Members of the Syriza Youth detail the Greek Left’s struggle against police brutality.
On the eve of the Greek financial crisis, a conference on youth psychology took place in Athens. Experts from all over Greece gathered to discuss the profound feelings of frustration and disappointment they observed in their nation’s youth.
“I have to work three jobs to make ends meet,” revealed one participant during a discussion group.
“We’re supposed to work 12 hours [a day] to barely earn a minimum wage of 700 euros,” said another, full of despair. A deep sense of injustice was evident among these teenagers. And it went beyond finances.
In the preceding years, not only were serious political corruption scandals uncovered but, more importantly, a number of police brutality incidents went unpunished. The psychologists unanimously concluded that, with so much pressure on the backs of the youth, lots of social unrest should be anticipated.
At around 9PM on December 6th, 2008, a group of high school kids gathered at the Exarchia neighborhood to celebrate a friend’s birthday, mere blocks away from where the conference took place earlier that same day. The group engaged in a minor verbal clash with two police officers, who were ordered by their superiors to withdraw from the confrontation site. Disobeying these orders and seeking revenge, Officer Epaminondas Korkoneas parked his police vehicle, walked back to the site and cold-bloodedly shot twice toward the high school students, fatally wounding 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos.
The psychologists’ prophecy came true. Numerous protests and riots that would last for more than a month sprung up in Greece and Europe following the shooting of Grigoropoulos. Spearheaded by the youth, demonstrators demanded an end to police brutality as a means to a more fair and just society. The events of December 6th, 2008 are as relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement that was reborn after the death of George Floyd as they are to the anti-police protests that have spread in France recently. It is no surprise that teenagers, students, people of color, and progressive thinkers alike continue to mobilize against institutionalized oppression. And they will not stop until the many ills that plague our society are adequately dealt with.
Although a lot was learned from the anti-policing movement, Greece has actually taken several steps back in terms of social justice. The recently elected conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, as promised, runs his social agenda based on the principles of “law and order.” His government already scrapped the asylum law that banned police from university campuses. The law was of historic importance for Greek democracy; it was established following the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising where tanks of the then-dictatorial regime crashed through the institution’s gates, resulting in the deaths of 23 students. Protests against Golden Dawn and commemorations of the reinstatement of democracy on November 17th were violently put down following the government’s ban on protests, which was supposedly enacted for public health purposes. Ironically, pictures of police officers enforcing that law illustrate a striking absence of precaution on their behalf. Similarly, nine feminists were arrested during a peaceful and safe demonstration honoring the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Although the Mitsotakis Cabinet, and especially Minister for Citizen Protection Michalis Chrisohoidis, continuously tries to legitimize police abuses of power, institutional violence in Greece has always been a problem. Amnesty International and several media outlets have reported many cases of excessive force motivated by identity-based or ideological discrimination. Immigrants, for example, are systematically persecuted in obviously bigoted ways. Migrants and refugees have been teargassed several times in the Moria camp (which was destroyed by arsonists) and the new camp in Lesvos, Kara Tepe.
Amnesty International has reported frequent allegations of abuse of migrants during arrest and detention. Several reports illustrate the ill treatment of sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community, such as the case of Zak Kostopoulos, an HIV-positive gay man. Kostopoulos was lynched in public and a police officer placed a knife in his hand in an attempt to frame him for a crime he did not commit.
There is no question that the Greek police are waging an ideological war against the Left. Peaceful protesters, journalists, and anarchists were teargassed, beaten up, and excessively prosecuted during the anti-austerity demonstrations that followed the 2008 economic crisis. The reported failure of the police to investigate racially motivated crimes, their involvement in Pavlos Fyssa’s murder, and their sympathy toward Golden Dawn has raised serious concerns. These reports and incidents underline the political motives of the Greek police that influence their actions against protesters and minorities.
How would defunding the police look in Greece? The movement to defund the police in the United States received great media attention following the tragic murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin. The movement calls for shifting police funds to social services aimed at preventing crime and ameliorating the racist conditions that engulf minority communities.
The movement’s demands are premised on a history of deep institutional racism that targets people of color with ruthless precision. Greece has a long, troubled past of racism and xenophobia that is similar in some ways to that of the United States. Defunding the police in Greece would mean bolstering organizations that protect migrants and refugees, protect sex workers, and train against implicit bias toward women and the LGBTQ+ community.
The Greek police need to look into the ideological, religious, sexist, and ethnic bias of its forces. The Greek justice system needs to address policemen’s impunity, allegations of ill treatment during arrest and detention, and corruption. The tragic death of Alexis Grigoropoulos is thoroughly embedded within our collective memory and motivates us to fight against abuses of power whenever they are perpetrated, and whoever they are perpetrated against.
Spyros Kasapis is a PhD student at the University of Michigan. Ifigenia Moumtzi is a Master’s student at the London School of Economics. Both are members of the Syriza Youth.
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