Athens, Greece – Police in Athens have fired tear gas and sprayed water cannon to disperse peaceful demonstrators who defied a coronavirus-related ban to take part in a rally to commemorate a 1973 student uprising against Greece’s then-military rulers.
The November 17 anniversary holds a highly symbolic value for Greeks, with tens of thousands of people marching each year to honour those killed when the security forces moved in to crush the days-long revolt at Athens Polytechnic University. The uprising set into motion a chain of events that in 1974 led to the downfall of the seven-year, United States-backed dictatorship.
This year, demonstrators pledged to also take to the streets on Tuesday despite a ban on gatherings announced by the police citing health concerns due to a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases that earlier this month forced the government to re-introduce lockdown restrictions.
Tensions mounted in the early afternoon as more than 2,000 people in central Athens – wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and chanting slogans such as “The Polytechnic lives, out with the Americans” – rallied under an overcast sky as military helicopters flew overhead.
Police, numbering in the thousands, used tear gas and water cannon to break up the demonstration, prompting condemnation from opposition parties and other groups.
The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the country’s fourth-biggest parliamentary force, said police “attacked” its parliamentary spokesman, while five members of the party-affiliated PAME union were detained.
Police spokesperson Theodoros Chronopoulos said 100 people were detained, with at least five persons arrested.
Earlier in the day, KKE members marched from the Polytechnic to the US embassy while the main opposition Syriza party sent a delegation to a wreath-laying ceremony at a site where the military government used to interrogate people.
“Democracy and historical memory cannot be placed under quarantine,” Alexis Tsipras, Syriza leader and former prime minister, said after attending the physically distanced gathering.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Katerina Sakellaropoulou also laid wreaths at the Polytechnic.
‘Reminds of me dark days’
Critics decried this year’s ban as a “slip towards authoritarianism”, with left-wing opposition parties challenging its constitutionality at Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State. The claim was, however, rejected.
“The protection of health and life justify the decision to take these measures,” said Nikos Alivizatos, an historian and professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Athens.
“Making the excuse that these measures are unconstitutional is ridiculous and irresponsible,” he said.
Others, however, disagreed.
“The ban is not about a health issue,” said 21-year-old Elina Feidopiasti who used to work in a coffee shop now closed due to the lockdown. “COVID-19 is real, [and that’s why] we have masks on and we are respecting social distancing,” she added. “We are here to protest against how little the government has done to protect us, its failure cost lives.”
The country is witnessing record numbers in new COVID-19 cases. On Sunday, officials reported 71 coronavirus-related deaths, the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic. Overall, more than 76,400 confirmed infections and 1,165 fatalities have been registered.
Greece, whose healthcare system has far from recovered after cutbacks during the country’s decade-long economic crisis, had managed to keep a relatively low and stable epidemic curve during the first way of the pandemic.
However, the government has come under fire for rushing to reopen its weak economy – projected to be hit the hardest by the effects of the pandemic than the rest of the eurozone – by allowing tourists to enter during the European summer months. Critics also decried what they said was lack of investment in public transportation and trained medical personnel.
“I agree that such public gatherings should not take place at this difficult moment – the healthcare system is collapsing,” said a medical professional who works in a public hospital but asked for her name to be withheld for privacy reasons.
“But the ban is wrong; it really reminds me of dark times, like those of the Polytechnic [in 73],” she said.