Greece: Wave of repression and attack on workers’ and democratic rights

10/01/2020
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Eleni Mitsou
Xekinima – Internationalist Socialist Organization, CWI Majority in Greece

Soon after coming to power in July 2019, the new right-wing “New Democracy” government unleashed a wave of repression and intimidation, especially against the youth in Greece. Since October, the police have been randomly attacking youth not just after protests and demonstrations, but also on “normal” days. The youth are beaten, often subjected to fake charges as happened in the case of two of our comrades – Irini and Zisis stripped of their clothes and threatened. This wave of repression goes hand in hand with the adoption by parliament of dozens of bills that attack workers’ and civil rights.

Adonis Georgiadis, Minister of “economic development”, is one of the most outspoken figures in this government, who in a recent interview claimed there are studies which prove that people in Greece can survive on… 200 euro a month! In other interviews and on his personal TV show, he repeatedly argues that the use of violence by the police is necessary and that he agrees with the stripping of citizens during their arrest – a method used by the riot police to humiliate activists.

The case of Dimitris Indares

One of the latest incidents of arbitrary arrest and police brutality took place a couple of weeks before Christmas. During the operation to evict participants in the occupation of a deserted house that had been turned into a local cultural centre, the owner of the neighbouring house was asked by the riot police if they could pass through his house in order to attack the occupation. The owner replied that he would let them only if they presented him with a warrant. Instead, however, the police stormed into the house, beat the owner and his two sons, arrested them and falsely accused them of fake charges, such as assault against the police, participation in an illegal occupation and so on.

This incident has been widely reported in the media, partly because many reporters covering the eviction caught some of the assault against the family on camera and on tape, but also because the owner of the family house proved to be the famous film director  Dimitris Indares!

Indares didn’t even support the neighbouring occupation. He is known for his conservative and right-wing views. The media played a recording of the arrest where he can be heard screaming at the police “You act like anarchists. Like the anarchists that burn down shops just because they feel like it.[…] What you are doing is worse. […] Why do you keep us handcuffed? Nobody is resisting you”.

This incident was a shock for many people in Greece, who realised that if the police can invade the house of a famous right-wing film director without pretext and accuse him and his family with obviously fake charges, nobody is safe.

The case of L.B.

A few days earlier another case of police brutality, first published by Xekinima, became viral. We had interviewed a 22 year-old woman, whom the police had tried to force to drop her trousers and underwear in public, in the centre of Athens, in order to allegedly search her.

“I was at college and left around 7pm. I was walking on Patision street [one of the main streets in the centre of Athens] when 3 policemen stopped me and asked me for identification. I gave them my identity card. The other one grabbed by bag and started searching it. […] The third police officer told me to put my arms up and he searched me […] He then called a woman police officer. […] She also told me to put my arms up and touched me literally everywhere. When she felt my sanitary pad she asked: “what is this?”. I replied: “It’s a sanitary pad. I have my period, as I suppose you do too, sometime in the month”. She stared at me and told me to pull down my trousers. I answered: “Do you realise that we are in the middle of Patision street?”. She answered back in a cold and aggressive tone “I do. Pull your trousers down”. I insisted I wouldn’t do it, so she grabbed my arm and pulled me into a nearby coffee shop. She dragged me into the toilet and made me pull down my trousers and underwear. After she stared for a while, she told me I could leave. I told her that what she was doing was illegal, but she answered that if I continued talking, she would take me to the police station, implying she would arrest me. I felt scared and left. […] On my way home I was crying and shaking, and I was trying to think if there was anything I could have done to stop them”. (The full interview is available in Greek on http://net.xekinima.org/)

Dozens of similar incidents since October

These are just two of many similar incidents that have taken place since October.

Two of our comrades, Irini and Zisis were attacked by the police, beaten and arbitrarily arrested on fake charges at the end of the 17th November demonstration, on their way to a friends’ house. Their trial will take place on the 11th of March.

In October, special police forces raided cinemas to remove 16 year-olds watching the movie “Joker”, whose screening is forbidden for those under eighteen. Many of them were taken to police stations and their parents were charged with negligence. The last time police raided cinemas was during the military Junta in the 1970s.

One of the measures the new government has been to abolish the asylum status of the universities. The asylum status although officially established in 1982 has, in practice, been respected for the past 160 years. A couple of months later, the riot police invaded the University of Economic Studies in central Athens, trapping hundreds of students inside and asphyxiating them with tear gas. They did not allow paramedics and ambulances to approach the university for many hours. Once again students were arbitrarily arrested, and taken to court on false charges. The family of one student also witnessed the police invading and searching their house.

In another case, a student filming the riot police attacking a group of people in Exarchia (a neighbourhood in central Athens) himself became a target. The riot police beat him, broke his camera and four fingers before arresting him.

On another day, another student was circled by a riot police squad on his way home from the University at noon. The police forced him to remove his clothes, beat him and one of them told him: “We can kill you and send your mother your corpse. Nobody will know who did it”.

These are just some of the dozens of incidents of police brutality and arbitrary arrests that have been reported in the past few months.

The police feel that this is their government…

On the 17th November, a group of young lawyers, fearing that the police will once again start mass arbitrary arrests, decided to form a legal aid group. One of the people they came into contact with in the following days was a skinny 18 year-old youth, who didn’t weigh more than 55 kilos. After the demonstration on that day, he was attacked and beaten by a riot police squad.

From this attack there is one thing I will never forget in my life” he said. “They beat me and I was lying on the ground. One of the riot police told me to look him in the eye. I did. And he told me: This is how Koulis fucks. And he started kicking me again”. Koulis is the nickname of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece.

The police feel that this is their government and that they don’t need to hold back, because the government will not only support them but will also cover up every crime they commit. They are right. The government refuses to accept there is police brutality and arbitrary arrests even when pictures, videos and eyewitnesses prove that is so.

This wave of repression is taking place under government orders and is aimed at intimidating the working class and especially the youth. Although the movement in Greece has been in retreat since Syrizas’ capitulation to the Troika in 2015, the Greek bourgeois are worried by the huge movements that have exploded all over the world in 2019 – in Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq, Lebanon, Ecuador, France and so on. They probably believe that launching a “pre-emptive strike” is the best strategy to keep things under control.

…and the government feels it doesn’t have an opposition.

At the same time the government feels it doesn’t have any real opponents, who could force it to perhaps act more cautiously.

The leaderships of the two Greek workers’ confederations in the private and public sectors, the GSEE and ADEDY respectively, and of the big union federations, have been and still are controlled in the main by New Democracy, the right wing government party, and PASOK, the “traditional” Social-democratic party. Over the past decade, these leaderships have repeatedly betrayed the working class and youth in Greece. They failed to coordinate the heroic and mass struggles of the different sectors, limiting general strikes to 24 or 48 hours even though millions participated and hundreds of thousands marched on the streets.

The leader of GSEE, Panagopoulos, boasts in Greece and abroad that he called dozens of general strikes during the first years of the struggle against the Memoranda, when the working class fought fiercely to save its wages, living standards and rights. What he actually did, however, was to call dozens of badly organised general strikes, without any plan to overthrow the government and the memoranda policies. The leaders of GSEE, ADEDY and of the big federations led all these strikes to defeat and thus cultivated the idea in the mass of the population that “nothing can be done”, spreading demoralisation and despair.

Yet for a whole generation, the final blow was Syriza’s capitulation. Syriza in government took away peoples’ hopes of an end to attacks and that there can be a better future in the next years or at least during their lifetime. Although many people in Greece voted for Syriza in the last election as the lesser of two evils, it has been so discredited in the eyes of the workers and youth, that even during this wave of repression and attacks, it still lags 13 points behind New Democracy in the polls, proving itself unable to take advantage of the anger building up in society and especially amongst the youth.

A new attack on the democratic rights of workers and youth    

It is against this background that the government has been able to attack a number of workers’ rights from its very first months in power to dismantle of one of the most progressive trade union laws that has existed in Europe. This trade union law first came into effect in 1982, introduced by the then left-wing Social-democratic government of PASOK. It survived the nineties and all the attacks until 2010, when the world economic crisis hit Greece and the Troika arrived.

Among other things, the government has extremely weakened collective bargaining and labour contracts, voted to create an electronic file with the names of all trade union members and plans to give employers access to this file as well as introduced electronic voting for trade unions when deciding on strikes or other union activities, which it soon expects to make mandatory.

Another bill discussed in the course of the last weeks represents a direct attack on the rights of assembly and protest. The media report that the bill will mean that all demonstrations should be registered with the police 48 hours before they take place. This would mean, for example, that the demonstrations called the day the antifascist hip hop singer, Pavlos Fyssas, was assassinated by the neo-nazi thugs of Golden Dawn and which was attended by hundreds of thousands, would be illegal and the police would be able to ban it and attack the protesters.

In addition, intimidation of participants will be stepped up with a public prosecutor present at every demonstration whilst all demonstrations must have a person appointed, who will be responsible for contact with the police and who will be held legally accountable for any rioting. The secret police in Greece have been repeatedly caught initiating or participating in riots. But it will be the activists who are responsible for the demonstration, who will be threatened with prison sentences or huge fines on such occasions.

Of course there are also a number of anarchist groups in Greece who practice rioting, believing this is the path to revolution. Xekinima has repeatedly and openly expressed its opposition to these practices, explaining that they harm and hinder the movement.  

The police will be able to restrict demonstrations if too many participate, and therefore “inhibit the socio-economic life of the city”, or if they are too small and do not comply with the police perception of what a demonstration should look like.

In many countries, where workers have been living with such laws and restrictions for decades, this attack might not seem to be very harsh. However, for the traditions of the Greek working class, this is perceived as a horrendous attack on basic democratic and trade union rights.

What the New Democracy government aims to do, is to bring the working class and youth onto their knees and strike strategic blows, in the same way that Thatcher did against the British working class and youth in the 1980s.

The working class and youth will regroup and fight back

Will they succeed? One of the lessons we can draw from the social explosions and the huge movements that erupted in countries all over the world in 2019 is that that the plans the bourgeois lay don’t always work. On the contrary they often backfire.

Although it is not possible to put on a time scale, the Greek working class movement and the youth will regroup and will again organise heroic struggles. Our task as Xekinima is to fight against the wave of repression and all the attacks launched against the working class and the youth in Greece, in collaboration with the rest of the Left and the militant sections of the Trade Union movement, actively preparing for the inevitable future uprising of the working class and youth movement and raise the banner of revolutionary socialism.