In this essay I will undertake a discussion of Giorgio Agamben’s notions of “bare life”, “the camp” and Foucauldian bio-politics by referring to a specific case study from Turkey, that is, the controversy of the death of Nigerian refugee, Festus Okey.
It was 20th
of August 2007 when Okey was killed by a police officer while he was under custody at Beyoğlu Police Station. The police report about the event claims that he was accidentally shot and killed.
It is speculated that the camera in the detention room, was turned off during the incident. Besides, the police officer Cengiz Yıldız who shot Okey in the neck was the one to prepare the first official report of the death of Okey. There was no gunpowder traces in Yıldız’s hand and it is only possible if Yıldız washed his hands after the incident. Additionally it is also striking that Okey’s shirt went missing.
The police officer Cengiz Yıldız is accused of the murder of Festus Okey and he is still on trial. Several non-governmental organizations such as “Çağdaş Hukukçular Derneği” (ÇHD – Modern Jurists Association) and “Helsinki Yurttaşlar Derneği” (HYD – Helsinki Citizens Assembly) protested the negligence in Okey’s death.
According to HYD’s report, at 20th
of August a police officer stopped Festus Okey and his friend on the street to ask for identification cards. Okey’s friend notifies that the police officer started off beating Okey.
On the other hand, the police report publicly released by Istanbul Head Department of Police explicates that a police squad in Taksim noticed that two foreigners, Okey and his friend with plastic bags in their hands, were acting “anxiously”. One of them put the plastic bag in his pocket and the police got suspicious. So they were detained and interrogated.
Festus Okey’s death is closely related to his “bare life” status. Further, one can consider the police station where Okey was murdered as a “camp-like” space which is not ruled by the law; instead, the place where Okey was murdered points out the “state of exception.” Okey’s juridically unexplained death points at the state of exception which is, according to Agamben, “a space devoid of law, a zone of anomie in which all legal determinations are deactivated.” Moreover, Agamben describes
the camp as “the place when the state of exception begins to become the rule.” Okey’s vulnerability within the ambiguous zone of the “state of exception” deprives him to exist and survive since he is too powerless to resist.
Thus, in the case of Okey’s death, the police station corresponds to the absolute bio-political space.
On the other hand, the reason why Okey’s body is reduced to “bare life” status in the police station is closely linked to his “citizenship” status. The body is always a “bio-political” body
since the “body” of the individual and his/her citizenship status altogether embody the “organisms (which) belong to public power: the body is nationalized.”
Hence according to Agamben, one cannot distinguish the political body from the biological body.
Michel Foucault states that “the ancient right to take
life or let
live was replaced by a power to foster
life or disallow
it to the point of death.” Following Foucault’s definition about modern and ancient forms of power, one can conclude that Festus Okey represents the individual subjected to ancient forms of power whose life was simply taken due to his “bare life” status in the society. The power of the sovereign is felt with its intense and brutal forms through Okey’s body.
Yet, what I suggest is that there is an “economic” and “material” component of this “undesirability” of Festus Okey which derives from his non-citizen – refugee status and ultimately leads him to his “bare life” situation and whose existence is annihilated by means of an ancient form of power as Foucault suggests. Okey’s life was taken due to his economic and material undesirability which constitutes the racialization of his body through institutional violence which took place in the camp-like police station where the state of exception is at work. All in all, Okey’s body is perceived by the sovereign as the “life devoid of value”; since as a refugee of low class status, Okey can no way become a proper consumer in the society.
Giorgio Agamben, “State of Exception”, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 2005.
Giorgio Agamben. “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life”. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California. 1998.
Michel Foucault. History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. Vintage Books A Division of Random House, Inc. New York. 1990.
Giorgio Agamben, “State of Exception”, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (2005). p.50