Selective zero-tolerance: is Greece really a democracy anymore?

The abuse suffered by four young anarchists, arrested for a bank robbery, at the hands of the police proves it’s time to call Greece’s coalition government what it is – a far-right authoritarian group.

Earlier this year, the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection declared he would take up initiatives to restore law and order in the capital of the crisis-stricken country. Nikos Dendias spearheads an attempt by the coalition government produced in last June’s elections to show that while the public coffers are empty and people are seeing their quality of life reduced to shambles, the state is present and it can still provide them with a sense of safety at the very least. Xenios Zeus was one of those initiatives, a crackdown on “illegal immigrants”, its failure (from 73,100 people arrested, only 4,352 were charged with anything) a big problem for the government. The coalition is also now dealing with accusations of tolerating an increasingly authoritarian police force that is torturing people and colluding with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, alongside the Lagarde list scandal taking its toll and two very difficult parliamentary votes looming. The first is a new tax code that will find many Greeks unable to pay their tax bills in 2013 and the second an investigation into the names included in the Lagarde list (the list of around 2,000 potential Greek tax evaders with undeclared Swiss HSBC accounts passed to the Greek government by Christine Lagarde in 2010), with at least two senior members of the government involved in an attempt to bury the files before they were published three months ago.

Since the crackdown on immigration didn’t work as the ministry had expected, their next move was to attack occupations and spaces associated with the anarchist movement. This should not come as a surprise since it is exactly these political spaces that have moved to organise in many neighborhoods and stand against the neo-Nazi gangs now roaming the streets of Athens, often with very high cost. But the manner in which this agenda is pursued has revealed something more: this government now sees the anarchists, as well as SYRIZA, as its opponent on the political stage. By cracking down on squats like that of Villa Amalias a month ago, the government is doing a favour for the Golden Dawn thugs who attack people openly with no repercussions – it was squats like that which traditionally stood as an obstacle to the ever expanding activities of the neo-Nazis and which as many locals have stated, helped keep the area around it safe. The spin is to baptise anarchists as the tools of SYRIZA, terrorists who enjoy the support they get from the opposition party. They have gone on the record with this many times.

But it’s the arrest of four young anarchists (aged between 20 and 25) this weekend after a failed bank robbery that brings back the political nature of Dendias’ agenda and of the police’s fascist tendencies. Two of them already wanted as suspects in the “conspiracy of the cells of fire” terrorist group, they were arrested in Kozani after trying to flee the bank while chased by the police. Witnesses of the incident claim that when they realised they couldn't get away, they exited the car and surrendered peacefully. However, the pictures published by the police show them to have been extensively abused, their faces swollen to the point where the mother of one didn’t recognise her son when she was allowed to see him. His own testimony leaves no doubt as to what transpired. He claims they were fitted with hoods, tied up and beaten for hours after their arrest. That the police tried to crudely photoshop the bruises “to make them recognisable” as Dendias himself stated points to the extent of the abuse. The use of torture is straightforwardly forbidden by the Greek constitution and violates human rights, while reminding the Greeks of the Colonel’s Junta and their systematic torture of dissidents.

A video showing the four being transferred leaves no doubt as to their political alignment. In front of the cameras, they shouted defiance at a country that has pushed its youth to extremes with the apathy that now runs deep in our lives, making us afraid of losing the few things we have left. “We only lost a battle, not the war” and “Long live anarchy”, they shouted, not to the cameras, but to the faces of those who stand by idle. Dendias didn’t even bother to launch an inquiry into the conditions under which they were tortured despite stating that “there is no desire to cover up anyone or anything”. Prime ministerial advistor Failos Kranidiotis, in an exchange we had on Twitter, sided with the police and spoke of injuries that were caused during the arrest, despite the absence of evidence backing his claims. How could anyone disarm a “terrorist armed like a lobster” with his punches? That is his claim and that of Dendias. He said “the monopoly of violence belongs to the state” and spends more time being sarcastic towards journalists who called him out on his statements than actually providing a factual basis for them. The New Democracy government is trying to condemn an entire ideology and along with it, all righteous outrage.

But this is the sort of policy line the government currently walks. Thin on arguments, strong on propaganda, full of venom and revenge against all those who oppose their totalitarian plans in any way. That the four kids were arrested for armed robbery does not justify torture, because that only brings us one step away from legitimising the torturing of the fifteen anti-fascists last October. All this wears only one colour, and it’s the colour of hate against those who will not stand for members of far-right groups and think-tanks (as Dendias and Kranidiotis were in the Nineties) to crack down on their lives and their dreams.

One of the four arrestees was a friend and present in the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos by a police officer in 2008, which sparked two weeks of unrest in the Greek capital. That we already see a revisionist line in operation in the mainstream media that suggests Grigoropoulos would become a terrorist himself is indicative of the intentions of this government. It is our duty and Europe’s to expose and stop co-operating with those who won’t hesitate to ignore human rights, refuse to reform a clearly fascist police force, and who don’t see racist motives when supporters of the Golden Dawn murder immigrants in the street. It is time to ask for the resignation of Nikos Dendias and any like-minded cabinet members. If we don’t want to see more kids boiling with anger, taking up arms against a system intent on turning them into drones working for scraps, torturing them when they refuse to conform, then it is time to speak out and call this government what it is: a far-right authoritarian group, dressed in a thin-veil of pro-European liberalism. Refusing to recognise them as anything but that is now an obligation for each and every one of us.

 

Members of the Greek ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party wave Greek national flags during a gathering of Greek nationalists in central Athens on 2 February 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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The stand against Nazis at Charlottesville has echoes of Cable Street

Opposing Nazis on the streets has a long and noble history.

Edward Woolf – my grandpa Eddie – was a second-generation Jewish immigrant, whose parents arrived in London in the early 20th century after fleeing pogroms in Russia. They settled, like many Jews did, in the warren of streets around Whitechapel in London's East End. He was an athlete – he would later become a champion high-diver, and box for the army – and was soon to become a soldier.

The second time he fought the Nazis, it was as an officer for the Royal Artillery. He blew up his guns on the beach at Dunkirk to prevent them falling into enemy hands; later in the war he fought the forces of Imperial Japan in the jungles of Burma.

But the first time he fought the Nazis was at the Battle of Cable Street.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia played out over the weekend. On Friday night, a neo-Nazi demonstration through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville exploded into chaos as they encountered a counter-march by protesters and anti-fascists. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others injured when a car driven by a Nazi ploughed into a group of counter-protesters.

Police, outnumbered by both parties and outgunned by the Nazi marchers, many of whom held semi-automatic weapons, were unable to prevent the violence. A state of emergency was called; the national guard was brought in. In a jaw-dropping statement on Saturday, president Trump blamed the violence on "many sides".

Ever since a video of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer being punched in the face on the streets of Washington, DC went viral in the early days of the Trump administration, America has been engaged in a bout of soul-searching. Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is it OK to be gleeful about the punching of Nazis? After having spent all of 2016 slamming Obama and Clinton for refusing to say “radical Islamic terrorism”, why is Trump – who eventually, begrudgingly condemned the neo-Nazi groups involved in the violence on Monday, a full two days after Heyer's death – so incapable of saying “radical Nazi terrorism”?

It's all given me a strange sense of deja vu. In fact, that's not the right term. We really have seen all of this before.

In 1936, just three years before Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, triggering war with Britain and – eventually – America, it was not uncommon to see Nazis on the march. The Great Depression was at its height, and many working-class whites on both sides of the Atlantic, feeling that their jobs were threatened by immigration, turned to far-right ideologies as a panacea for their economic fears. (Let me know if any of this sounds familiar...)

In the UK, Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF), known widely as the Blackshirts for their distinctive uniforms, had also been swiftly growing. Mosley was a veteran of the First World War and a rising star politician, albeit something of a maverick. He had served as a Conservative, Labour and independent MP before he founded the Blackshirts in 1932. He was not a proletarian demagogue like Hitler or Mussolini; he was a wax-moustached aristocrat, a fencing champion and the son of a baronet, educated (until his expulsion) at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Mosley was drawn to the far-right after touring continental Europe following a 1931 electoral defeat, and became enamoured with the ideas, and the pageantry, of fascism. His second marriage, to the socialite Diana Mitford, was held at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was an honoured guest.

Of course, these groups weren't just a British phenomenon. Hitler's newly-appointed deputy, Rudolf Hess, had called on a man named Heinz Spanknobel to found US-based Nazi groups; Spanknobel formed an organization called the Friends of New Germany, and later another, called the German-American Bund, in Buffalo, NY in March 1936. They ran a summer-camp on Long Island called Camp Siegfried, and as late as 1939 American Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 people.

Back in the UK, Mosley planned an audacious and inflammatory march through London's East End, a route which would take his blackshirts through the middle of Stepney, Whitechapel, and Bow – areas almost entirely populated by poor Jewish immigrants. For Mosley, who had drawn a crowd of more than 20,000 to an earlier rally in 1934 at Olympia, the East End march was clearly meant as an intimidation play - a gleeful and glorious celebration of the fourth anniversary of his founding of the BUF. But he had made a wild miscalculation.

The morning of 4 October 1936 dawned with a sense of anticipation. Newsreels from the time show an intimidating crowd of 5,000 fascists, with their sinister black low-rent-SS uniforms, turned out to join Mosley on his march. 

But Mosley had severely underestimated the organising capacity of the burgeoning anti-fascist movement that was growing up in opposition to his ideas. A coordinated leafletting campaign had taken place, which, combined with newspaper and newsreel attention, meant that there were few in East London who were unaware of, or unprepared for, the day of the march.

By the time Mosley's men assembled in Shoreditch, a truly vast crowd had assembled across the East End to stop them. Estimates of its size vary wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands; according to some sources as many as quarter of a million Jews, Communists, anti-fascists, union members, Catholic dock-workers, local residents, and many more who just came to see what would happen, flocked to the route of the march. Among them, somewhere in the crowd, was my grandfather, linked arm-in-arm with his friends. He was 20 years old. 

The Communist Party was key in organizing the counter-protest, and the rallying-cry for the counter-protesters was borrowed from the Spanish civil war: no parasan, meaning: they shall not pass.

More than 6,000 police officers, many on horseback, were deployed to prevent violence, but, vastly outnumbered, they were unable to clear the makeshift barricades and the people standing arm-in-arm from the street. The march ground to a halt and swiftly dissolved into a riot.

The embattled police tried to redirect Mosley down nearby Cable Street, but the crowd overturned a goods lorry to block their path, and a pitched battle ensued. From the upper windows of the tenement houses along the street, people threw rotten fruit and vegetables, and even emptied the foul contents of their chamber-pots, over the now-trapped blackshirts. As shit rained down, the fascists fought back with sticks, stones, and anything else they could find.

After a series of pitched battles, Mosley was forced to call off the march. At least 150 people had been injured in the brawl.

“I was moved to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley,” historian Bill Fishman, who witnessed the battle, said at a 2006 event commemorating its 70th anniversary. “I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.”

Cable Street didn't stop fascism in Britain - the outbreak of war, and the accompanying internment of Mosley and his lieutenants as possible enemy collaborators, did that. But it stopped their momentum, their confidence that power was almost within their grasp. The defeat showed them - showed everyone - that there was an opposition, and more, that the Nazis didn't hold the monopoly on intimidation. They too could be made to feel fear.

The echoes of Cable Street are crystal clear in the events this weekend in Charlottesville. Terms like “alt-right” and “white nationalist” are often chosen by journalists to cover these groups, but let's not mince words: Nazis again marched through the streets this weekend. The police were powerless to stop them. They were powerless to prevent the death of Heather Heyer. And the situation in America seems likely only to get worse. Spencer, who was one of the leaders of the Nazis in Charlottesville, announced that he is planning another march, this time in Texas, next month.

Enough has been written already about the need to stay above the baser instincts of mob violence and revenge. Let the Nazis call for lynching; we're better than that, but if I'm honest I can't summon much bile for the Antifascists who decide that Nazi violence should be met in kind.

Perhaps, in the wake of Charlottesville, the story of Cable Street teaches us that, in troubled times like these, it may be good to fill a chamber-pot or two for when the Nazis march again; or that the time will come when we, like my grandfather did, must stand together with arms linked and tell them: they shall not pass.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.