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The end of peaceful protest?

By Harris Mylonas*

During the three days that the Greek Parliament was discussing and voting on the latest round of austerity measures, 138 police officers were injured, more than 500 protesters were hospitalized with breathing problems caused by the use of tear gas by the police, Syntagma metro station resembled a wartime hospital, tens of protesters were wounded, while 46 demonstrators were taken to police stations and 11 of them arrested on June 29 alone.

The police brutality was unprecedented according to Skai news and many witness accounts. Through Twitter, Facebook, email, and text messages, the Greek protesters spread the word of indiscriminate police beatings.

A peaceful protester injured by the police called a radio station to express his consternation at the attack he suffered at the hands of the police, “who are supposed to be there to protect citizens.” He further argued that he was there to “protest for Greece and its rights, so why was I attacked by another Greek?” Another citizen claimed that he was almost beaten by motorcycle police while walking around recording the events with a camera and that what saved him was an old expired press pass. At the same time, families were calling in reporting brute force without any provocation on their part. Many citizens, especially older ones, claim that they tried to talk to the police officers and dissuade them from using chemicals against simple protesters but to no avail.

Amnesty International had already condemned Greece for the use of force against protesters on June 15. June 29 was much worse.

There are several possible explanations for why Greek police used such force. One view is that it was hard for them to tell which were peaceful demonstrators and which were troublemakers. The police might have felt threatened by the mayhem. They may have determined that if they did not strike first, the protesters would attack them.

An alternative explanation is that the government wanted to break the “Indignant” movement using force. The vast majority of protesters saw the events as a strategy employed by the state to keep them from protesting. After all, most protesters were family types who were not going to remain there under such circumstances. And as expected, they fled the scene.

The ones left were younger, more determined and enraged and, again expectedly, engaged in street fights with the police. Thus, what was a peaceful demonstration that challenged the legitimacy of the government, if not the Parliament as a whole, turned into the “usual” fight between the “known unknowns” -- as they are often referred to -- and the police forces.

On top of this, some believe the government planted provocateurs among the peaceful protesters to justify the escalation. Regardless of whether this hypothesis is true or not, the mere perception is damaging to the reputation of the government and the police. Let’s hope that these events have not killed peaceful protest.

All this violence was happening while those inside the Parliament had just voted in favor of the new austerity measures. Many think that it was much more convenient for the government that people were discussing police brutality rather than the midterm plan that was being voted on. Regardless of motivation, that was indeed the case. The next day, June 30, when the government had to vote on the implementation law of the plan, there was hardly anyone in the ruins of Syntagma Square and the discussion within the Parliament had turned into a discussion about the quality of democracy and the right of people to demonstrate freely.

Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis, who is ironically now called the citizens’ protection minister, made an analytical distinction between governmental and police responsibility.

The head of the main opposition New Democracy party, Antonis Samaras, suggested that the scenes raised questions about the existence of state-sponsored provocateurs. However, ND deputy Manolis Kefaloyiannis later rushed to congratulate the police officers and, together with Health Minister Andreas Loverdos, repeated the high number of police officers wounded during the street battles.

The leader of the right-wing nationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) party, Giorgos Karatzaferis, suggested that special recognition should be given to the Evzones presidential guards because they remained in position before the Parliament during the fighting despite the fact that tears were running down their faces due to the chemicals used against the protesters.

Dora Bakoyannis, the head of the Democratic Alliance political grouping who was expelled from the main opposition ND party in 2010, commented only on the destruction of Hania MPs’ offices by a raging crowd.

The parties of the left were furious and suggested that the democratic foundations of the political system have cracked.

Of course, in the end the vote passed. 

* Harris Mylonas is assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs & Department of Political Science at George Washington University. He is also an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies.

ekathimerini.com , Tuesday Jul 5, 2011 (17:15)  
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