This article was sourced in collaboration with our partners, De Derde Dinsdag. In this piece Maria, a politics student at the University of Amsterdam, discusses tensions in Greece that reflect the country’s growing polarisation.
Polarisation is a perennial problem, but in Greece, its recent effects have been disastrous.
We have been in a full lockdown since 7th November 2020 and all citizens must send a SMS, or fill out a form, just to go outside, with fines of €300 administered for any violation. With police enforcing these extensive restrictions, resentment against their increased powers inevitably grew. The government adopted increasingly authoritarian measures and tensions between police and emerging protestors rose; we were fearfully witnessing the beginnings of a process of democratic backsliding.
The situation became visibly dire when police officers hit a protesting civilian with batons in a park in Nea Smyrni, a southern suburb in the city of Athens. Videos of the incident went viral online. Civilians, fed up after five months of lockdown, were determined to fight back. This started out with peaceful protestors, but on 9th March, when football hooligans attacked a group of protestors, things took a turn for the worse. There were clashes of terrible brutality, as officers and protestors met in confrontation, leaving one police officer half dead and several civilians injured.
After twelve years of economic and political crises, the continued victimisation of the general population was far from shocking.
Most worryingly, no one was really surprised. The police force dispatched to deal with protestors, known as the MAT in Greece, are notorious for disregarding peaceful protests and the government is too focused on Covid to seriously address the issue of police brutality. After twelve years of economic and political crises, the continued victimisation of the general population was far from shocking.
The prime minister called for unity while only condemning the violent incident against the police officer, showing no real effort to bring about a reconciliation. A few days later, however, as discontent was rising, the government did take some measures to prevent further violence, whilst the prime minister apologised to all victims of police brutality. For the brutalised public, though, these new measures were too little, too late. Even as the government condemned police brutality, new police departments were formed, funding the police with new equipment, cars and personnel. During an economic crisis, when finances are limited, it is a disappointment that so few of these funds were used to actually help the wider public.
In these divided times, condemning the violence against police came to be perceived as a pro-establishment talking point.
The phrase “we condemn violence regardless of where it comes from” was hated by left-wingers since violence towards the police was seen as a form of retributive justice. Alternatively, right-wingers saw nothing wrong with police brutality and justified it by saying that the victims were troublemakers who deserved what they got- even going so far as to justify the violence against civilians in Nea Smyrni. Not everyone fell into these two camps, but the shift towards these polarities evidenced the beginnings of a treacherous divide in Greek society.
As I bear witness to this carnage, I ask myself: what is the role of morality in social change? I think we must strike a careful balance between our activism and our broader moral commitments.
As I bear witness to this carnage, I ask myself: what is the role of morality in social change? The fact that all these issues are appearing during a pandemic makes this significantly more complex. Protests are necessary to stand against police brutality. However, it is also important to acknowledge that they may be facilitating a spread of the coronavirus. Both sides of the partisan divide have valuable arguments, but, as a society, we need to learn to walk and chew gum: to avoid spreading coronavirus, protect peaceful protests and condemn violence on all sides.
I think we must strike a careful balance between our activism and our broader moral commitments. We have fallen too far into the bad habits of demonising the political other, but the ethical imperatives that drive us to fight for social change, should be equally influential in encouraging a broad sympathy for all of the conflicting groups within our society.