish Embassy in Washington since 2014 on LinkedIn. A photo caption from the Assembly of Turkish American Associations posted to Facebook on May 30, 2015 and an article in Brigham Young University-Idaho’s school paper published on July 5, 2016 both list Altinok as the Assistant to the Press Counselor of the Turkish Embassy in Washington. The photo of Altinok available on LinkedIn and the photo of him posted by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations match a publicly-available video of the scuffle, as well as footage obtained by the Armenian Weekly. In the latter photo, Altinok is standing beside several other embassy officials.
Altinok’s LinkedIn profile includes a copy of a letter of reference signed by Deputy Chief of Mission Aydan Karamanoğlu and dated June 12, 2018, claiming that Altinok “was able to handle the full load of our press office by himself for a long time in the absence of a Press Counselor.” A woman who answered the phone at the Press Counselor’s office said that she did not recognize Altinok’s name, but provided an email address to follow up. As of press time, the Turkish Embassy has not responded to multiple email requests for comment.
“This particular time, we have taken every precaution to ensure that we will be ready for them if they decide to attack us again, but so far we’ve seen a few very paltry displays,” said Lacy MacAuley, a protest organizer who had been attacked by the Turkish security detail in 2017. “We’re hoping that mainly it is our words that will attack Erdoğan.”
In the 2017 incident, Erdoğan watched as his guards and supporters broke through a DC police line to attack protesters who had been shouting “baby killer Erdoğan!” At the time, the Turkish Embassy claimed that the demonstrators were “aggressively provoking Turkish-American citizens who had peacefully assembled to greet the president. The Turkish-Americans responded in self-defense and one of them was seriously injured.”
While the protesters gathered outside the White House on Wednesday, Trump hosted a meeting between Erdoğan and Republican senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Jim Risch (R-ID), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Rick Scott (R-FL). Erdoğan defended his country’s controversial war against the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, showing the senators a video that linked the Syrian Kurdish fighters to a violent Kurdish separatist organization inside Turkey. “Well, do you want me to go get the Kurds to make one about what you’ve done?” Graham reportedly told Erdoğan. But an hour later, Graham blocked an attempt by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to recognize the Armenian Genocide with unanimous consent.
“For far too long, U.S. policy was set in Ankara, exported to America and enforced by presidents, Democrat and Republican. That day, my friends, is coming to an end!” shouted Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) executive director Aram Hamparian at the rally, referencing what he called the longest-lasting foreign veto in US history. “America was muzzled. America enforced a gag rule for the better part of a century,” said Hamparian.
Turkey refuses to recognize the murder of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I as a genocide. During his joint press conference with Trump, Erdoğan denounced an earlier House resolution recognizing the genocide, instead promising to “establish a history commission.”
Graham echoed Erdoğan’s language, claiming that the goal was not “to sugarcoat history or try to rewrite it, but to deal with the present.” “I just met with President Erdoğan and President Trump about the problems we face in Syria by the military incursion by Turkey,” he told the Senate. “I do hope that Turkey and Armenia can come together and deal with this problem.”