Ten years of fighting racism and fascism in Greece

Mark Goudkamp spoke to KEERFA founder Petros Constantinou following the organisation’s conference in Athens in October

KEERFA this year is marking ten years since its formation. Can you explain why socialists took this initiative?

The period of 2008 to 2009 in Greece was a time of deepening capitalist crisis. The government responded to this economic crisis with an attack against young people, and also against migrants, opening the space for the fascists.

First there was LAOS, a populist far right party who got into parliament and also tried to build citizen groups against refugees in the neighbourhoods. These groups became gangs attacking the refugees. Golden Dawn were tiny in that period, they only had 0.19 per cent [of the vote] and were outside of parliament. But we argued that this was an environment where they could become more dangerous.

We proposed to build KEERFA by starting to oppose their attacks in the neighbourhoods. It was a campaign with two parallel issues: fighting fascism and solidarity with refugees. They were arguing there are a lot of unemployed and we don’t have the resources in hospitals and schools to take refugees, saying “Greek people first”.

The main reason to form this movement was to stop them before they developed.

Can you tell us some of the victories that the anti-fascist movement and anti-racist has had, and the impact these have had on broader society?

The most important victory has been the collapse of the Neo Nazis of Golden Dawn. They grew in the period of crisis and polarisation when we had general strikes and the shift to the left that finally led to the SYRIZA government in 2015. The neo-nazis were attacking the left, migrants, and so on. They managed in 2012 to enter the Greek parliament with 7 per cent, or half a million votes, and 21 MPs. This was a shock for the left who until then had underestimated them.

They tried to build stormtrooper groups by opening offices around Greece and using them as points to organise and control areas in the neighborhood. In 2012 to 2013 with the support of the police, they organised a lot of racist attacks, and also attacks on political targets. They were trying to eject migrants who were selling in the market and checking how many children of refugees there were in the kindergartens.

This led to a huge response from the anti-fascist movement. Whenever even one refugee was attacked, we organised mass mobilisations with support from local authorities, trade unions, communities and the left, to get them out of the streets and also defend the migrants against police, because the police were always there to arrest them. In 2013 we could count around 100,000 people mobilised locally that year city by city. There were Saturdays when there were seven demonstrations at the same time. Τhis showed that we were more powerful than the fascists.

Finally, in September 2013 they murdered Pavlos Fyssas in a working class neighbourhood, the same area where they attacked trade unionsts linked to the Communist Party.

We managed to turn terror into a powerful movement. The same day he was murdered, 20,000 demonstrated. We had a big campaign to call on the trade unions to have a general strike against the fascists. They had already called a general strike around the issues of austerity. They decided to hold a concert. We didn’t really agree with the concert, but we organised a demo of 60,000 that marched on the headquarters of the Nazis.

This pressured the government that was very reluctant to act. So two days after the demonstration we woke up to see in the media all 19 Golden Dawn MPs in handcuffs in prison. The trial of Golden Dawn has lasted four years. In all these years, we had other great victories against the Nazis. They tried to stop the refugees coming to Greece in 2015. They tried to stop the kids of refugees going to the schools and they were defeated. We organised with the teachers union, with local people and with parents. It was amazing when the children were coming to the school, with people locally welcoming them presents, candies, books.

And of course the biggest victory we had was in July when finally Golden Dawn lost their seats in the Greek parliament. They didn’t even get 3 per cent and they are now left without parliamentary cover. A lot of their offices are closed. They had  72 offices and now they have five. They have been big splits, they even lost the number two of Golden Dawn, who left the party. This is a great victory, given the trend internationally and in Europe, and Trump creating this wave of racism, sexism and nationalism that breeds the rise of the far right. In Greece, the biggest example they had internationally, the rise of the Golden Dawn, it’s over.

Some on the reformist left initially said that Golden Dawn could be defeated electorally, while some in the revolutionary left advocated physical street fights with them. Do you feel that KEERFA’s strategy of building a mass political campaign has been vindicated?

It’s very clear that this victory does not belong to what they call in Greece the forces of constitutional politics, the democrats or even the reformist parties. They didn’t organise resistance because the social democrats and the centre right were part of the problem. Their ministers had control of the police when they were in government. It was outrageous how they covered for the Nazis for years. 

Even with the SYRIZA government, we had the president of the parliament argue one day that the parliament could not legally vote for the budget because the Golden Dawn MPs were in prison. When we pushed for the trial, and the involvement of lawyers from the anti-fascist movement, we did that alone. It’s amazing that the other political parties didn’t push to have lawyers. Only the Communist Party on the last day.

In the next period there were a lot of problems around the organisation of the trial. We needed to make sure it didn’t become something that was irrelevant or never finished. We organised a campaign regarding how to organise this trial. We pushed for the Greek media, especially the public broadcaster, to cover it. It was amazing that even under the SYRIZA government, the management of the public TV station ran programs from the Neo-nazis, of one hour per month. We stopped that through the journalists union at ERT [the public broadcaster]. They called strikes at the time of Golden Dawn’s program.

The institutions of democracy were normalising the Nazis, just as during the period of the rise of Hitler. We called for counter-demonstrations, no free speech for the Nazis, to get them out of the Parliament and from the councils and so on.

From the other side, there was no real problem with groups who were physically attacking the fascists. It was a small minority using this method. We began organising very early, and we had a lot of respect among people who were organising fights with the fascists. And we discussed methods of struggle with them, and we won. We won mass peaceful demonstrations of thousands to isolate GD, and the anarchists were there, but not using their methods at the same time we were demonstrating. If they choose to do it themselves, it was their choice. This doesn’t mean we don’t physically oppose the fascists when they are attacking people, but you choose to bring the mass of the people including women and refugees. This is more powerful, this is the social majority against the fascists, not just small groups of mostly men.

Golden Dawn is out of the parliament but many of their votes went to the far right Velopoulos, who advocates landmines along the Turkish coast and closed, isolated detention centres. He says Australia’s policies are a positive example to follow. Some New Democracy MPs in the new government say the same thing. And Mitsotakis is starting a right-wing assault on refugees. How does KEERFA see these new threats?

The reality is that the Greek government of Mitsotakis, and also the Eurpoean Union, even in a period where isn’t a mass influx of refugees, choose to play the card of racism. It’s because of the economic crisis in Europe. In Greece you have the spokesperson of the government arguing that the refugees will infect and rot the population, and they cannot adapt to the western way of life. There is a threat because of the oppressive policies of the New Democracy government. It’s opening the space for the fascists to regroup. But of course it’s not comparable to the fascists of GD who were on the streets and attacking more than one thousand people in one year.

We had our conference on 12 October, a massive conference with over 700 people. It had an international dimension with the participation of activists from Australia, the US, Britain, Germany, Cyprus, Spain and so on. The first initiative is to call for an international day of action on the 21 March 2020.

At the same time we’re building against the racist measures of New Democracy. They want to close the border. They want to open new closed detention centres and to cancel the right to asylum by arguing that the people are not refugees, they are invaders of Europe, illegal migrants and so on. We’re going to be campaigning for the refugee children to get into the schools, and for everyone to be able to access hospitals. We’re going to build a movement to bring the refugees inside of the cities into public housing, to close the camps and the ghettos. And also we want to finish the campaign for the trial of Golden Dawn with a conviction of all their members as a criminal organisation.

Our conference attracted a lot of refugees. They came here organised on buses from the camps. It attracted young people from the universities who are in a period of struggle and resistance against the government. It attacted university professors, some of the best in this country such as historians, people who are opposing the racist policies of the government, some journalists and a lot of trade unionists.

Who would you identify as KEERFA’s key allies?

First of all the trade unions. Sometimes they mobilise, sometimes they support you to mobilise. If you don’t win the unions to fight against the divisions among the workers, then you can’t have wider workers’ struggles. 

The other thing is we try to work with the migrant and refugee communities, and with the refugees in the camps. The communities in Greece are organised but their government’s embassies try to keep them away from the unions and the left. Some of them oppose this like the Pakistani community for years, and the Bangladeshi communities. And this produces mass struggle in unity with them.

A lot of the migrants and refugees are now an organic part of the workers’ movement in Greece. We won the fight that the migrants should be members of the trade unions. There are a lot of unions that have them as members. In the last ten years, there have been huge struggles by migrant workers. The biggest was in Nea Manolada in the strawberry fields. The bosses had thugs using guns to control them. They lived in terrible conditions. One group of workers demanded the money for their work and the bosses said, “go away”, and they shot them. There were 40 people injured. The unions couldn’t organise there because they had been beaten by these thugs. So KEERFA, with the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, went there and the outcome was a huge strike which lasted for ten days which defeated the bosses there.

After that, we had strikes in factories. In the biggest recycling factory there was a strike going on for days. The police arrested all the workers there. We worked together with them and it took one day in a police station chanting slogans in the cells, and they got all their money. This was a huge victory. There were also other areas of Greece where people pick oranges, onions and so on. Pakistani workers  were expelled from their houses when the local mayor decided to replace all of them with the workers from the European Union on a new contract with less money. There was a strike against that. The migrant workers didn’t just get their houses back but more 1000 got asylum.

How important has it been to build a global movement for refugees and against racism and fascism?

I think that we have a tradition of international struggle going back to the days of Genoa in 2001, the anti-capitalist movement, and also the anti-war movement. We had this tradition of international coordination so when we built it our efforts in that direction we had a base already there. But when six years ago we invited some people to come and join in and decide together about the 21st of March as a day of international movement against fascism and racism there was a big response and there response in some other countries when Pavlos Fyssas was murdered. In 2014, there were around 20 or 25 countries, not all of them with big demonstrations, but this  changed year by year and last year it was 60 countries.

So I’m very proud that we started all this tradition of international mobilisation because the fight against Fortress Europe and the fight in 2015 was based on that movement and we managed to open the borders for some moments in Greece because of the solidarity movement for refugees. The anti-fascist movement opened the way for that.

The trial of Golden Dawn

Mark Goudkamp interviewed Afrodite Fragkou about the court prosecution against Golden Dawn

Can you briefly describe the three cases in the prosecution against Golden Dawn (GD)?

First was the attack on the house of some Egyptian fishermen in the summer of 2012 in Perama. The local GD group knew the fishermen lived there. They severely hit Abuzeid Ebarak, broke his jaw and tried to kill him. Six were arrested and five of them are in court because the sixth was a minor and was tried in another court.

The second was the attack against PAME, the unionists from the Communist Party, also in Perama, in September 2013. Two GD groups took part: Perama and Salamina. The victims say that around 50 people attacked them from two sides of the street. They were postering for a festival of the Communist youth and the Nazis hit them in the head with wooden and metal weapons like bats with spikes. There were photos of holes in the cars of the victims. And then they left. Four people were arrested and prosecuted for this out of 50.

The third was, four days later, the murder of Pavlos Fyssas. The victims and eyewitnesses talk about 20 to 30 members of the Nikia group involved, which was Golden Dawn’s most important group on the national scale. Michaloliakos (the leader of GD) himself talked of them as the most organised and the most powerful group, that everybody should look like them and work like them. They were the darlings of the organisation, and were visiting places all over Greece to show this is how local groups should be organised. Those were the ones who attacked Pavlos Fyssas and his friends. They were able to isolate Pavlos and this allowed Giorgios Roupakias to stab him.

Can you describe the importance of the trial of Golden Dawn MPs and how this has contributed to their implosion?

It’s not only a trial of Golden Dawn members, but a trial of it as a criminal organisation, and how the three attacks are connected to the party. This means the entire leadership are on trial. It’s the first time that we have Golden Dawn itself on trial as an organisation.

The trial exposes the racist policies of the state that helped Golden Dawn rise regardless of who was in government (PASOK, New Democracy, and even SYRIZA).

It also has an impact because it reveals that the Greek police have been covering for them and helping them in terms of information, and never prosecuting them or preventing their violent attacks.

But most important is that the trial has contributed hugely to their implosion. Golden Dawn right now is completely decomposing in terms of its organisation.

How has this happened? It’s because first of all tons of information has been made public and reached huge audiences. It therefore started to be common sense that they are a Nazi criminal organisation whose only purpose is to create violence that targets pretty much everyone who is not with them.

This isolated Golden Dawn and the result of this was that they started having conflicts among themselves about how to manage the situation. The leadership is trying to focus the blame on the physical perpetrators. And inside their leadership we can see splits and conflicts because they want to give one another up to save themselves.

Also because of that isolation they couldn’t campaign for the elections this year. During the elections the anti-fascist movement managed to prevent them campaigning in the streets like other parties. They were blocked from the national television because the workers there had a strike every time Michaloliakos was about to appear.

They had a really bad the result in the European elections with only two MPs elected. In the national elections they didn’t manage to get re-elected to the parliament. First this meant they couldn’t use their seats as an argument that they are a legal political party. But second they don’t have money anymore to support offices, which is where they hid all their weapons and organised their attacks. The offices started closing down one after another.

Right after the elections the first GD defendants in court were contradicting each other. They were really panicked. The courtroom was full of anti-fascists who could see that they were panicking. Even the high ranking ones were saying, “I know nothing”. That’s not convincing, neither for the people watching, nor for the court. The word spread and their isolation has grown even more since the elections. Right now we’re heading towards the end of the trial with all these problems.

What do you see as the connection between the legal action against Golden Dawn in the court, and the movement against fascism on the outside?

First of all the fact that Golden Dawn is prosecuted was the result of the outburst of the anti-fascist movement after the murder of Shehzad Luqman(a 27-year-old worker from Pakistan) and second after Pavlos Fyssas’ murder.

The anti-fascist movement has taken action throughout the years of the rise of Golden Dawn, from 2010 to 2013. And all this culminated in an explosion after the murder of Pavlos Fyssas.

There were two or three days of rioting and huge demonstrations in Keretsini, in Athens and several other cities across the country. That was what forced the government to proceed to the prosecution, not only of the perpetrators of the murder but also the leadership of Golden Dawn. At this moment, the then Minister of Public Order opened his drawer and pulled out 32 dossiers of attacks by Golden Dawn and gave them to make the prosecution. The important thing to say is that he always had these dossiers, but he wouldn’t do anything unless he was forced to by the movement. New Democracy was afraid that the unrest would escalate to the levels of 2008. They felt, and they were right, that they wouldn’t be able to manage a second riot on the scale of 2008, so they were forced to open the drawer.

One week after the murder there was a general strike that was already planned. It was not planned due to the murder but it took an anti-fascist tone. The demonstrations usually go from Syntagma to Omonia but it marched towards the headquarters of Golden Dawn. It was tens of thousands of people marching towards the headquarters and then that’s when the prosecution started.

The second thing is that the anti-fascist movement played a crucial role in the process of starting the trial, like gathering evidence and possible cases. Most of the cases are not examined by the court but they are taken into account. Attacks are recorded by anti-fascist networks and they make sure that they are known. Otherwise the media and the police would have never cared about it. So it was because of the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement we had enough evidence to have such a big trial. The New Democracy government did start the prosecution but they didn’t seem very eager to start a trial so that also took a lot of action with demonstrations and other actions.

Third is inside the trial itself. There have been a lot of crucial points when the GD defence and also the state wanted to limit the role of the civil action attorneys inside the trial. For example in the beginning the GD attorneys said that they have nothing to do with the issue of whether they were a criminal organisation so they cannot ask anything apart from on the attacks done by their clients. This would mean that the attorneys for Pavlos Fyssas’ family would only be able to ask about the members of the Golden Dawn accused of participating in the murder–nothing about the criminal organisation or anything else.

In the first session of the trial when this was discussed there were demonstrations every day outside of the court and we won this battle. In the end the court ruled that the victims’ attorneys would be able to ask questions about the criminal organisation. This means they expanded the intervention of the civil action in the trial.

At the beginning there were only four sessions per month but now we have reached 10 or 12 sessions per month. That was also a big struggle and the subject of many mobilisations. Also the fact that the trial was moved to the centre of Athens meant more publicity—or the possibility of more publicity.

One of the big victories of the trial was the fact that the prosecution witnesses came because they were approximately 150 people. But it was not a given that they would all come and speak freely about all of the things they knew. But in the end 147 found the courage to come into the courtroom. They were asked if they felt fear or if they had been blackmailed and most of them spoke openly and they helped the trial enormously. That was a victory for the anti-fascist movement because there was support for the witnesses and that gave them confidence.

At the beginning, there were members of Golden Dawn coming into the courtroom as part of the audience but they were organised like death squads. They were trying to terrorise the witnesses. But they didn’t manage to, and after one year they stopped coming.

The documents of the trial were also a big thing. The police proposed a list of documents to be read by the court but they made no sense. It was the attorneys of the civil action that put them in order. This could be seen as a technical thing, but it’s not. Because there anti-fascist movement made the attorneys for the civil action central for the trial because what they said was true: they don’t only represent the actual victims, but also the whole anti-fascist movement. And that’s how they managed to be the ones who determined which documents were going to be read and then examined etc etc. It was a process that lasted seven months it was the court that asked what should be read.  And in the meantime everything that happened outside the courtroom that made GD seem illegitimate in society created pressure on the court against GD.

I imagine at the start of the trial there was some on the anti-fascist left he said don’t have trust in the legal system. Is this still an argument made my paper or has this combination of the political action outside and the legal action inside has convinced most people that this was a good strategy?

There will always be arguments for and against but that I think that pretty much this issue has been resolved. I don’t think that the majority of people who want to see GD in jail have any second thoughts about the importance of the trial for the disintegration of the Nazis. But it’s important to say that this was one of the biggest struggles in the beginning of the trial. KEERFA had this opinion that we must intervene exactly because we don’t have any trust in the justice system. Kostas Papadakis, an attorney in the said it yesterday in the conference that I don’t have any trust in the legal system and that’s why I’m in a trial, because if I wanted to let the state do its job, I would watch it on the television if I trusted it. So now it’s pretty much resolved but it’s an important lesson because it’s not finished so we still have to take into account that exactly because we don’t trust the legal system we have to go on until the end. It’s not just that we just let it roll. We have to be there at every stage.

Finally, the evidence is about to end at the end of October, and the judges will take a few months to take their decision. What do expect to be the reaction if they’re found guilty on the one hand or not guilty on the other?

First the state prosectutor will propose a verdict and then we’ll hear the last word of the attorneys to sum up, and there will be another pause. And then there is a ruling by the court. It’s very important to distinguish between the two because after the first one we’ll know the intention of the state before the end of the trial and we will act accordingly.

The state has two routes it can take. First, either they find them innocent, or find a way out for Michaloliakos where he’s found not to be the head of the criminal organisation. That’s also a bad scenario. If the state takes this route, it must realise that this is going to result in political instability. They are going to face a crisis even worse than in 2013 that made the government prosecute Golden Dawn.

The other route is that they convict them all and decide that Golden Dawn is indeed a criminal organisation. Under this scenario, the anti-fascist movement won’t sit down and wait for the verdict to be applied. We have to apply the verdict ourselves. For example, the offices have to close down, all of them, and it’s not going to happen because of a bad verdict for GD. We have to do it. We can’t allow any space for the Nazis. We have to continue with their isolation to dismantle them completely to have the result that we want to have. Even if there’s a verdict against them, it’s just going to be a weapon in our hands. It’s not that everything is finished.


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Labor’s migration policy puts profit before people

Labor is fuelling racist views about migration, announcing a major crackdown on the number of people entering Australia to study or work.

White Australia and the labour movement

This is the text of the 2023 Alex Macdonald Memorial Lecture, delivered by Phil Griffiths. With thanks to the Brisbane Labour History Association.

French riots a rebellion against poverty, racism and police

Riots swept France in early July after cops shot dead a 17-year-old, Nahel M, and then lied about it.