Independence Day (25 March) parades in Greece have been traditionally a day of celebration, not of protest. A national holiday to commemorate the beginning of the popular insurrection against Ottoman rule in 1821 that led to Greece’s independence, they are associated with watching the armed forces march along with school children, since in most cities we also have school parades. Moreover, for most people of the Left they always seemed like a remnant of an authoritarian past when these official displays of nationalism and militarism were part of the rituals of power.
However, in the past two years parades have become venues for protest against the policies of austerity and reduced sovereignty imposed by the EU-IMF-ECB Troika. The traditional presence of representatives of authority in such parades and celebrations, such as local members of parliament, government ministers or high ranking officials, and mayors made them an easy target for protest, especially in a period of intense and prolonged struggles. This has been particularly evident in provincial Greece, where members of parliament and aspiring local politicians have faced many forms of protest in the past years.
But the protests and demonstrations during parades are not simply opportunities to directly express anger and frustration against politicians. They are also a way to re-appropriate a collective memory of struggle and resistance. The 1821 Greek Revolution, itself with a strong popular – democratic element, is still being viewed as a successful example of victorious collective resistance against oppressors. The same goes for the 28 October parades, designed to commemorate Greece’s entering WWII that bring all the memories of the antifascist resistance during the German occupation. This was more than evident in Thessaloniki on 28 October 2011 when the military parade was interrupted by protesters, forcing the President of the Republic to leave the scene and the parade to be cancelled. Apart from the powerful image of protesters linking current struggles to a long memory of struggle, it is also important to note that it was exactly this cancelling of the military parade that was then seen as an example of the inability of the PASOK government to actually govern, thus making stronger the sense of the open political crisis.
That is why that on the weeks up to the March 25th parades the Papadimos government and both PASOK and New Democracy, the two parties of the coalition government, attempted to terrorize public opinion in order to avoid scenes such as the ones in Thessaloniki in October. This included various announcements of extra police measures, threats about arresting anyone trying to disrupt the parades and the mobilization of all available police forces. In this they received unexpected help by the stance of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), that refused to endorse the protests, for fear of ‘provocations’. However ANTARSYA, the front of the anticapitalist Left, other tendencies of the Left and various grassroots initiatives and local unions, from the beginning insisted on the need to turn Independence Day parades into mass demonstrations.
Consequently the government tried first of all to protect the military parade in Athens. It mobilized thousands of police cordoning off great parts of the center of Athens and enforcing the tactic of preventive mass arrests. It is worth noting that all over Greece the police announced that 249 people were briefly preventively detained and 40 arrested. Although, the parade in Athens ended without incidents, the whole image of a parade without spectators other than officials and policemen actually backfired against the government. Moreover, in other cities of Greece there were impressive demonstrations. In Herakleion, in Crete, the parade was cancelled and instead a demonstration was held. In Patras there were street clashes between protesters and the police, and the same happened in Thessaloniki, in Xanthi, in Larissa and other cities and towns. We also had cases of high school students either turning their heads to the opposite direction of the officials attending the parade or making gestures of indignation against them. In the end what remained were strong images of protest on the one hand and authoritarian rule on the other.
All these show that Greek society is still within a cycle of protest and contention of an almost insurrectionary character. And this sequence of struggles is far from over. In the next months we are going to see many more such images.
Panagiotis Sotiris teaches social theory, social and political philosophy at the Department of Sociology, University of the Aegean in Mytilene. He can be reached at email@example.com
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