Athens: Crisis, racism & new figures of resistance

by · March 23, 2015


Athens anti-racist protest, 21 March

KEVIN OVENDEN wrote this report from Athens just after Saturday’s anti-racist day of action there.

I’ve not seen the centre of Athens so black since August of 2012 and the massive protest against the onset of the Xenios Zeus anti-immigrant police sweeps.

Not the black of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Its party colour gives rise to the derogatory term for Tory ideology: “Black Politics”, which I found rather confusing when I was a member of the SPD youth in Munich 20 years ago. An Englishman abroad.

And “Brown Politics” in Germany equals fascism — on account of Hitler’s Brown-shirted stormtroopers. (They like their politics colour-coded in Germany. More of that later.)

Nor was it the “negativity of black” which poisons Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel which manages to invert the imperialist destruction of Africa into the natives’ supposed corruption of the coloniser.

The African and Asian new Greeks thronging Omonoia and then Syntagma squares today announced the return of a positivity of Black as surely as when Nina Simone walked on stage in that August of 1965 and announced to a shocked sophisticate audience of proto-hipsters that she was dedicating her set to the young Black insurgents of Watts, Los Angeles.

Five years later, in even pacific Britain, Jamaica’s Bob and Marcia reached #5 in the hit parade with their ska-inspiring version of “Young, Gifted and Black”.

Music of all kinds rang out in both squares as thousands joined the Athens leg of the international day of action against racism and fascism today.

The friends of Pavlos Fyssas, the rap artist stabbed to death by the fascists of Golden Dawn, played Syntagma. Tunisian oud vied with drum and bass in Omonoia.

The language, style and “lived culture” were equally diverse threads forming the tapestry of a cosmopolitan “culture” of a more formal and political kind.

So from Francophone Africans, “Avec Les immigres, solidarite!” (“Solidarity with the immigrants!”, a slogan which non-immigrant French anti-racists raised also today in Paris in defence of newer arrivals.

From Pakistanis: “Pote xana, fasismos — allahu akbar!” (“Fascism. Never again. God is great.”)

Common slogans of crushing the Golden Dawn ricocheted in earthy Greek from front to back. Arab women in hijabs. Cote d’Ivoirean sisters in Sunday best. Young anti-fa school students with hoodies bearing the legend “Good night white power!”

Their more Marxist-inflected classmates with a range of other silk screen or transfer designs: Love Football, Hate Racism through to a standing army of Ches and a guerrilla of Malcolms and Hueys.

Interspersed throughout were speeches, but not the usual kind nor from the usual suspects. What speeches — against the fascist criminal conspiracy of Golden Dawn, of course, but for so much else besides.

They brimmed with impatient hope and righteous indignation against injustice. Both, in one way or another, are bubbling up across Greece 50 days into the election of the Syriza government of the Left facing a tightening noose in the hands of the Troika, now sanitised as “the Brussels Group”.

The government’s first bill was passed on Wednesday. As the vote took place, Jean-Claude Juncker and Pierre Moscovici of the European Union said its humanitarian measures amounted to “unilateral action” by the Syriza-led government in breach of the obligations it gave last month in the agreement to extend the bailout memorandum for four months.

The legislators passed the bill anyway — lifesaving, yet modest by the standards of what Greek people deserve and hope for.

For the following two days the pressure ramped up further, at the EU summit on Thursday and in the now at least as significant briefings in Berlin, Brussels and Frankfurt.

The deepening clash, which has raised again the prospect of leaving the euro, permeates everything — like an ether changing the specific weight of what is immersed in it. It struck me as we turned off Stadiou and into Syntagma. I’ve made that hook to the right and then swing leftwards into other side of the square from the parliament building many times over the years.

It felt different this time to look up at the Vouli building and know that on the majority, governing, benches and in the ministries we who were marching had many friends and not a largely monolithic wall of indifference or outright enmity.

They include Tasia Christodoulopoulou, the immigration minister. (For British readers, think of Imran Khan as a junior Home Office minister — the socialist lawyer that is, not the Pakistani cricketer, though he’d be better than anything we’ll get the other side of the general election.)

This week she showed moral courage and political leadership by refusing to answer a written question from a Golden Dawn MP from behind bars. “I will not be answering questions from representatives of a party which is facing trial as a criminal conspiracy,” she wrote in response. No flim-flam. No compromise. Malcolm would applaud the action. We did on the march today.

The government here is facing an immediate crisis. Bank withdrawals remain at alarming levels. It has to find €7.5 billion to pay back instalments and interests on an IMF loan this month.

Like an auto-da-fé inquisitor the Troika is brandishing the instruments of torture. No money will be released as salve unless Athens spells out in diabolical detail “reforms” which would negate the good in the bill just passed and vitiate the victory of 25 January which brought the Left to power.

The tormentors want more than retreat. They are demanding recantation.

Galileo Galilei bore false witness against himself to save his own life. He told the bloody dogmatists of Western Christendom (there was no equivalent at the time in the east) what they wanted to hear: that the earth stood still while the sun and universe orbited it. But, though broken, he found the strength to whisper eppur si muove: but still it moves.

The ongoing movement — of the social, the political, the diplomatic and the public sentiment — in Greece is far from whispered.

It was loud and clear today — in Athens, Salonika, Patra and Chania (Crete). From the platform in Omonoia Greek Leftists denounced Islamophobia and police racism, and urged both the rapid closure of the concentration camps for migrants without papers and the legalisation of immigrant children. Both are measures promised by the new government.

The message was of course amplified by the Bangladeshi agricultural workers of Manolada, the Pakistani community — who lost retail worker Shehzad Luqman and others to fascist violence — the newly self-organising Senegalese and Cote d’Ivoirean communities, the Arabs — longer established and newer refugees from Syria — and many others.

And all called for the prosecution to the end of Golden Dawn, while reminding one another that fascism will be broken only by a mass and militant movement.


Pavlos Fyssas

But, conspicuously, the Black and brown who made up today’s extraordinarily diverse events raised also the demands against the Troika, for humanitarian relief for all the poor, for bread, education, freedom (the old fighting slogan of Greek insurgency).

And they spoke of unity across the European continent of people who look like them and also like the other Greeks on the protest, those whose forebears happen only to have made their home in this part of the world at some point earlier.

You see — this was not a sectional protest by people from without, a specialist concern with little bearing on the big “strategic questions of the Left” and other in-speak into which we can all too readily — and sometimes pompously — lapse. (Hands up.)

The mobilisations today against racism and fascism from “Athens, Paris, Berlin, London to Barcelona” (it scanned better in the Greek chants this afternoon) are precisely at the centre of the struggle to transform Europe and to find a way out of the labyrinth of austerity, racism and war (no longer just by the West in the East, but lapping on the West itself as the flames engulf more and more of Ukraine).

It is not the existential battle for survival of poor, of Black and of brown Europe which is looped in ellipses around the parliaments and European commission buildings, where we are told all power and force lies like a massive gravitational attractor.

It is more like the other way around.

And in those battles, what today has shown for all on the Left who care to see is that we do not have a migrant or Muslim problem in Europe.

I don’t mean that in the trivial (though far from universally accepted, even on the Left) sense that Muslims and migrants are not the cause of the crisis created by the bankers back in 2008, or the crushing of freedom brought by robocops, undercover cops in your trade union or professional association, and states which think it their right to look inside your emails and your private life.

Even among some in the labour movement who reject the racism and Islamophobic scapegoating there is a rather one-sided view which focuses on the potential for right-wing forces — from Tories to fascists — to exploit or construct racism to divide and rule, to disorganise “our side”. That certainly has some truth.

But as Muslims and migrants led others on the streets of Athens today another side was manifest.

It is that the fighting capacity of “our side” in 2015 Europe is enriched by the presence among us of Egyptians who overthrew Mubarak four years ago, Palestinians who have showed the world how to stand in dignity and unvanquished against huge odds for seven decades, and Black Africans who toppled one one-party state after another in a wave of democratic uprisings 20 years ago largely ignored in Europe.

The Egyptian families who were there today testified to the fact that — whatever the racists and fascists say — this enrichment is going to stay and to continue. The children are amongst us. The mixed couples — Black and white — that are still a little novel in Greece rammed home the message.

Sites of struggle and resistance are being born. We should remember that as we continue to press against the Le Pens, the Farages, the Pegidas, the neo-Nazis in Greece and the gathering of their kind in St Petersburg tomorrow, where anti-fascists have bravely called a counter protest.

Today’s date as an anti-racist focus had an institutional beginning at the UN in 1966 to commemorate the murder on 21 March 1960 of 69 Black people at Sharpeville by the apartheid abomination in South Africa.

Fifty years ago, radical governments in the General Assembly pushed the day forward, but in the hands of today’s UN it is now a token.

There were two exercises in releasing hot air, all expenses paid, today: in New York and also in Geneva, which provided a second burst of flatulence to mark the occasion.

But it is the anti-systemic movement outside the institutions which carries the true internationalism and is the news, whatever “the news” reports. So it was the KEERFA anti-fascist and anti-racist movement with Greece’s new migrant communities which claimed this day in October of last year and issued the activist call to act.

The story of this date has become a leitmotif for something wider — whether war or peace, environmental devastation, fair trade, economic growth, the rights of women or the abolition of racism and Israeli-style apartheid, we live in a time where agency is shifting back to the mass of people and our movements.

Responsibility for all the great issues and just causes cannot be left to yesterday’s failing institutions.

They have proved themselves thoroughly irresponsible.

Remember Sharpeville today, Soweto, Madiba, Chris Hani, Steve Biko… and recall the UN vetoes and the criminal neglect-cum-collaboration of the other international bodies: IMF, World Bank…

Apartheid was laid low in the townships, the mines, the schools, the labour barracks, at Cuito Cuanavale… by the Cuban and Angolan troops, miners and shanty dwellers, the school students and prisoners, Umkhonto we Sizwe… the Black masses and their few brave white supporters within, and the global movement of boycott, sanctions and direct action from without.

We carried that with us on streets of Athens today — the two Angolans I met and a Spaniard with relatives in Cuba particularly proud of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

Let’s carry it into the battles which are now coming thick and fast. They pit the masses against the establishment classes. In Frankfurt this week they pitched young Germans, like Nikos in Athens today with his “Good night white power” top, against the European Central Bank in its €1,300,000,000 headquarters and the Bereitschaftspolitzei robocops.

The Blockupy mobilisation comprised different affinity groups with rigorous German colour coding. A friend of mine was in the yellow one (was there an argument, I wonder, like in Reservoir Dogs, about being in the pink?).

The fist we shook today built on that — more multicoloured and united.

Now we must go further still. If the Troika in Frankfurt, Brussels and Washington push further, they are likely to be surprised at what here is prepared to push back — and there also.

London anti-racist protest, 21 March

London event: The politics of hope 1945-2015

For an internationalist day packed with reflection on the liberation of Europe in 1945, the hope represented by the Syriza breakthrough and the prospects for progressive politics (following sure to be dismal British general election) then get along if you can to the events organised by Philosophy Football at London’s Rich Mix.

PF has made it possible for me to report from Athens. Please do buy the Syriza — Greek for Hope T-shirt and support this powerhouse of the Left. Others sell T-shirts, PF does more than that…

Here’s a link to the afternoon seminar on 9 May:


Kevin Ovenden’s reportage from Greece  for radical online media is funded as an act of practical solidarity by  the self-styled “sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction” aka Philosophy Football