Autumn 1973 saw two major events take place in the Mediterranean.
In October, the Sinai Peninsula was recaptured by Egypt from Israel who had occupied it in June 1967, delivering the first major defeat to Israel’s imperial ambitions, inadvertently creating the enclave of Gaza; while in November 73, the Junta which had ruled Greece since April 67 was delivered a major blow through the Polytechnic Uprising, heralding its end six months later. Every year in Greece, the uprising is celebrated and those who gave their lives so that Greeks could live without fear are remembered.
On the 15th of November, the Athens Polytechnic hosts a commemoration start of the uprising with speeches and rallies so that those who died and the ideals that they gave their lives for are never forgotten. Visiting the event, and looking at some of the pictures taken of that day, an older man stood beside me and proudly pointed himself out in the pictures. His English and my Greek were mutually insufficient to communicate to each other all that we wanted to, but both of us understood not only the importance of that day, but the importance of carrying on the pursuit of freedom from fear and dictatorship that had motivated the uprising. I returned from the event to find news that Israel had announced that it was planning a ground invasion of Gaza, an escalation of the rocket attacks that had been reigning down on the entrapped population over the previous few days.
Yesterday, the 17th November, was the main commemorative event – when the Junta sent tanks into the Polytechnic to crush the uprising, leaving the population in no doubt of the nature of the regime. Leaving from the polytechnic, the antagonistic bloc wound its way through Syntagma joining with the Communists who had rallied in Omonia, and onwards to the US Embassy. The march attracted tens of thousands. The generation who remembered the military rule and were determined that dictatorship should never return were accompanied by those who had only ever lived in democratic times, but who were seeing the freedom that their fellow marchers had fought for being eroded. Rather than the march ending at the US Embassy, as is customary, given the events in Gaza the assembled crowd attempted to march on the Israeli Embassy, the Palestinian flags that many had brought to show solidarity with those living under occupation becoming more prominent. Riot police blocked the way.
Frustrated that the thousands strong Gaza solidarity demonstration was thwarted, the march rerouted back to Exarchia, the area where the polytechnic is situated and an autonomous hub within Athens. Within an hour, trouble flared. Molotovs were exchanged for teargas canisters as the police situated in lower Exarchia challenged those returning from the march. Over the next hour the fighting grew more intense, with large chunks being hacked from the paving stones and doorways of buildings to be used as missiles towards the police. Large bangs could be heard all around as teargas was let off from a number of different directions.
Exarchia Square, the centre of the autonomous area, was the main focal point, with conflicts were erupting all around. In every sideroad and at every corner, riot police had been stationed and there was no safe exit. Everyone that was in Exarchia at that point was a sitting duck, with a deployed force hellbent on terrorising the population of an autonomous area which only had stones and small inflammatory weapons with which to defend itself – no match for a militarised entity that had the backing of state authority and international access to weaponry. And I thought of the solidarity protest that we were denied with Gaza, for heaven forbid that we should make such a link.
Suddenly the police charged from lower Exarchia – running leftwards people found themselves confronted with riot police who let off multiple rounds of teargas, people scattered in all directions to escape the stinging chemicals and charging police. Down every side-road people ran, hoping to find clean air and a way out. Right and up seemed like the most plausible exit, but as I and others ran to avoid the teargas to the left and the charging police from the bottom, suddenly another line of riot police arrived out of a sideroad. Those near the top ran round the corner, but for those of us stuck in the middle there was no escape. With riot police behind us we couldn’t go back and we had twenty policemen in full riot gear, complete with gasmasks, charging at us from the front.
Looking round to see where would be safe, a man opened the door to his off licence and people poured in to take refuge. Not all if us were quick enough. The police pulled out their barons and started beating everyone in the street – pushing them against shutters and thumping and kicking them. I was lucky to get away with only a few light whacks before I managed to squeeze into the off licence with the others. More followed as we helped drag them in away from the police, the street was full of teargas and people were choking and rinsing out their eyes. We watched through the plate glass windows as another man, bleeding from his head tried to avoid the blows of the police as he made his way over to us, where people took him into the back and gave him emergency first aid.
Riot police guarded the door insisting that it was kept open, despite the gas stinging our throats and eyes, and that no-one leave. By this time there were about 30 people in the shop. We were stuck there for about half an hour. As I listened to the teargas and molatovs explode in the street around us, it occurred to me what a dangerous position that we were in. Should the police attempt another charge and a stray molotov find its way too close to the shop, the spirits inside would go up with a whoosh and take us with it. But somehow the police guarding the door didn’t seem in the mood for advice on health and safety. Eventually we were let out in small groups under police guard. I was one of the last to leave and just after I did I saw the police drag out one of the shopworkers who had let us in. Those still remaining tried to explain that he had only allowed us shelter in his shop, but it was no good.
We were marched chain-gang style to a waiting van. The police around us, with batons drawn, kept shouting at us in Greek – alternately shoving those who they deemed to be not walking fast enough, and roughly hauling back those who they considered were walking too fast, all the while aiming the occasional kick at the people’s legs. As well as the shouting, individual police were also talking directly one-to-one to each of us. Having no idea what they were saying it was easy enough for me to ignore them and walk straight ahead, however it was obvious from his body language that the man in front was being very obviously intimidated.
On reaching the van that was to transport us, one policeman started talking to me in Greek. I ignored him. A second one said to him in English “I don’t think she speaks Greek. She doesn’t look Greek, does she?“. I had the scarf I was wearing pulled up over my head in a manner more associated with middle-eastern and eastern European women, rather than the having my head uncovered as is the more traditional Western European style. He then spoke directly to me saying “Do you speak English, Honey?“. I ignored him and carried on staring straight ahead. He carried on saying “Doesn’t matter what language you speak, they have ways of making you talk at the station“. The phrase “ways of making you talk” made me start and look round directly at him. “Ah“, he said “You do speak English.“, and then leaned in close and said softly, “I’m Greek-American, you know. Just back from being deployed. We whipped the muslim arses out there, just like they are going to do in Gaza“. I turned back to stare at the van until it was time for me to enter.
Once at the police station the routine became the familiar bureaucratic form filling. The obligatory demand for papers was followed by a search of my bag and pockets and a brief pat down search, before being sat in a corridor while the men that I had been brought in with were held in a room nearby. On asking why I was being held separately the guard looked rather stunned and said “Because you are a woman – you would not want to be in a room with all those men!“. I said that I would rather be with the others than sat alone by myself – for apart from anything else I might have a clue what was actually going on, but she told me not to worry, that I would be released soon and that this was just a standard identity check, nothing to worry about at all, ending with “Its the day, you see. Its just the day“.
I, and the others with whom I was picked up were released around 20 minutes later. All this happened because, it would seem, 39 years ago people had fought for the right not to be subject to arbitrary beatings and detentions.
The slogan of the Polytechnic Uprising was “For Bread, Education and Freedom”.
In Greece, nearly half a million children are currently going hungry and children are fainting in schools through undernourishment;in Gaza over 70% of the population is food insecure and child malnutrition runs at 10%.
In Greece, the far-right Golden Dawn party seeks to have infants thrown out of pre-schools; in Gaza the Israeli blockade obstructs the import of books, science equipment and other educational supplies.
Bread, Education and Freedom – for Greece, for Gaza, for everywhere.