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The long fight to keep cops off Greek university campuses

Just before COVID-19, a mass movement was challenging Greece's repeal of its asylum law banning police from university campuses

by Moira Lavelle

Student protest outside the Greek parliament building, November 14, 2019. Photo: Tatiana Bolari
Student protest outside the Greek parliament building, November 14, 2019. Photo: Tatiana Bolari

The students were not surprised to see the riot police, but their presence on the grounds of the Athens University of Economics and Business was certainly provocative. Almost as soon as  the young people stepped onto the campus, at around noon on November 11, 2019, they found themselves surrounded-- the massive wooden school doors behind them and a squad of police with plastic shields in front of them.

In the following weeks images from the campus scene, with students on the white marble steps, surrounded by helmeted police, circulated through newspapers and television news. It was an easy symbol for both sides of one of Greece’s ongoing national debates: whether police should be permitted on university campuses. It is a question not just about policing, but about the role of the university and the student in society.

For almost 40 years it has been illegal for Greek police to enter universities due to what is called the university asylum law. The law was meant to make universities a place of refuge for student protests and protect the free exchange of ideas. In recent years, a growing opposition has criticized it as merely a shield for drug dealing and violence. In August 2019, the law was repealed by the conservative New Democracy government, citing public safety concerns.

But for many students, the repeal feels like an attempt to quash dissent. “To dispute freely and unrestricted we must have an asylum of political views inside the university,” urges Giannis Pachakis, 25, a student at the National Technical University of Athens. “It’s the beginning of any political struggle.”

Pachakis is in a leftist student political group-- one of a vast network with a truly Balkan array of alliances and co-operations that span the country. The student groups are known for frequent protests and demonstrations, often culminating with occupations of university buildings in opposition to funding cuts or curriculum changes. Pachakis credits the university asylum for aiding the student movement in keeping Greek university fees at zero.

The focus of these movements expands beyond student issues. There have long been coalitions with unions and workers, as well as anarchist collectives. In recent years the universities have been a focal point for coordinating around refugee issues and solidarity, with hundreds of meetings held inside occupied lecture halls to organize demonstrations or coordinate with squatted shelters. Students argue none of this organizing would have been possible without university asylum.

Greece’s university asylum law comes from the 1973 Athens Polytechnic Uprising, when university students protested the military dictatorship or Junta that ruled over Greece for seven years. Beginning on the 14th of November, 1973, students from all the different universities in Athens barricaded themselves into the Polytechnic faculty in the center of the city, first demanding educational reform, and eventually calling for the fall of the Junta. They took control of the school’s radio station and broadcasted missives against the dictatorship. Thousands of people followed the transmissions from their radios, to the streets, to the ionic columns of the university.

The protest ended early on the morning of November 17th when the military sent a tank crashing through the gate of the campus, police beat and arrested hundreds, and at least 23 protestors were killed. The deaths sparked national outrage, and led to further protests against the dictatorship. The polytechnic protests are widely understood as the catalyst that brought on the fall of the Junta the next year, and the beginning of Greece’s democracy.

“Polytechnio is a central point of the collective memory of Greece,” explains Vagelis Karamanolakis, a professor of history at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. “We can say with Polytechnio, we have the first collective hero in [modern] Greek history.”

The 17th of November became a national school holiday. Every year it is commemorated with speeches, flowers laid at the site of the crushed university gates, and protests.

In 1982, cementing what was already understood as common sense, Greece established a law prohibiting police from entering campuses without the express permission of the students and the dean, meant to protect students in the legacy of the Polytechnic.

“The university students were the first people that in the past started the revolution against the dictatorship,” says Iro Karahalou, 22, a student at the Athens University of Economics and Business. “So, in comparison with nowadays I think it is a good example to understand that the students can be a very important society group to motivate other society groups.”

However, in the last 20 years the idea of university asylum has become a gnarled subject of public debate. Many professors lamented that there are more days of occupation than classes. Politicians frequently blamed university asylum not only for shielding weapons and drug trafficking, but leading to the declining state of Greek universities. Of particular complaint were regular attacks on the police, as hooded protestors often burned cars or threw molotov cocktails at police and ran back to the university buildings for shelter.

University asylum was a common target in the press, “After 2000 the newspapers were against this asylum,” says Karamanolakis. “Newspapers from the right were against it, then the centrist newspapers. Then the cable television changed the image of asylum.”

The late 2000s also brought a crushing economic crisis to Greece. All bailouts were accompanied with punishing austerity measures. Protests against austerity, against the government, and against the status quo became widespread. Amidst the tension university asylum was repealed in 2011.

In 2015, still riding waves of economic frustration and woe, Greece elected the leftist Syriza party. In 2017 they made a point to reinstate university asylum, citing ideals of academic freedom, and making the issue a tense ping-pong between political factions.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the president of the conservative New Democracy party, took up the volley in January 2018 with a surprise visit to the Athens University of Economics and Business, stating, “This is not a picture of a public university. Asylum cannot be circumvented in such a way as to cover all kinds of illegal, unlawful behavior.”

The Economics University had been a particular focus in the debate on asylum, due to the peddlers who sold knock-off sneakers and illicit cigarettes off of tarps in front of the campus, and the ever-present huddle of intravenous drug users near the perimeter. A drug bust in fall 2019 proved the commonly-known existence of a massive drug ring operating in an abandoned building beside the university, one of several instances of organized crime taking advantage of the situation.

During elections in summer 2019, New Democracy campaigned on a platform of stringent immigration reform, economic growth, and public safety – specifically promising to abolish university asylum. The party was overwhelmingly voted back into power, and brought in Mitsotakis as Prime Minister. University asylum was repealed in August, as one of the first moves of the incoming government.

Karahalou says that the government’s rhetoric convinced many of her peers that asylum was dangerous. “No one in our days, especially in our days because of the media, no one thought asylum was important,” she says, “So it was easy for the government to say we’ll stop that.”

Police have entered the Athens University of Economics and Business several times since the repeal. Early in November police conducted a raid on a student occupied space and confiscated poles, helmets, face coverings, anarchist leaflets, and pieces of marble they stated are “used in attacks." In response, the University suspended all classes for the week leading up to the 17th of November, the anniversary of the polytechnic uprising.

Outraged with the closure and the timing, students decided to proceed with a general assembly they had previously scheduled for the afternoon of the 11th. Around 100 or so students had arrived shortly after twelve in the afternoon, and broke the chains locked around the outside gate of the university campus.

“The only illegal thing we did that day was that there was a chain on the gate and we broke it” says Michalis Rothos, 21, a student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. “We didn’t have any weapons in our hands. I wouldn’t be ashamed to say I have a wooden stick. But that day we didn’t have anything.” Rothos had assumed the police would not let the students enter the school, and that their presence would be symbolic. But when the police followed him and his classmates into university, he was terrified.

Scuffles broke out between students and riot police on both sides of the campus gates, and the police deployed tear gas. Pachakis was outside the gate, unable to enter the campus proper, and said he was punched in the head three times and kicked three or four times.

In their statement Hellenic police said that “The police forces that intervened to prevent the entrance were attacked by people, many of whom used sticks, etc. To de-escalate the attacks, they were forced to use tear gas.”

Antonis Antoniadis, 22, a student at the Athens University of Economics and Business, was also inside the gates when the police entered. He quelled his fear by chanting slogans comparing the current government to the Junta. He is among the crowd photographed chanting on the marble steps. “This image is very important to society. When society sees cops going into the university they think of the Greek Polytechnic,” says Antoniadis. “People think of their students, their sons or daughters inside.”

Karamanolakis, the academic, calls the image “very strong” and says, “I have a daughter who is 18 years old, she is in her first year of study. She called me this day and told me ‘Daddy I want to go to [the university] to support those inside but I’m afraid.’ This idea of young people being afraid. This has something to do with collective memory.”

By 2:00 pm this collective memory led thousands of people to clog Patission street, a main thoroughfare of Athens. Students and activists linked arms, alternating between chanting, smoking cigarettes, and calling in more support. Journalists, lawyers rushed to the scene, followed by a few leftist members of parliament, eager to make a point. At 2:40 pm, pressure high, the police exited, and the students marched out to a massive cheer from those on the street.

That evening 6,000 students and activists gathered in an impromptu demonstration in favor of university asylum that wound through the center of the city. A week later the 46th anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic uprising was marked with the largest protest in recent years; at least 20,000 people took to the streets. The former leftist prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, ostentatiously joined in the march.

The city of Athens deployed 5,000 police officers, drones, and helicopters. Protestors who clashed with police were quickly arrested.

The months following were filled with regular student protests in favor of asylum and against police violence, from the southern island of Crete to the northern city of Thessaloniki. Students who were not previously involved politically started joining. “When we do general assemblies we must have more than 50 [people] at my university to make decisions,” says Rothos, “In the past three years the maximum number we had at a meeting was 30 people. When [the events at the economic university] happened, we had for the first time 72 people.”

In February of this year, tensions again rose when an undercover police officer entered the economic university wearing a balaclava, brandishing a gun.

The Hellenic Police stated that the off-duty officer had entered the university to follow a “familiar face.” According to the official statement he was attacked by 30 people, and “was then dragged into the University courtyard, where, defending the ongoing attack, he fired his service weapon for intimidation, without using it.”

Students protested, some were arrested, and then more students protested en masse.

“What I do, what my comrades do, what students do, is something that they are afraid of,” says Pachakis. “We started getting momentum. I believe we did something right.”

For the past month the universities have been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but organizing continues as students try to hold onto this momentum. Student groups have conducted online campaigns first decrying the state’s decision to evict student dormitories, and then expanding to a call for the end of private hospitals, and more intensive care unit (ICU) beds.

Karahalou is hopeful that the coronavirus outbreak will wake even more people up to the need for political action, that the lack of ICU beds in a time of crisis will lead the Greek population to question the government’s stance on other issues, perhaps even university asylum. She feels it is necessary for a functioning political movement.

Antoniadis agrees, “The reason we have asylum is because students of the university are often the most active part of the society, of the movement,” says Antoniadis. “This is the reason the government wants to stop this also. They want the students to be at home and to have their lessons and only this. They don’t want the political and social role of the university."

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