: Policing ‘The Street’ In Athens

Policing ‘The Street’ In Athens

Gill Boehringer

Walking up Pireos Street towards Omonia Square in central Athens on a brisk autumn morning, I heard a very loud screeching. It was far off and I couldn’t tell the origin — human or technological. Hurrying along, with the noise still sounding, I began to recognise it as human. About 75 metres up the street, I stopped. Across the street was the source of the screams. At first all I could see was a platoon of black-garbed, helmeted and masked Special Ops police. One was busily twisting the arm of a male migrant, forcefully bent over the back of a car with his arm behind him. His arm was at an acute angle being twisted roughly every few seconds. The screams were, to say the least, loud and of course upsetting to the bystanders who kept their distance, as did I. But I had the presence of mind to whip out my little Olympus (no pun intended) and take some pictures, desperately trying to get clear images of the twisting officer, the arm and the victim. As the police were milling about, it took me four attempts to get what I wanted.

Unfortunately, a huge policeman who seemed to be in charge, saw me taking that last shot, and started yelling at me while striding rapidly towards me. I pocketed the camera and started walking nonchalantly, or so I imagined, up the street. But the copper was onto me and continued to call out, while overtaking me. He said, in very good English, ‘Let me see your camera’. I offered the only thing I thought might help, as Greece is heavily reliant on tourist dollars: ‘I am a tourist’. Not impressed, he said ‘let me see the pictures you have taken’. I pulled out the camera, resigned to the next steps in this drama, and said ‘Here, look for yourself’. ‘You must delete your photos’, he countered. I told him the camera was new and I didn’t know how; perhaps he mightn’t know, and would just let me go. Little hope of that. He took the camera, pushed the correct button, saw what I had taken and started deleting the pictures one by one with, I had to admit, a certain degree of dexterity.

I asked his name. He said he was a police officer. ‘I guessed that much — but what is your name?’ I asked. (I could see the uniform had no name or number on it.) He looked down at me and replied ‘Constantinos’.  At this, I had to hold back laughter as it is such a common name I assumed that the police use it as a little joke to ensure not only that a potential complainant had no way of knowing who the officer was, but as a kind of ‘in-group joke’ to liven up their off-duty hours.

His job done, he gave me some friendly advice. ‘It is illegal to take pictures of a police officer doing his duty.’ That said, he dismissed me most charmingly: ‘You may continue touring now’ and waved me on up the street. I was later informed that taking pictures of the police is not illegal as of now.

The back story to this is the ‘austerity’ program which has been imposed by the hated Troika — a common Greek usage for the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Greece has the highest unemployment rate in Europe by far and it is expected to go higher. The plight of about one-third of the population is desperate and the fear is that it will rapidly deteriorate, as without employment Greeks lose their social insurance benefits.

Not surprisingly, given these conditions, migrants have over the past years become a target of harassment and abuse by people afflicted by the virulent nationalism, racism and neo-fascism which have emerged. We know from recent revelations that the Greek police have a very bad record of brutality towards migrants, and it appears that a number have been in cahoots with Golden Dawn activists. Apparently more than 60 per cent of police voted for Golden Dawn at the last election. Recently leaders of the Golden Dawn party were arrested and charged with heading up a criminal organisation. Golden Dawn supporters allegedly have killed at least two migrants in past months, and are alleged to have been involved in the recent murder of a popular anti-racist, anti-fascist hip-hop singer. One of their top members, an MP, says that they are fighting a civil war — against the state, the ‘invaders’ (migrants), anarchists and other leftists who are ‘ruining’ the country. Recently they closed down a theatre performance and shouted racist and homophobic chants at those trapped inside.

Greek civil society organisations are fighting back. I recently attended a lunchtime meeting of the Hellenic League for Human Rights. Prominent lawyers, academics and others addressed a packed hall holding at least 200 people. There is an obvious division in Greek society, but progressive groups are confident that they can hold the line against racism and neo-fascism. We in Australia should do what we can to support them.

GILL BOEHRINGER is a former Dean of Macquarie University Law School who has a special interest in human rights abuses around the world.

© 2013 Gill Boehringer

(2013) 38(4) AltLJ 286
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