Fear and Loathing in Athens

Headlines tell of a city gripped by violent riots, but the reality is more complicated.

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Reuters

If you thought last week’s footage of a Greek extreme right politician punching a female political rival on live TV was bad, you should hear what’s been happening on the streets of Athens. Greece’s Golden Dawn, a racist party with Neo-Nazi roots, a swastika-like flag and a holocaust-denying leader, has been making waves in the city since they shocked Europe (and most Greeks) by winning an unprecedented 6.7 percent of the vote in national elections early last month. 

Profiting from the country’s economic turmoil and general desperation, Golden Dawn may lose much of its vote in fresh elections this Sunday. But with supporters making their presence felt across Athens' densely populated inner city, things have already turned ugly. 

In May, a 40-strong band of Neo-Nazis attacked African street vendors in the working class Nea Smyrni neighborhood, while outnumbered migrants have since been attacked in nearby Kallithea and on the city’s metro system. Last week, a Jerusalem Post photographer was beaten by masked thugs he discovered attacking migrants outside Athens’ Archaelogical Museum, and this Tuesday five Egyptian fishermen were attacked and severely beaten in their home near the port of Piraeus by a gang of 20 people, some wearing Golden Dawn T-Shirts. 

It’s likely that these incidents are just a few among many. As Harry Tabakis, a program manager at Praksis, an NGO working with the city’s immigrants, explains, many victims are afraid to come forward:

"We’ve had reports of two immigrants being attacked last night, and one the night before, it seems to be happening very regularly.  Many immigrants don’t report anything to the police, however, because they are afraid. After their first interview, asylum seekers can wait up to 10 years to be given permanent permission to stay, and if they get caught by the police and involved in any legal action during this period, they risk deportation," Tabakis says.

Golden Dawn’s leaders don’t condemn the attacks, but they deny direct responsibility. The threat of violence in the party's rhetoric is nonetheless very public – this week, a prospective Golden Dawn MP vowed to throw immigrants and their children in hospitals and kindergartens "out onto the streets"

The party’s support does admittedly stem from real social problems. With a huge border to Turkey but few jobs, Greece is a bottleneck for illegal migrants trying to move on to other parts of the EU. Many of the migrants that don’t manage to continue their journey across into Italy end up in poor rundown areas near downtown Athens, often jobless, ill-housed and desperate. As crime in these neighborhoods rises and average earnings plummet, some long-term residents see deporting newcomers as the answer to their problems.

Most, however, don’t. Despite the alarming headlines, most Athenians have been treating each other with generosity and forbearance. Since the crisis began, citizens have been quietly forming solidarity groups to help clothe and feed migrants without support. Likewise during the winter, a trend developed among apartment dwellers for inviting homeless people to keep warm by bedding down overnight in their buildings' lobbies.

It’s this spirit of make-do-and-mend that has been keeping Athens going. It has after all been through crises before – many of the neighborhoods mentioned in this piece were built in the 1920s as housing for Greek refugees expelled from Asia Minor.  With a vibrant, gritty feel and an excellent cultural and nightlife scene that still make it one of Europe’s most interesting cities, it’s not surprising that Athens’ diversity and tolerance disturbs the extreme right. Thankfully as voters start to realize how violent they are, they probably won’t be getting much chance to change it.

Photo credit: John Kolesidis/Reuters

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