Law, Order, and Repression in Greece

Athens’s Exarcheia neighborhood has long been known as a center of political dissent. But the incoming right-wing government’s attacks on its “lawlessness” are a bid to whip up moral panic — and the pretext for a massive extension of police power.

The Exarcheia neighborhood in Athens, Greece. Nicolas Vigier / flickr

In 2004, amid one of France’s many Islam-related controversies, anthropologist Emmanuel Terray published an article discussing the dispute over the headscarf as an instance of political “hysteria,” a concept borrowed from psychoanalysis. Drawing on Hungarian historian István Bibó’s explanation of the blindness and irrationality of interwar Central European politics, Terray discussed how real issues had been sidelined in favor of a “fictional problem” that, once “solved,” would supposedly allow the community to reaffirm its unity and “move on.”

This isn’t the only use of such a “fictional problem.” For to couch this kind of problem in the vocabulary of “crisis” or “danger” legitimizes all manner of excessive “responses.” Dire warnings, harsh “law and order” rhetoric, and the punitive stance adopted by the state’s repressive apparatuses all serve to create a sense of emergency. From this stems the state of exception that allows for the rights of particular individuals or social groups to be ditched.

After years of austerity, Greece is currently experiencing the effects of precisely this kind of political hysteria — one that targets a supposed “enemy within.” Indeed, as soon as a new right-wing government was elected in July 2019, a ferocious ideological rhetoric incessantly zoned in on the supposedly grave danger represented by a particular neighborhood in central Athens, renowned for its far-left and anarchist leanings. The target of this campaign was Exarcheia, a district of the capital associated with political dissent ever since the restoration of the republic in 1974.

Both the new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the new minister of citizen protection, Michalis Chrysochoidis, stated as soon as they assumed office that Exarcheia must return to “normality.” So far, this return to normality has translated into police raids on fifteen squats, as well as to numerous reported cases of excessive police violence in the Exarcheia area.

But the new “normal” goes further. It includes overturning the law banning police from university campuses, as well as an unprecedented concentration of power in the Ministry of Citizen Protection. Indeed, this latter ministry, responsible for keeping oversight over the police, has now taken charge of the formerly independent Ministry of Migration and the penitentiary system, formerly overseen by the Ministry of Justice.

The whole effort was crowned by the minister’s ultimatum that anarchists must vacate their squats by December 5 — a highly symbolic date, set one day before the annual commemoration of the police killing of fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in 2008. Greece’s government is determined to stamp out a hub of dissent — with effects that spread wide beyond this Athens neighborhood itself.

Alternative Values

Exarcheia has been targeted because of the alternative ways of living it represents. Portrayed by media and state officials as a hub of lawlessness and criminality, Exarcheia is renowned for its libertarian ethics and divergence from the dominant middle-class values centered on home ownership and the nuclear family, considered sacred in Greece. Indeed, the area has in recent decades especially been characterized by widespread occupation of abandoned buildings, with squats and social centers standing as a clear alternative to the dominant ideology.

This has directly political implications. Since 2015, when the refugee “crisis” began in Greece, and especially since the European Union’s March 2016 agreement with Turkey, Exarcheia has also served as a shelter for those fleeing violence and poverty — and in particular, those who do not want to be subject to the discipline imposed by international organizations and other NGOs. More than nine thousand people have been hosted in squats and self-organized accommodation around the area, a viable alternative to “hot spot” centers run by “service providers” and the horrendous living conditions seen in Lesbos’s infamous Moria camp.

These squats were among the new government’s first targets, before it turned to assault other collectives in an unprecedented attack on the neighborhood. While some squats had already been targeted under the Syriza government, the incoming New Democracy administration introduced new policy and directions for the police force — especially units associated with the protection of public order and disciplining disobedience. Since then, incidents of police brutality and violations of citizens’ basic rights have become routine: those who hang out in the broader area, as well as all those perceived as “suspicious” — most commonly young people — are increasingly harassed, beaten up, and humiliated by police.

At the same time, the old rivalry between the riot police and the anarchist groups has received a new lease on life, further consolidating the portrayal of Exarcheia as an imminent danger. The incoming New Democracy government has given police leeway to impose their own repressive version of law and order, with little regard for the protection of citizens’ rights or dignity.

This permissive attitude toward police repression and the vendetta-like attitude between the police and the anarchists has led to a wave of violence, with a sinister twist: the public humiliation of protesters, bystanders, and “suspects” has become regular practice.

Recent weeks have seen a sharp rise in incidents such as harassment — including of teenage girls — ten registered complaints of severe beatings, unlawful arrests, illegal public undressing, humiliating stop and search practices (including by female police officers against female suspects), the illegal photographing of suspects, and the illegal use of unregistered premises (an underground car park) to temporarily detain arrested suspects. The raiding of the famous cinema director Dimitris Indares’s home in order to gain access to the next-door building hosting a squat, without the necessary legal authorization, and the excessive violence used against him and his family, was only the latest such violation of citizens’ rights.

Controlling the Police?

The previous Syriza government had already shown an ambiguous stance toward the police, as Alexis Tsipras’s government disappointed its promise of democratizing the security forces and tackling the pathogenies that generate police violence. The sole exception was the dismantling of the infamous three-hundred-person DELTA motorcycle force, established in the aftermath of the 2008 Athens riots and notorious for its brutality against protesters.

Syriza’s anti-police rhetoric — with even Tsipras repeatedly insisting on the need to disband the riot police, identified as the main instigators of violence against protesters — allowed the party to maintain its fantasy of being a radical, anti-establishment political coalition. However, this rhetoric completely alienated the police force, which saw in New Democracy an opportunity to overcome what they perceived as “public shaming” and to regain their “lost pride.” In this sense, the repression of the “danger” supposedly represented by Exarcheia seems to cover everybody’s needs: the government delivers “results,” the public unites faced with the grave danger of lawlessness, and the police force is given a “playground” to release its frustrations and nurture its own worst self, now unapologetically sadistic.

Nonetheless, to focus on police violence does not give the full picture: even acknowledging the police’s generally repressive character and its role in modern states, the specific facets of policing are defined by the type of government in power and its wider political agenda. The campaign against Exarcheia, as well as against migrants and refugees — described as “illegal invaders” by former New Democracy premier Antonis Samaras and various high-profile figures in his party — aims at constructing a new domestic enemy, a new scapegoat who must be exterminated so things can go back to “normal.”

Moral Panic

Greece’s mainstream media — with its notoriously pro-establishment bias — and large portions of the public have seen the idea of “cleaning up the area” positively, having bought entirely into the rhetoric representing Exarcheia as a center of lawlessness. This media line has successfully created a moral panic: anarchists, squatters, and the “unruly youth” are persistently represented as terrorists — unfounded claims have even attempted to associate them with Islamic State — or as rich kids playing at revolution.

Yet the ground had already been prepared for such moral panic, even before New Democracy was elected. In particular, the previous left-wing government’s failure to provide any substantial solution to the many problems plaguing the Greek economy gave rise to a new trend of conservativism, normalizing far-right views and the search for an enemy within. The loss of credibility of the parliamentary Left — a phenomenon that extends far beyond Greece — and the failure of its promise of a more hopeful and less precarious future has left the public prey to the cannibalistic impulses of those who demonize scapegoats rather than confront deeper structural and societal shortcomings.

For want of any viable plan that would bring relief or at least hope to the austerity-hit Greek working and middle classes, the New Democracy government has instead pursued precisely this scapegoating strategy. In this vein, the police force is called on to play perhaps its most politicized role since the restoration of democracy in 1974. This government strategy of escalating tension — exaggerated rhetoric, exaggerated violence, exaggerated media representation — projects security as the central, urgent concern, indeed the mask under which all other social and economic issues are suffocated.

So, to turn back to Terray’s analysis, what is the real problem for which Exarcheia is the substitute? The answer lies in the lack of any prospect of real and workable solutions to economic stagnation, massive unemployment, precarious employment, meager salaries, and fading welfare structures. Making up for the lack of vision in this regard is a rhetoric of threat, danger, and, naturally, order — which, once restored, will supposedly provide a magical resolution to all these other issues.

Yet the political hysteria around Exarcheia raises other questions, besides the obfuscation of Greece’s severe problems: in allowing for the violation of citizens’ rights, the government undermines its own rhetoric of “law and order.” Excessive violence, humiliation, harassment, and unprovoked attacks do not belong to the realm of “law,” which sets limits not only on citizens but also on institutions themselves — even those endowed with the “monopoly of violence,” such as the police. When these limits are transgressed — especially with the blessings of the political powers that be — then this government is clearly erasing its own legitimating myth, namely respect for the law. When the law is not part of the equation anymore, what we are left with is order: and order without law is a slippery slope toward authoritarianism, rather than democracy.

Rights Endangered

Despite the huge symbolic value Exarcheia has for the left-wing universe in Greece, the battle seems to be lost: the government as well as the public have nothing else to hold on to, so the offensive must continue. That said, the battle for Exarcheia — as a lived experience of alternative lifestyles and political ideologies of dissent — was undermined way before New Democracy returned to office in summer 2019. Indeed, Syriza itself had undercut the possibilities it represented, in more insidious yet equally effective ways.

Its ostensible rhetoric of “soft policing” had offered Exarcheia’s various collectives protection from the regular police attacks of the previous years. Yet this also proved to be a poisoned chalice: the police retreat also gave space to numerous drug mafias that have gradually overtaken the famous Exarcheia Square. Back then, police did not attack the collectives — but nor did they do anything to stop these mafias. Given that the Greek police force is tightly overseen by political authorities and its policies are always instrumental to specific government agendas, this lenient stance toward the drug mafia must be seen as a largely political decision. Various reports of attacks, harassment, and even rapes have emerged in recent years, undermining the spirit of solidarity, freedom, and safety previously characteristic of Exarcheia.

Simultaneously, the ever-growing gentrification of the center of Athens gave perhaps the final blow to the area: the promotion of the Golden Visa policy and the deliberate lack of regulation of Airbnb — both supported by Syriza as a substitute to a failing economy and lack of any credible or viable plan to lift the country from recession and increasing pauperization — were perhaps the most powerful strategy in eroding the solidarity to which Exarcheia was long home. For the government, the recent targeting of Exarcheia is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: strike a blow against the spirit of dissent associated with the neighborhood and clear the area for tourists and investors.

But it is also part of a larger plan that sees “normalization” as an increasing curtailment of dissenters’ and protesters’ rights. The minimum sentence for those convicted on terrorism charges has been extended from seventeen to twenty-two years, while release conditions have been hardened and penalties for probation violations increased; the penalties for rioting and the use of Molotov cocktails have also been increased and trespassing laws expanded, specifically to target protests that “unlawfully” enter buildings.

The “new normal” also includes a bill setting new limits to the right to protest and directly targeting demonstrators, who now have to follow stricter procedures in order to ensure that traffic and commerce in the city are not disrupted. All this is but another step toward a more repressive, disciplinarian style of governance — a necessary condition for authoritarian neoliberalism to prevail.

The new government’s “order without law” dogma and the kind of policing it represents are in search for a scapegoat, an “enemy within” to strike against. Yet perhaps even more worrying are the deeper roots of this loss. For over forty years, Exarcheia represented a spirit of dissent and solidarity, the promise of radical democracy residing in diversity and in subverting the authority of the “normal.” Just as much as the new government’s attacks, the undermining of this spirit heralds a bleak future for the defense of democratic rights, in a land plagued by an unending austerity regime.