“Why are you leaving? Where are you going? Stay here, we will all be poor together,” my wife’s friend said when we announced that we were migrating. “It’s not poverty that I’m afraid of,” I said; “it’s the cruelty.”
I didn’t even know what I meant by that. A few weeks later, the Golden Dawn gang would murder Pavlos Fyssas in cold blood. We were holding our breath to see how the police, the justice system, the government would react. Until then, the Samaras government believed that Golden Dawn could be contained – the cabinet’s secratary had an open line with the nazi party members, all but dictating them how to vote in parliament. It took a killing for the government to change stance and order the prosecution of the criminal organisation that is posing as a political party.
Five years later, the Golden Dawn trial is still going on, horrible details coming to light with every hearing. Last week, the five-year commemoration of the cold-blooded murder that gave the Greek society a well-needed wake-up call, was marked by protest rallies all over Greece. The largest one saw the victims’ mother, Magda Fyssa, proudly leading the protest, a living example of standing up against fascists, even if they enter the parliament, even if they have infiltrated the government, or the police.
Another commemoration is coming in a couple of months. This coming December marks ten years since police officer Epaminondas Korkoneas shot and killed teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Exarchia. All of us who lived in Athens in December 2008 remember the tension and atmosphere prevailing in the city in the aftermath of this incident. The imprint that those days left on the country’s collective consciousness and psyche has yet to be adequately assessed. A kid, falling dead from the hands of those whose mission is to protect citizens. It was another wake-up call and a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Ten years later, Greek society is shaken for yet another time, by another violent death, that of Zak Kostopoulos, who was beaten to death in the centre of Athens, in broad daylight, by people who took the law into their own hands and tried to punish him for allegedly attempting theft, when he entered an unattended jewelery store/ pawn shop.
I can’t avoid connecting these three incidents – not only because they are separated by round chunks of time, each being five years apart from the other. Every five years, we have a landmark incident of cruelty with a fascist undertone.
Despite their differences, these three incidents share some common traits.
In all three cases, the perpetrators represented aspects of fascism, be it the authoritarian part of police, seeing Exarchia as the habitat of ‘enemies’; the paramilitary organisation murdering ideological opponents; or the ‘everyday citizens’ taking the law in their hands, protecting their property from society’s outcasts. The escalation of violence is apparent; going from the police, to those sidelining the authorities, to everyday civilians.
In all three cases, there are questions about the role of the police. Korkoneas was deemed as an ‘isolated incident’ – it did not lead to a full-scale investigation into police violence; no program of mandatory training to avoid such occurrencies in the future was announced; no psychiatric evaluation of all gun-carrying policemen, nothing. In the other two incidents, the police was reportedly being reluctant to intervene, at best. When it comes to Golden Dawn, there are strong ties between the organisation and the police, evident during election; the party is very strong in polling places where police officers vote. As for the lynching incident, there are eye witnesses – and videos – that put police officers in the scene; there are reports of police officers kicking the victim, which was handcuffed when he was pronounced dead.
In all three cases, the victims became icons of resistance to authoritarian manifestations and to fascism.
Both Pavlos Fyssas and Zak Kostopoulos were well-known activists; the former for his anti-fascist rap songs (delivered under his moniker Killah P), the latter for his LGBTIQ advocacy and raising awareness for HIV positive people within society. As for Grigoropoulos, he gained iconic status post-humously.
In all three cases, conservatives were quick to dismiss this status. “Let’s not idolise them,” they say. Let’s not idolise a rapper who spoke of clashing with fascissts. Let’s not idolise an entitled rich kid strolling around Exarchia at night. Let’s not idolise an addict who tried to rob a jewelery store.
Zak Kostopoulos, in particular, has confused public debate. Was he a thief or an activist? Was he an addict? How did he find himself trapped in the pawn shop? The exact turn of events has yet to be clarified. Had it not been for the video of people lynching him, the case would have been filed as ‘yet another addict trying to rob a store’. When the victim was identified as a well-known LGBTIQ and HIV+ activist, there was a shift of tone. The lines were blurred. It was impossible to pinpoint him as something. And that is probably a good thing. Because that is life. That is what people are like. We are a complicated species, full of contradictions. Being an activist does not mean being a saint. Breaking the law does not automatically make you evil.
This is why societies have appointed people as judges. That is why police work is so hard. “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state,” Orson Welles wrote in the screenplay for Touch of Evil and he was right.
Fascist mentality does not get that. Fascist mentalidy does not understand nuance. Fascists want the policeman’s job to be easy. They want easy answers. They are going for black or white. They want to get rid of everyone who does not fit in the mould.
The most horrifying thing in the lynching incident is not the fact that two people beat a weak man to death, in front of bystanders and the police – although this alone is proof of the moral decline of a society bereft of humanity.
The most horrifying thing is the social media chorus chanting “he got what he deserved” – all these voices echoing the sentiment that the world is better off without a junky, a thief, a criminal, who think that, should anyone threaten your property, should anyone break into your house, gives you right to kill them.
They are right about something, though. We should not idolise victims; we should not make symbols out of them. I’m pretty sure that all three would rather be alive, than be symbols. And this is not the issue. It is not important whether Fyssas, Grigoropoulos or Kostopoulos were activists, antifascists, progressives, heroes. They might as well be criminals, addicts, antisocial elements – they still did not deserve to die; not the way they did.
A society that believes that anyone who deviates deserves to die, is a failed society. That is what inherent cruelty looks like.