Police violence as pandemic response in Greece
It would not take much to destroy what little trust Greeks still have in the police. A video filmed on Sunday shows an officer destroying a bunch of flowers and then throwing the remains on the street in disdain. He had taken the flowers from to a woman who had wanted to lay them at the spot where, on December 6, 2008, police murdered 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos after an argument. The officer was charged with and later convicted of murder, and the killing sparked an uprising with long-running repercussions. December 6 has since become a day to commemorate his life and protest police violence in Greece: a day when flowers are laid at the site where the officer murdered Grigoropoulos
That a police officer desecrated the woman's tribute to a deceased person is simply unforgivable in the birth country of Sophocles, the Ancient Greek playwright who created Antigone — a tragedy that all children read in school, in which the title character chooses death over dishonoring the dead. The video of the police officer was viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Sunday alone. The publicity compelled Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis to convene an inquiry committee. Still, he downplayed police conduct in a year when coronavirus restrictions meant that public commemorations of the teenager's murder were banned. "Of 5,000 officers," Chrisochoidis said, "4,999 did a good job."
Since Greece's second coronavirus shutdown came into effect this autumn, demonstrations have officially been prohibited for public health reasons. Further restrictions were imposed specifically for December 6. Helenic Police Chief Michail Karamalakis had banned gatherings of more than three people. Parliament did not get to debate that: The government, as it frequently has, used the state of emergency to justify the decision and prevent a vote.
The neoliberal government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis seems happy spend tax money on law-and-order measures. Given that his management of the coronavirus pandemic has not been very successful so far, officials seem eager to cast themselves as proponents of domestic security. The government's supporters approve of this law-and-order stance.
Greeks have witnessed over a decade of protests, including those that followed the teenager's murder and mass demonstrations against the austerity measures demanded by the country's international creditors. They fear for their health during the pandemic and their financial livelihood.
Still, Sunday's show of force cost taxpayers a lot , with entire police units on overtime and helicopters noisily circling Athens. Medical staff working overtime in the city's strained hospitals, in contrast, received no extra pay.
Rampant police violence
It appeared that officers had been ordered to arrest anyone who wished to lay flowers at the site where the police had murdered Grigoropoulos — even people who arrived in the formally permitted groups of two or three, even people who showed up alone. Maria Oshana, who heads the Athens of Germany's Rosa Luxemburg foundation, had arrived with a friend to lay a flower. Oshana was prevented from reaching the site and then taken to a police station in a squad car. She repeatedly asked whether she had done anything illegal, and received no response. She was released, but her flowers withered away in the police car.
Many Greeks will say the police relish the opportunity to commit violence against youths, members of migrant communities, LGBTQ+ people, and left-wingers such as anarchists and communists, while going soft on neo-Nazis and other violent white supremacists. The officers usually get off scot-free.
These accusations are often substantiated. While the No. 2 official of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which is now an outlawed organization, remains at large, police arrested two lawyers representing victims of Golden Dawn on December 6. The lawyers had wanted to help other people arrested by police.
Police claimed that the people they arrested had flouted safety measures to help contain the pandemic. Pictures shot by reporters at the scene, however, contradict this version of events. They show that the people who were arrested all wore masks and only stopped social distancing once police intervened. At the end of the day, 374 people were arrested, of whom 135 were jailed.
Ironically, though the arrests were officially for public health reasons, many police officers ignored the very safety measures they were sent to enforce.
This story was adapted from German by Benjamin Restle.