The 40th anniversary of the polytechnic uprising that helped end the Western-backed military junta in Greece was marked on November 17.
The date is a national day of remembrance and marks a defining moment in modern Greek history. The image of a tank battering down the gates to the student-occupied polytechnic school 40 years ago remains strong in the public consciousness.
To this day, it is illegal for the police and army to enter the university grounds.
The military dictatorship in Greece, known as the Regime of the Colonels, was a series of fascist juntas that ruled the country from 1967 until its fall in 1974. The regime was notorious for outlawing left-wing parties, mass crackdowns on political dissent and “disappearances” of activists and Communist politicians.
During the polytechnic uprisings, about 1000 people were injured as up to 500,000 Greeks took to the streets calling for an end to fascism.
The annual protest is preceded by three days of traditional remembrance services to mark the deaths of the 24 people, mostly students, at the polytechnic school.
The services also act as a left-wing festival, with several political groups inundating the school's grounds with speeches, music, and leftist literature.
Speaking at the polytechnic on November 16, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the left-wing Syriza party that came close to winning elections last year on a radical platform, said: “The polytechnic uprising remains alive in the minds of Greek ,society and the message of unity and popular resistance for democracy, dignity and life is more relevant than ever in the social struggles of today.
“Today, as then, demand in society for a large change is mature and diffuse.”
Commemorating the struggle of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) against the junta, KKE representative Cyril Papastaurou said: “The uprising of the polytechnic teaches us that when determined, people can become powerful and fearless fighting for their rights.
“Today we have to overcome the fears and illusions that cultivate the parties of capital ...”
Papastaurou referred to the KKE’s call for “the socialisation of monopolies, clearing all debt, abolition of the memoranda, the release of the EU, NATO, [and] all imperialist associations, [to seek] solutions that will bring himself to his own labour ― people power”.
November 17 featured a major protest that dominated the city of Athens. The annual protest was attended by tens of thousands of demonstrators. They took to the streets to demand ― as they have for the duration of the crisis ― an end to the austerity politics that severely eroded the quality of life over the past few years.
New figures released in November show unemployment has risen to 27.3% and youth unemployment to 60.6%. Pensions have been slashed to near-poverty levels and those with jobs have seen their wages cut and taxes raised. One in three children are in poverty and there have been over 3000 suicides in the past three years.
The day held extra significance this year as a series of political events have once more left Greece scrambling for political and financial stability.
From an active membership of only a few thousand to growth in recent years to become a major political force with 7% of the vote, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn has built upon the public’s mistrust of the present political system to foster significant influence within the political sphere.
Golden Dawn members now proudly wear their symbols and actively attack immigrants and political opponents. The fascist ideals and actions previously confined to the history books have been revived by Golden Dawn, which has grown as Greece has declined.
More worryingly, minister for public order Nikos Dendias has confirmed that Golden Dawn has infiltrated the police force. There are reports of up to 50% of the police force sympathetic to the fascist group. There are many accounts of police failing to act in relation to Golden Dawn attacks.
The assassination of two Golden Dawn members in a drive-by shooting recently has pushed the political climate in Greece to breaking point. On the eve of the November 17 protest, a previously unknown group, calling itself “Fighting Popular Revolutionary Forces”, claimed responsibility for the assassinations.
The attack was suspected to have been carried out in revenge for the September 18 murder of 34-year-old rapper and anti-fascist activist Pavlos Fyssas, who was stabbed to death by a Golden Dawn member.
Fresh austerity and resistance
The comparisons to 40 years ago continue to be reinforced. In an act last seen during the reign of the junta, the coalition government led by Antonios Samaras of New Democracy abruptly closed the national broadcaster ERT in June, sacking 2600 workers.
In solidarity with the ERT employees, Syriza put forward a no-confidence motion against the government on November 17. Despite falling short, an MP from coalition partner PASOK voted against the coalition and was immediately thrown out of the party’s parliamentary group. This cut the government’s majority to just four MPs, down from 16 less than a year ago.
Backed by a strong anti-austerity platform and reinforced by street support, Syriza's fortunes have risen dramatically in recent years from a fringe group to the country’s second-largest political party. Last year, it fell just short of forming government, winning 26.89% of the vote.
Along with the KKE (who traditionally poll anywhere from 4.5%-8.5%) and smaller left group ANTARSYA (who scored 1%), this signifies a renewed focus on left parties and policies as alternatives to the present austerity after the implosion of major social democratic party PASOK.
Conservative party New Democracy is using its slim parliamentary majority ― by way of coalition with PASOK and the Democratic Left (a right-wing split from Syriza) ― to continue pushing through harsh austerity policies.
The “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, European Union and European Central Bank has once more been in Greece as Samaras seeks to re-negotiate a debt shortfall expected to range between 1.3 billion and 2.9 billion euros for the quarter.
However, many Greeks are still wary of foreign intervention. Revelations by WikiLeaks this year revealed the extent of US co-operation with the fascist dictatorship of the military junta.
Furthermore, many Greeks still blame the US and Britain for supporting the monarchy over the communist-backed Democratic Army in the civil war that followed WWII.
The present eurozone crisis is viewed by many as another example of capitalist hegemony meddling in this small Mediterranean nation’s political and economic affairs.
Battle of the streets
Importantly, the November 17 demonstration is a reminder of the importance of public assembly and the power of street demonstrations as a democratic weapon.
The police state was in full force with more than 6000 officers swarming Athens. The main transport arteries were locked down and closed off ― aiming to create forced confrontations with the peaceful protesters. Police preventatively arrested 149 people.
Starting from the polytechnic school, protesters wound their way through the city centre of Athens before passing by parliament. Protesters chanted anti-US and anti-fascist slogans, and carried signs with messages that read “No to sacking, permanent and stable work for everyone!” and “Power to overthrow the government and the troika!”
Speaking to members of left parties, the message was clear. On the legacy of the polytechnic 40 years on, Andreas, a student who supports Syriza, told me: “Today, after 40 years of the polytechnic revolution ― it has a legacy of a revolution ― it certainly lives among us, especially the attack of neoliberalism … after 40 years of this system, we can see that it’s rotten.”
Antonis, a member of ANTARSYA and a student of medicine attending the protest, said: “[We] have to smash fascism and neo-Nazism and all the problems that cause this tendency of fascism inside the people.
“The protest today must be a beginning, a beginning of new struggles, what we have been asking for the last 40 and 60 years we still don’t have them: bread, education, freedom.”
George, 18, a student and member of the Community Youth of Greece (the KKE youth wing), said: “The legacy of the polytechnic teaches us that no matter how strong the opposition, they can be overthrown by young people. We fight for a better future for the Greek people.”
On the recent rise of fascism, George added: “After the killing of Pavlos Fyssas, we believe that people will understand the true face of fascism.”
As has become a tradition, the protest ended at the US Embassy.
The November 17 protest is a reminder of the all too real threat of fascism. As winter sets in and the tourism dollars dry up, it was the culmination of many protests taking place across Greece almost every day. A university strike has entered its 11th week.
The demonstration reminds us that democracy is not a simple parliamentary process, but as proven 40 years ago, involves the right to assembly and protest to fight against injustice and inequality.
On November 17, the protesters stood up to the dual threat of fascism and austerity, and challenged a system that feeds the pockets of the bankers and not the mouths of the children. The rallying cry was a strong resounding call for justice.