Punching back: Greek gym trains for anti-fascist action

In a basement in Athens, antifascists are combining their love for Muay Thai with their opposition to racism and sexism.

The White Tiger gym was started as one of the first anti-fascist gyms in Athens [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece – It’s an early September evening, and people are trickling into the half-basement of an old grey apartment block in the Greek capital, Athens.

Once inside, they remove their shoes and disappear into locker rooms before re-emerging to take their spot on the padded blue and red floor. 

A punk song blares from the speakers.

A black flag hangs beside the bathroom door. “The genuine anti-fascist fighting club,” it reads.

This is the White Tiger Muay Thai Camp, one of the first anti-fascist gyms in Athens, and Ilias Lamprou, a 39-year-old anarchist, is its founder and instructor.

Barefoot and wearing a grey hoodie with cut-off sleeves over a faded black shirt, he directs his 40 or so novice students as they warm up. 

“Faster,” he urges them, speaking over a litany of grunts as fists and legs thud against punch bags.

His hair is short, neat and peppered with grey. A scatter of tattoos on his arms and legs; he stands cross-armed as he issues directions.

Earlier in the day, Lamprou sits at his cluttered desk in the gym’s office. On the wall are photos of him competing in Muay Thai tournaments, fists raised as he poses with fellow fighters and students.

Started four years ago, White Tiger, he says, applies the political philosophies of self-organisation and anti-authoritarianism to martial arts.

He recalls how, when he was 20 years old, a friend advised him to start Muay Thai training. But what began for “practical reasons” – a need to defend himself from the police (“ACAB” – the acronym for “all cops are bas****s” is emblazoned on a banner that hangs from the gym’s ceiling) and Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist party that currently holds 17 seats in the Greek parliament and whose members have been known to attack refugees, migrants and antifascists – became a passion.

READ MORE: Greece mourns slain anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas

“I started Muay Thai, and I loved it,” he recalls, adding that the martial art was still relatively unknown in Greece at the time. “You can’t avoid falling in love with it … I tried and loved it from the first time. So, I continued.”

Lamprou has been involved in anarchist activism for more than two decades. In Greece, he has participated in rallies in solidarity with political prisoners worldwide and against the far right, police brutality and economic austerity.

In 2010, along with other solidarity activists, he sailed towards the Gaza Strip in a fleet of six civilian ships that hoped to break Israel’s ongoing siege of the coastal enclave where nearly two million Palestinians reside. During that incident, Israeli forces raided the flotillas, killing nine activists on the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships, in the confrontations that ensued.

During the raid, Lamprou was aboard the Free Mediterranean ship, which was boarded by Israeli soldiers who used rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas and electric shocks before detaining the passengers.

In 2001, he attended massive anti-globalisation protests in Genoa, Italy, and has joined solidarity trips to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, where tens of thousands of people live in squalid conditions and endure institutional discrimination.

Ilias Lamprou leads a novice course in stretches before drilling starts [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
Ilias Lamprou leads a novice course in stretches before drilling starts [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

Lamprou has also travelled to Thailand several times for Muay Thai training.

Searching for a way to combine his activism with his passion for Muay Thai, Lamprou decided to establish White Tiger by drawing on the popular tradition of anti-fascist sports clubs and training spaces in other European countries.

“I have a long history in the [anarchist] movement,” he says. “I couldn’t keep those [political commitments] outside the gym.”

Far-right violence

At the time White Tiger was established, the country was in the midst of a sharp surge in far-right violence, much of which targeted refugees and migrants, who the far right blames for the country’s economic woes.

That uptick in bloodshed reached its pinnacle in 2012 with the rise of Golden Dawn.

In the run-up to that year’s elections, after which the neo-fascist party first entered parliament, the Greek economic crisis fuelled street battles between anti-fascists and Golden Dawn.

After the elections, the violence did not subside. Golden Dawn carried out anti-migrant raids across the country. In some instances, their attacks on migrants and political opponents – such as those on 26-year-old Pakistani labourer Shahzad Luqman and Greek anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013 – were deadly.

In October 2012, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said that 87 racist attacks had been recorded between January and September of that year. Often equipped with clubs, crowbars and attack dogs, they targeted undocumented migrants and refugees from places including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia. In many cases, the assailants reportedly wore Golden Dawn insignia.

Around 120 people attend White Tiger for several practice sessions a week [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
Around 120 people attend White Tiger for several practice sessions a week [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

Lamprou says there was an urgent need for gyms that provide practical training in self-defence while reflecting the political world view of the anti-fascist movement.

Although far-right violence has decreased since then, it has not stopped. As Greece absorbed tens of thousands of asylum seekers in recent years, Golden Dawn has targeted camps in both mainland Greece and on islands like Kos and Chios, among others.

‘We own the streets’

“After the big boom of Golden Dawn, it was a necessity in Greece [to create] self-organised gyms, and gyms that keep out fascists and the cops,” Lamprou says, explaining that many other gyms are frequented by police officers and far rightists. 

Clasping his hands together as he recalls those turbulent times, he continues: “There was a purely practical [reason]: We own the streets, and we want to keep them ours.”

Lamprou also argues that martial arts demand respect for opponents and those who are different from you. “That’s why we cannot give martial arts to the fascists.”

The White Tiger has more than 120 students who are spread across three skill levels – beginner, novice and expert – many of whom participate in competitions as a team and attend training sessions several times a week.

Among them are Greeks, internationals from across Europe and North America, and migrants and refugees from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The top level includes some 30 people, known as the fighting team, who participate in competitions in Greece and abroad twice a month.

Thannasis K, a 22-year-old Greek, is a Muay Thai novice. Like many anti-fascists who do not want to be identified by police or Golden Dawn, he declines to provide his surname.

READ MORE: From NATO to Antifa – One Afghan’s journey to Greece

“I’m living in an area of Athens that has had a lot of racist attacks and attacks against anarchists,” he says, wiping sweat from his brow as he stands outside the gym after practice.

“So, I wanted to start an art of fighting … and know how to defend [myself] in the street in a fight.”

Thannasis explains that he left his previous gym after he learned that Lamprou refused to put his fighters in the ring against an opponent who was being cheered on by Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn member and parliamentarian.

“You must have solidarity [and] anti-fascism in your whole life, so it’s very important to have this also in a place where you learn martial arts,” he says.

Back in the gym, a group of students spar in the boxing ring.

For Lamprou, one of the most important features of White Tiger’s approach to athleticism is the rejection of patriarchy, which he says is prevalent in mainstream gym culture. Attendees who engage in sexist or patriarchal behaviour are kicked out. “Anti-sexism is part of our life,” he says. “It’s not an ideology; it’s a way of life.”

Around half of the White Tiger’s weekly participants are female, and Lamprou says his female competitive squad is “the best in Greece”.

“If any macho guy comes, he’ll see that the environment isn’t good for him,” he continues.

White Tiger applies the political philosophies of self-organisation and anti-authoritarianism to martial arts [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]
White Tiger applies the political philosophies of self-organisation and anti-authoritarianism to martial arts [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

Drawing on the anti-fascist notion of denying platforms for racists and fascists, Lamprou says he will not put his fighters in the ring to compete with opponents who are known Golden Dawn affiliates or supporters. “We can’t compete with [fascists],” he explains.

“In Muay Thai, there is a lot of respect for the opponent. You can’t pay respect to a fascist.”

The streets, he says, are where the far right ought to be confronted. 

‘Collective memory of literal fascism’

White Tiger is part of a broader culture of anti-fascism in Greece, specifically in the Athenian neighbourhood of Exarchia where it is located.

Nicholas Apoifis, author of Anarchy in Athens, explains that the “collective memory of literal fascism” in Greece has fostered a long tradition of anti-fascism that places a special emphasis on direct confrontation.

In 1941, during the Second World War, Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and fascist-allied Bulgaria occupied Greece. By the time they were expelled in 1944, nearly 60,000 Greek Jews had been killed. Anti-fascist resistance was widespread during that period.

Between 1967 and 1974, Greece was ruled by far-right military juntas. A mass uprising at the Athens Polytechnic school led to a series of events that resulted in that regime’s collapse.

“There is a history of anti-fascism more broadly in Greece because of the history of fascism: the massacres of communists, the torture of anarchists and the massacres of social democrats,” Apoifis explains. “There is a rich history in the face of fascism and resistance to that.”

READ MORE: Greek anarchists organise for refugees as ‘state fails’

Apoifis points to a 1984 incident as one of the most crucial historical moments in the contemporary anti-fascist movement in Greece.

In December of that year, thousands of anarchists and far-leftists assembled in Athens and employed black bloc tactics during confrontations at the Hotel Caravel, where a far-right conference headlined by French populist Jean-Marie Le Pen was taking place.

Black bloc is a strategy in which demonstrators wear all black and scarves, masks or padded helmets to conceal their identities to hinder prosecution by authorities and identification by the far right.

While researching his book, Apoifis says he observed a commitment among anti-fascists to defending by force areas where they maintain a strong presence. “It’s a calculated political project. It’s another form of direct action. They’re having discussions about it, but they are also going out and implementing their politics.”

Although Lamprou has yet to personally use his Muay Thai skills to confront Golden Dawn members, he says it has often come in handy at demonstrations where clashes with riot police break out.

“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find fascists in Athens,” he recalls. “But the necessity became real because we all of the sudden had fascists outside doing patrols.”

Lamprou argues that politics and martial arts go hand-in-hand [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera] 
Lamprou argues that politics and martial arts go hand-in-hand [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera] 

Lamprou rejects the idea that gyms should be apolitical spaces. “The mentality here is that we can’t divide athleticism from politics,” he concludes.

“I’ve been in the anarchist movement for the last 20 years. I’ve been in Palestine, Lebanon, Genoa, Athens… in all the big [protests]. Anti-sexism, anti-fascism – we couldn’t live any other way, whether it’s in the gym or in our workplace.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera