Demonstration in Greece for No vote in 2015 referendum Demonstration in Greece for No vote in 2015 referendum.Photo: Ggia / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

In response to police brutality and the right wing attack on democratic rights, thousands of people from across Greek society have taken to the streets, reports Kevin Ovenden

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters braved riot police to gather in the capital on Thursday evening. Earlier thousands more students demonstrated in the second city against a police raid on their campus. 

This is not Burma or some “far away land”. It was Greece last night. It is a country that is a member of the European Union, Nato, the Council of Europe and all the other bodies that are meant to be a vouchsafe of fundamental rights and freedoms. 

But those rights are under attack from the right-wing New Democracy government. As elsewhere, this government has used the Covid crisis directly to clamp down on democratic rights and as cover for introducing authoritarian legislation. 

In Greece, however, the opposition to that has not been galvanised by right-wing libertarian or fascist elements but over the last few months by forces of the left and popular organisation. 

A number of factors have come together. This is a critical moment – above all for the life of a prisoner on his 64th day of hunger strike today. His is one element of this story of authoritarian repression and growing popular resistance. 

His case is not an automatically popular one. He is serving life for 11 murders as a hit man of a terrorist group from the 1980s that few would have any sympathy with. 

But there is sympathy, thanks to the intervention of socialist lawyers and others, with his entirely legal and proper ask to be transferred to another prison. The refusal of this is the reason for his hunger strike that may make him in the next days the first prisoner to die in Europe under such circumstances since the Irish freedom fighters in British jails in 1981.

The handling of this case by the state and government has made it look like they are pursuing a vendetta. One of those killed was a relative of the current prime minister. Protests over the last week have gone beyond an ultra-radical left. 

A second factor is that the government imposed a lockdown, widely accepted on anti-Covid grounds, but used that time to pass a law that allows special police to enter university campuses. 

Universities were a major part of the popular resistance to the junta between 1967 and 1974. The great rising at the Athens Polytechnic in 1973 foreshadowed the fall of the dictatorship.

Reimposing police on campuses is more than a symbolic move to try to wipe away the popular upsurges of the 1970s that still resonate in Greece. It is also tied to a neoliberal drive to squeeze students financially and to crush what has been a seedbed of one generation of left-wing radicals after another.

Students have defied repression for weeks to demonstrate in large numbers. Left lawyers have provided advice and have intervened in the national media to show that police bans are entirely unconstitutional. That happened last November in the annual demonstration to commemorate the Polytechnic Uprising.

Meanwhile, a government that has failed on the basic tasks of meeting this pandemic has encouraged the issuing of fines to thousands of citizens. Not people engaged in a banned protest. Not people considering themselves political. 

You can be pressed in on a crowded metro because you have to go to work, but you can be fined in your neighbourhood if you are out after 6pm at the weekend and breaking the curfew. 

Mask use and mutual social distancing in everyday life point to how people not just accept but will reinforce anti-Covid measures that have a logic. But on Sunday, police attacked residents out in the open air in the neighbourhood of Nea Smyrni in Athens. Ruling MPs were also given the name and political affiliation of one man, completely illegally, so as to claim it was a militant action.

It was not. It was the neighbourhood furious at arbitrary police power. And they showed it two days later. Thousands gathered in protest. The police say 7,000. The residents say two or three times that number. It is clear that people came from neighbouring areas to show support.

These are ordinary residents in Athens. They are not committed left activists.

The day before demonstrations for International Women’s Day fused with those protesting for the hunger striker, Dimitris Koufontinas. During the day some women and men had stopped work at the point of production to raise the women’s day demands – from maternity pay to ending sexual harassment (MeToo has come late to Greece but is fusing with all the other strands of struggle).

So tonight in Athens all sorts of elements came together. The government cannot write it off as the “anarcho-youth”. Some unions participated. Lawyers are winning ground in that professional layer. The actors’ union mobilised.

It may, tragically, not be enough to save the life of a prisoner near death. But it has already achieved some things.

It has ripped away the façade of a government that claimed to be liberal-modernising and only looking to repress the “violent left”. Liberal professionals and ordinary people are resentful at this authoritarian turn.

It has also shown that in this time of crisis it is not inevitable that forces of the right must scoop up people’s frustrations. The left can do so. Not in a horrible, individualistic way that demands the “right” to breathe a possible infection upon others. But collectively and raising social demands at the same time.

The radical youth. The grizzled socialist. The sincere human rights lawyer. The put-upon worker. The woman out with her kids in the park and harassed by the police.

Some of this is coming together. It is something to strive for further – and not only in Greece. 

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.