Tensions between the Greek police and student activists, leftists and anarchists are on the rise, only four months after a right-wing party swept snap legislative elections.
Thousands descended on the Athens Polytechnic University on Sunday to commemorate the 1973 student uprising that set in motion a string of events which led to the fall of Greece’s military junta.
Later in the day, an estimated 10,000 marched through downtown Athens, where the police had deployed around 5,000 officers. Among the units deployed was the Delta Force, a new police motorcycle squad.
Addressing the Greek parliament on Friday, Deputy Citizens’ Protection Minister Eleftherios Oikonomou said police had been instructed to intervene in cases of vandalism and violence, among other offences. He assured lawmakers there would be a “measured response”.
Demonstrators marched from Klafthmonos Square in central Athens, passed the Hellenic Parliament, and stopped at the US embassy, where they chanted against American imperialism.
After the march, riot police held a tense standoff with demonstrators in the central Athens neighbourhood of Exarchia. Protesters shined green laser lights on the police and hurled stones and bottles.
Drones and helicopters buzzed above.
Small skirmishes ended quickly when police stormed the neighbourhood’s central square. Police arrested 28 people and detained another 13, according to local media reports.
After November 17 commemorations in recent years, clashes erupted in Exarchia, with demonstrators raining down Molotov cocktails and stones on police officers.
The annual commemoration of the uprising came only a week after riot police were criticised for attacking student demonstrators at the Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB).
Contacted by TRT World, a spokesperson for the prime minister’s office declined to comment.
In July, the right-wing New Democracy party ousted Syriza in legislative elections. The following month, the government pushed through parliament a law that repealed campus sanctuary – which barred police from entering university campuses.
Introduced in 1982, the campus sanctuary law has been repealed and reinstated several times over the decades.
At the time, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis defended abolishing the campus sanctuary, arguing that it protected students and faculty from “hoodlums” that “police” universities.
The AUEB clashes come at a time of spiking unrest, with activists increasingly rallying against the evictions of refugee squats and the new government’s pushing forward with plans to encourage investment and privatisation.
Throughout the week following the AUEB incident, thousands of students took to the streets of Athens, while left-wing student groups went on strike and occupied several departments on university campuses around the country.
“We are not going to take this,” Ioanna Rizou, a leftwing student activist, told TRT World at a 3,000-student rally in downtown Athens on Thursday.
In late October, student protesters clashed with riot police in downtown Athens amid a strike launched by municipal workers. Police fired tear gas and clubbed several protesters with batons.
Ahead of Sunday’s rallies, Athens Mayor Kostas Bakogiannis, who belongs to the New Democracy party, urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and “show respect” to the capital.
Alexis Charitsis, a spokesperson for the leftwing Syriza party, blasted the New Democracy government for cracking down in recent weeks on the student movement and other forms of left-wing activism.
“It is evident that New Democracy is promoting a policy of conservative restoration that goes hand-in-hand with neo-liberal measures,” he told TRT World, referring to the party’s economic programme.
“Therefore, New Democracy is trying to discredit social movements by claiming that they are by definition ‘unlawful’, while arguing that the ‘ideological hegemony’ of the left has driven the country to a state of chaos in the past.”
Charitsis argued that the crackdown was partially driven by the government’s hope to “distract” from growing criticism of its clamping down on refugees and migrants entering the country, amid an uptick of arrivals by land and sea.
Since summer, police have evicted several squats that provided shelter to refugees and migrants in and around the capital. Most of those raided were located in Exarchia, a central Athens neighborhood often considered a safe haven for anarchists, leftists and asylum seekers.
Before dawn on November 12 – just days before the commemoration – police raided the Clandestina squat in Exarchia, rounding up more than 100 refugees and migrants and relocating them to refugee camps.
In a subsequent statement, the police said those evicted and detained for document checks included 66 men, 44 women and 28 children.
Tensions are expected to continue rising, and on December 6, more riots are slated to take place when demonstrators mark annual rallies against the 2008 police killing of a 15-year-old boy in Athens.
Several New Democracy officials and lawmakers have defended bolstering police forces and efforts to clamp down on protests and riots.
Makis Voridis, the country’s minister of agricultural development and food, sparked outrage when he defended police operations, saying that there was “an element of necessity” in police brutality.