Anniversary of Nov. 17 portends trouble in Athens
Nov. 17 is something like a difficult test for the new government in Greece. If it passes relatively unscathed, then it can feel safe for the rest of its program. If it is marked with violence, then it has to rethink its policies.
Nov. 17 is the day of remembrance for the mass mobilization of the students of the Athens Polytechnic School in November 1973 against the military regime that ruled the country. It has strong symbolism against authoritarianism and foreign interference and in favor of democracy. Every year people commemorate the sit-in protest inside the building of the Polytechnic School by thousands of students who demanded free student union elections and no military service for students. The mobilization, which started in February of that year and involved the Law School, too, ended up on Nov. 17 after a bloody intervention by the army and the police causing several deaths and injuries among students and civilians.
With the election of the socialist government of PASOK in 1981, Nov. 17 was established as the date of resistance and democracy although, gradually, the enthusiasm and mass participation of the first years degenerated on occasions to a show of force by a variety of splinter political groupings, some even verging on common criminality.
With the years, Exarcheia, the neighborhood around the Athens Polytechnic School, once one of the most vibrant and culturally lively neighborhoods of the capital, descended into a place where violence and illegality disrupted the lives of the inhabitants and where the police tried and failed to restore order, or did not to want to, as some may say.
To bring law and order to the society, to fight violence and criminal behavior, was among the key promises of the new center-right government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in power since last July. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood of Exarcheia was on the top of the list of the trouble-making spots that the Greek police and its anti-terrorist squads were determined to “clean.”
Multiple operations were organized to storm old empty buildings “occupied” by illegal migrants or marginalized squatters for years. In one such building, which belonged to the Economics Faculty, police said they found evidence of preparation for terrorist attacks.
But the decision by the Athens University authorities to close the Economics Faculty until after Nov. 17 enraged the students who demonstrated against the decision only to have the police enter the campus and use excessive force against them.
For the sake of space, I am omitting several acts of this play, but I should add that unlike what happened in the past, the police now can enter university campuses if it is for fighting illegality, thanks to a new law passed by the Mitsotakis government.
The decision by Athens University to close the Economics Faculty infuriated the students and exposed them to police violence.
But it also gave them a platform to release their frustration against the plans by the government to loosen the margins of public higher education, opening the door to the private educational sector, thus breaking the decades-long tradition of free public education. By the same token, it also opened the university campuses to the police-if they needed to fight illegality- and restricted the entrance to campuses to only students and teaching staff.
All these changes and restrictions were hard to swallow by a student community who had been used to a freer and somewhat undisciplined academic environment since the ‘80s where student unions had a say even in the running of their academic institutions.
The question is, will this frustration make its way to this year’s anniversary on Nov. 17? Will students or any of the social groups affected by this new “disciplinarian” attitude of the government choose to disobey the new order?
The Greek police are determined not to give anybody such a chance. They will be around the polytechnic school in their thousands this Sunday,
ready to act if the situation gets out of control.