In an alarming episode on May 17, armed security officers traveling with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked protesters gathered outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC. The protesters objected to Erdogan’s visit to the White House earlier in the day because of Turkish human rights abuses. Video shows Erdogan watching from his car as members of his security detail attack protesters.
While the Washington police have described the incident as a “brutal attack on peaceful protesters,” Turkey has condemned “the aggressive and unprofessional actions taken” by American security personnel against Turkish security officers.
As the diplomatic rift over the incident deepens, Susannah Jacob spoke to Lucy Usoyan, a 34-year-old resident of Arlington, Virginia, who was one of the nine people injured in the protest. She described how the day’s events unfolded in a phone interview, which has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Susannah Jacob: Please tell me about yourself.
Lucy Usoyan: I’m a founder of a Yazidi relief fund, EZIDI, and I consider myself a human rights activist. I’m very sorry if I talk slowly; I’m on medication and feeling a little dizzy [from injuries sustained during the protest]. I’ve been advocating for the Yazidi people since 2014, but the more I’ve learned about the Yazidi case, the more attention I’ve paid to the Kurdish issue, and have learned about how the Kurds have been heavily discriminated against and had their rights restricted. Yazidis and Kurds have been through horrific times and the world has turned a blind eye.
When we learned President Erdogan had been welcomed to the White House, we felt the citizens of the United States deserved to learn that this man has no idea of democracy. In a post-referendum crackdown, members of the second-largest opposition group, the People’s Democratic Party, in Turkey have been imprisoned and there are significant human rights violations and citizens’ rights violations happening in Turkey. And this man went to the White House. We were protesting that.
SJ: What specifically inspired you to start learning about the Yazidi people?
LU: It was the event on Aug. 3, 2014, when ISIS attacked the Yazidi homeland on Mount Sinjar. About three years ago I decided that this [cause] was going to be my career. I’m actually a paralegal, and I have done some NGO work. I travel to the regions, to the camps, to do assessments.
SJ: Why did you attend the protest last Tuesday?
LU: To raise our voices and to make sure that the current administration in Washington hears. We wanted to make sure that people are not silent about it and that Americans know people are very concerned [about Erdogan’s visit]. Our initial intention was to deliver our message to the public and the [Trump] administration. We planned for two-and-a-half weeks; we received all required permissions; there was a SWAT team; there were enough police officers [when we got there], so we felt very safe. We were chanting — of course it was not a very pleasant moment for us to see President Erdogan in the White House — but yes, I understand President Trump should find some way to work with the man. We had people joining us from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, North Carolina, New York and New Jersey. Christians, Armenians, Syrians, Yazidis, Kurds, Americans came to raise their voices.
SJ: What were you chanting?
LU: We were chanting “ISIS is in Turkey,” “Trump stop Erdogan” and “Terrorist Erdogan” — those kinds of messages that could [help] the public learn more. We were also chanting “Long live USA.”
SJ: Do you remember if everyone felt safe? What happened over time? How did the feeling of the day change?
LU: There were enough police that we felt safe at first, we saw the parade that was going on for Erdogan [directly in front of the residence, to welcome the Turkish president]. We were not happy about that and were expressing our anger.
I personally didn’t know that Erdogan would come there; I didn’t have any idea that there would be people in front of the residence. I was very surprised to see people there [the pro-Erdogan protesters on the residence side of the street]. When they saw us, when they saw we had Kurds among us, they became very angry. They screamed, “You are losers,” “You have no country,” “We have two countries, one is Turkey, one is the US.”
All of a sudden I had the feeling that we should leave. People on the other side were very aggressive, and they were becoming more aggressive. My fear was that I really didn’t have time to talk to people and say we have to leave. Another group [the bodyguards] all of a sudden emerged from the first group, dressed in khaki shirts, white and yellow pants, sunglasses and military boots, and they just ran toward us.
I remember seeing water bottles thrown at me and cell phones were flying on the ground. The next thing I knew I was on the ground; I don’t even remember how I fell. Then I remember that someone was beating me nonstop in the head. I had one thought in my mind, “I’m not defending myself,” as someone was beating me up. And then I lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes everything was over. I was trying to get up; some friends were helping me get up. What I saw was horrific. People were covered in blood. The ambulance came and took one girl away who was in very bad shape — she was having seizures. The next day I woke up and the room was spinning, so I went to the hospital.
The pro-Erdogan supporters told us, “You are losers, you have no country, we got two and one is America,” so they felt they could do whatever they wanted to.
SJ: Do you think the current atmosphere in the United States gave Erdogan license to allow this to happen?
LU: I believe that this event [the protest] took place because our current [Trump] administration is not totally established, that may have signaled to President Erdogan that he had a greenlight to send his bodyguards to attack the protesters. If he [President Trump] doesn’t address this issue, he may be tagged as a weak president. The US Congress has called this a very serious incident, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has, too. We would like to see the administration address this case.
Clarification: The above response has been changed and edited to clarify the speaker’s intended meaning.
SJ: What is the most important difference between a society like Turkey and a society like the United States?
LU: There are real instruments of democracy in this country, including freedom of speech. Democracy in Turkey is very far away from that reality. [The US] is very different from Turkey, and we cannot allow such behavior to be transported to this country. If I were in Turkey, I don’t think I would be alive [if I had protested], and the condition of the other victims would be much worse. [There] I don’t think we would have the guts to go and protest. We are different [in the United States]; we have so much more.