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Policing the crisis in Greece: the other side of the story

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Dr Rosa Vasilaki (left) and Dr Rebecca Bryant.

Dr Rosa Vasilaki (left) and Dr Rebecca Bryant.

Policing the crisis in Greece: the other side of the story,  By James Brewer

.Rank and file officers have felt deep unease over being ordered to act forcefully towards demonstrators against austerity, in-depth research about the Greek police force has revealed.

Dr Rosa Vasilaki, who is conducting the study, told a London seminar that many officers appear relieved that protests have subsided in the immediate aftermath of the election of a coalition government headed by left-wing party Syriza. Provisional conclusions of her ongoing research point to the need for a considerable overhaul of the police force and its role in society.

Dr Vasilaki is the National Bank of Greece Post-Doctoral Research Fellow with the Hellenic Observatory at London School of Economics. Her project has broken what she called “the taboo about treating the police as a non-object of sociological research.”

Her presentation was entitled Policing the Crisis: the other side of the Story.

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Dr. Vasilaki.

She told the Hellenic Observatory event, on March 3 2015, that studies of behaviour of the Greek police had hitherto focused on misconduct, violence or transgression. Dr Vasilaki has visited Athens several times since mid-2014 and conducted 90 personal interviews and Skype conversations to ascertain the views and perceptions of front-line police officers about their role and their relationship with the protesting public.

She said of the police “it is a repressive state apparatus, at the end of the day, ” but her research aimed at narrating experiences of individuals, to shed light on what she called a peculiarly isolated social group. Dr Vasilaki spoke of their involvement in a paradox of power (in having to quell a demonstration or protest with which one agreed), and sought to look at the ways police are tasked to enforce an unequal social order in the name of public security.

Police brutality has been widely reported in recent years, and the police were resented as an institution where violence was endemic – that was part and parcel of the way they performed their duty, but was not the whole story, the researcher stressed.

Historical and cultural parameters had been accentuated in recent years, as thousands of people in Athens and other centres challenged – through general strikes, demonstrations and occupation of public spaces – the austerity policies of the previous government under pressure from its international lenders. This was on top of memories persisting among many people of persecution during the regime of the Colonels from 1967-74, which traumatised the public and established the image of the police as a violent para-state institution – and before that of the defeat of the Left in the Greek Civil War of 1946-49 – rather than as part of the democratic system.

A turning point came In December 2008 when a policeman shot dead a 15-year-old boy during demonstrations in central Athens. Within hours, there were nationwide riots which had international resonance. (Unlike in other cases of alleged violence, the guilty officer was convicted of murder).

Feelings of mistrust and rejection grew since 2010 when Greece began intense and rapid economic and political transformation – a generalised crisis – as a result of austerity measures, privatisation and the dismantling of the welfare state.  More than 26, 000 demonstrations have taken place since 2008.

Incidents of police violence were viewed a priori as systemic – “mention of the police is always negative.” The protests often viewed the police as their target. The role the police were expected to play often resulted in clashes between the citizens and the state.

The retreat of the welfare state and the determination of the previous government to push the largely unpopular reforms agenda had left the police as the only visible representative of the state.

She said her interviews indicated that officers disagreed that anti-austerity protests had to be suppressed, despite their recognition of their role as representatives of and protectors of the state. The government was seen to be unfair.

Dr Vasilaki noted signs of insecurity and instability among the police in relation to the structure of the everyday life of officers, because they would only find out about what shift they were on the night before.

She spent six hours with a law enforcement unit during the most recent November 17 anniversary march commemorating the 1973 suppressed uprising against the junta. There were confrontations outside the US embassy and elsewhere in Athens, and Dr Vasilaki referred to the tension, and then clash with police as fabricated rather than an individual or spontaneous expression – at least as far as the anarchist and certain extra-parliamentary left groups were concerned: there was preparation, use of relevant gear (largely copying that of the police), and organisation spreading unrest in particular areas in the centre of the capital.

Officers felt frustration and anger at the way they had been used for the past four years, saying it was the strategy of the state to use the police as a scapegoat and direct rage away from those responsible for the economic crisis. They put the blame for their own over-reaction on political leaders and the supervisors who organised the operation.

When officers had to stand for 12 to 14 hours without a break, absorbing psychological and physical abuse, exhaustion was bound to produce violence. They referred to what had gone on as a show where everybody plays a role ready for the 7pm news.

Dr Vasilaki identified a division between high and low-ranking officers, the latter including the riot police complaining that they were “disposables, punch-bags, scapegoats”, to bolster the careers of those at the top.

She said that a lack of clear rules of engagement meant police did not know whether to intervene. The police were suffering from extremely low morale, but with the new government there was a historical opportunity to repair the relationship and produce a new public initiative for the police. Democratisation should start from the institution itself.

She underlined the relative isolation of the police force as an institution. Two-thirds of members were uncomfortable even to admit to their profession, and were involved in arguments with friends and acquaintances once it became known. Rejection came from across the social strata. Some 95% of police chose the profession for economic reasons, in a country suffering from high unemployment. Their social circles often were confined to colleagues, and family life was affected – police officers had higher rates of divorce than other groups.

Although a section of the police force, especially the riot police, had turned to vote for the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party, “we need to refrain from moral panic as has been expressed in the media, ” said Dr Vasilaki. Sympathising with that party was very different from taking part in far right activities. Some of the Golden Dawn ideas were certainly popular within the police, particularly the professed rejection of corruption, the patriotic and anti-immigration stance, the anti-systemic line and the police-friendly profile.

This sympathy for Golden Dawn, along with the belated reaction of the government to the criminal activities of the far right, exacerbated the stereotyping of police as harbouring sympathy for undemocratic, authoritarian political formations.

Golden Dawn became “the proxy for all those who agree with the idea but do not want to get their hands dirty” although its ideas did not enjoy the popularity they did half a year ago.

Dr Vasilaki said that the current transition period was in this context confusing. Individual police officers did not see the government’s proposed reforms negatively, with the exception that they opposed its immigration policies, which include an end to raids on undocumented immigrants.

Dr Vasilaki expressed her thanks to the National Bank of Greece for funding her research project. She said that potential problems in gaining access to the people she wanted to meet had been overcome when a journalist helped by introducing her to initial contacts.

Chairing the meeting was Dr Rebecca Bryant, who is the A N Hadjiyiannis Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Observatory.

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