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The heavily militarized response to the pandemic and endemic police violence has exacerbated old conflicts within Greek society — and many have had enough
Photo by Thanasis Foukas/Shutterstock
Over the past few weeks, the streets of Athens have been filled with thousands of people, despite the country being in lockdown since the beginning of November. There are protests every day, in many neighborhoods and cities across the country. Tensions are running high due to the introduction of a new law establishing university police, the hunger strike of political prisoner Dimitris Koufountina and the increasing violence and impunity of police forces. The rifts in Greek society are deepening, and now part of the country is rising up in revolt.
The tightening of spaces of freedom
What we are witnessing is the escalation of a conflict deeply rooted in the country’s history. On one side there is the conservative oligarchy, whose interests are defended by the right-wing Neo Demokratia party of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In the best Greek tradition, Mitsotakis is the heir of one of the big political families of the country: uncle of the current mayor of Athens, brother of a past mayor, son of a prime minister, grandson of a member of parliament and descendant of the ethnarch Elefterios Venizelos.
On the other side, the “enemies of the nation”: anarchists, communists, feminists, queers, students, workers and people on the move, whose bodies and ideas undermine the unity, the well-being and the rebirth of the Hellenic state.
Mitsotakis, with a degree in economics from Harvard University and a managerial position at the McKinsey consultancy firm, perfectly embodies the mix of neoliberal authoritarianism and nationalism, which constitutes the DNA of the Greek establishment, ruling the country through the military-industrial (naval) complex, a media apparatus among the most subservient in Europe and with the blessing of the Orthodox church.
The origins of this social rift are ancient and inscribed in the deeply reactionary nature of the Greek oligarchy, hiding its passion for dictatorship behind the “red scare” since the 1930s: from the unfortunate filo-fascism of the then-dictator Ioannis Metaxas to the widespread collaboration with the Nazis during WWII; from the bloody repression of communist partisans during the civil war to the military putsch of the Colonels in 1967.
In more recent times, the betrayed promises of the two governments led by leftist Alexis Tsipras — elected for the first time in 2015, capitalizing on the anti-austerity struggles of the previous years — paved the way for a new restoration which is quickly bringing the country towards an illiberal democracy.
In the last months, the ghost of the Junta has often been invoked. This became clear in February, when the Parliament passed a university reform bill which established the University Institutions Protection Team (OPPI), a special police force presiding over university campuses 24/7. This is the last step in the tightening of spaces for freedom, a long-time request of the US embassy in Athens as shown by leaked cables dating back to 2006.
Not long after the election of the new government, in 2019, the university asylum law was repealed. A legacy of the student uprising of 1973 and symbol of the struggle against the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1967 and 1974, the asylum law prevented police from accessing university grounds, without preventive authorization from the university dean and the student body — which was rarely granted. In less than two years, what had long been a sanctuary of freedom and resistance became a space of repressive policing experiments: not many people would have imagined such a rapid transformation.
The result is a military occupation of universities, evidently considered a den of dangerous opposition — what can be said, what can be learned and when and how to protest are now decided by people in uniform. This is exactly what happened on Thursday, March 11, at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, when police intervened violently to end a students’ occupation, using teargas and arbitrarily arresting 33 students. The paradox is that the end of the occupation was already planned for the same day. “The law has been implemented and the university is going back to normality,” declared the Ministry of Education.
This very government has steadily carried on a series of countrywide evictions of squats and social centers. In Athens, most of the self-managed migrant housing projects have been violently emptied and bricked over, together with the Vancouver squat at the ASOEE University of Economics and Business; in Thessaloniki, the Terra Incognita squat was evicted, the Libertatia squat — burnt by fascists in 2018, and currently being rebuilt by the squatters — was raided three times, and the workers-led factory Vio.Me had the electricity cut off; in Chania, Crete, the 16-year-old Rosa Nera squat was also evicted.
The case of Dimitris Koufontinas
Among the multiple causes of the recent agitation is the hunger strike of Dimitris Koufontinas, which started on January 8 and ended after 65 days, on March 14. Koufontinas — by now known as D.K. after widespread social media censorship on everything carrying his name — was a member of the Revolutionary Organization 17 November, an armed communist group active between 1975 and 2002, when D.K. turned himself in after the arrest of many members of the group.
Sentenced to 11 life sentences for his participation in as many killings, he has always refused to disown his actions. According to Greek laws, all detainees have the right to equal treatment. Since his arrest he has been detained in a special underground high security wing in the Korydallos prison in Athens, built especially for the members of the 17N. In 2014, a few weeks before the elections that would have brought Tsipras to power, the then right-wing government moved D.K. to the newly built high-security prison in Domokos, a remote location in central Greece.
Since then, the treatment of D.K. has been far from equal. He managed to obtain his first temporary prison leave in 2017, despite being entitled to one since 2010. After 16 years of high security detention, he was moved to the rural prison of Volos in 2018.
Since the 2019 electoral campaign, Prime Minister Mitsotakis has declared a personal war against D.K. Last December, an ad hominem law was passed to deny him any chance to improve his detention conditions and to stop him from enjoying the prison leaves he was entitled to. According to this law, D.K. would have been transferred back to Athens prison. Instead, on December 23, he was moved to the prison in Domokos, breaking the very law that was passed against him.
The former member of the 17N carried on his hunger strike for more than two months against this persecution, asking for the implementation of the law and for his transfer to Athens, where he would be closer to his family. This persecution, pressured by the US Embassy, is also a personal vendetta: in 1989, D.K. killed the journalist and politician Pavlos Bakoyannis, brother in law of Mitsotakis and father of the current mayor of Athens.
The political interference in the judiciary is so evident to be almost embarrassing, with ministers lying blatantly and contradicting themselves and each other in order to cover their actions. It is made possible only thanks to the complacency of press and television, who are always ready to reproduce ad verbatim every word coming out of ministries and government officials. The mainstream media’s role as a mouthpiece of power has been aggravated by the Mitsotakis government. The prime minister has put the public television ERT under the direct control of his office and has redirected COVID-19 emergency media funding to friendly outlets.
Meanwhile, across Greece, the many demonstrations in support of D.K.’s strike joined those against police brutality and those in solidarity with people on the move. In the message announcing the end of his hunger strike, D.K. addressed those who took the streets:
What happens out there is much more important than how it started.
In the face of the power of these struggles, I declare for my part that I am with you with my heart and mind, among you.
A pandemic of police brutality
On March 7, in the district of Nea Smyrni near Athens, one of the many incidents of unprovoked police violence took place. Mobility restrictions due to the pandemic are giving police free rein for abuse, spreading fear among the population. On a quiet and sunny Sunday afternoon some families were hanging out in the local platia, social distancing and wearing their masks, when a police patrol started harassing them. What followed was recorded on video: a young man intervened, simply asking what was going on, and for this he was savagely beaten by the police officers, while crying “It hurts!” Acting as if this was a riot, police called for reinforcements.
Police, a government spokesperson and media tried to shift the blame, desperately seeking to position the police officers as the victim of violence in an attempt to justify their actions. Mainstream media represented the events as an episode of urban guerrilla warfare, with headlines like “30 protesters attacked the police.” What they did not expect was the video of the beating going viral on social networks, starting an online campaign to #BoycottGreekMedia. Hundreds of locals took to the streets, with many supporting and cheering from their balconies. From Nea Smyrni, the protest quickly spread throughout the city. Calls to “reclaim the street” have been launched on a daily basis since then, sometimes turning into tense confrontations with riot police.
It has been four months since the beginning of the last lockdown, extended week after week since early November. Greek residents are tired of living as under an army occupation, allowed to go to work — if you are lucky enough to have a job — or to do shopping, but afraid to walk outside, to take some fresh air, to meet a friend, because of the unpredictable Rambos in uniform who stand as protectors of the nation.
Furthermore, since November, the government has exploited restrictive pandemic measures to prevent or crush dissent, through implementing a blanket ban on outdoor gatherings. In a clear attempt at rewriting the country’s history, the ban was first introduced for the anniversary of the student uprising against the military Junta. The attempt to ban the protest was unsuccessful, and many people defied the prohibition en masse across the country. Despite being peaceful and socially-distanced demonstrations, they were violently repressed.
Similarly, the anniversary of the police murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, shot in the back at the age of 15, on December 6, 2008, was marred by preventive arrests and indiscriminate repression, with the commemorative plaque for Alexis cordoned off and vandalized, beatings of photographers and journalists and one riot police filmed while throwing a flash bomb in the hall of a residential building.
The brutality of Greek police forces is not a new phenomenon. However, the combined effect of the new right-wing government and the pandemic has acted as a catalyst, and instances of violent repression by the police has increased tenfold. Already during the first lockdown the police had carried out violent raids against gatherings of young people, bars and theaters, beating as they pleased. In July 2020, Vasilis Mangos died in Volos, in central Greece, after the injuries received in a beating by some officers. In the last few months the list has grown exponentially: in Karditsa, in the north of the country, a 15-year-old girl was arrested and beaten because she was sitting in a public park, in Thessaloniki a group of activists were arrested because they were handing out flyers, families were frightened and harassed while taking their children outside or while chatting outside of their buildings. The list grows by the day.
The latest events in Nea Smyrni triggered a huge response. After days and nights of confrontations, the police were seeking revenge. One of their victims was Efi, an 18-year-old woman, who was first beaten in the streets, then later taken to the police headquarters and sexually harassed, threatened with rape, beaten again and denied any medical care.
Around the same time, 21-year-old Aris Papazacharoudakist was literally kidnapped by the police near the building of the Masovka Anarchist Collective, of which he is a member. As Aris revealed in an interview, the officers forced him in an unmarked car, tied his hands behind his backs and covered his head with a hood, like a prisoner of war. He was also taken to the police headquarters, where, with another comrade similarly abducted, he received psychological and physical torture. “There was not a single part of my body that was not being hit for eight hours,” Aris stated. After a night of torture, the officers, belonging to a special corp, tried to persuade him to jump from the 12th floor of the building. He was then detained with no food, water or access to a toilet and without being able to contact a lawyer for almost two days. Now, he and his friend face charges of attempted murder, after one policeman was injured during a demonstration in Nea Smyrni.
The tireless work of activists and campaigners allowed for more videos and reports of the brutality to come out, painting a bleak picture of the country’s police force. In one video, a policeman is seen pointing a gun towards demonstrators; the gun turned into a glove, according to police internal investigation. In a second video of these last days — as demonstrated by Disinfaux collective — a policeman is seen throwing a Molotov cocktail at demonstrators. Thanks to this, now the accusation of torture will be taken to the EU Commission.
The cradle of democracy?
The situation is out of control. The country’s right is closing its ranks. Prime Minister Mitsotakis has half-heartedly apologized to the victims of police violence. So half-hearted that just a few seconds later he burst out laughing, before blaming the violence on a left-wing MP. Minister Chrisochoidis published a document titled “42 truths on police arbitrariness and excessive violence,” in which he states that police violence has not increased over the last year, only false complaints of it.
The tight relationship between the security apparatus and the far right has a long history in Greece, proven by investigations for the trial against the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which finally ended in October and led to the conviction of the party’s leadership for “criminal organization.” Traditional impunity does the rest. The murderer of Alexis was released from prison in 2019; the murderers of Vasilis Mangos and Zak “Zackie Oh” Kostopoulos, killed in Athens in September 2018, are free pending investigation; no investigation has ever been launched for the death of Muhammad Al Arab, hit by four bullets on the Greek-Turkish border by the Evros river in March 2020. Greek authorities still brand the episode as fake news and Turkish propaganda.
The prime minister has appealed to the country’s youth, revealing the generational dimension of the conflict. He asked them to keep calm and not to nurture hate in order to cover personal shortcomings, reiterating that he will insure security, unity and well-being of the nation, against those who want to divide the society and bring it back to the past.
The truth is, Greek society is already divided and the unity he pursues is the stability of the oppression of the many in defense of the privilege of the few. Less than two years after his election — hailed by global liberal institutions as the victory of the moderates against populism — Greece is quickly descending into authoritarianism.