Anti-fascism, Anti-racism, Greece

Interview with Petros Constantinou • KEERFA co-ordinator and anti-fascist organizer in Greece

On September 2nd 2019 Marx21 member Iannis Delatolas sat down with Petros Constantinou to talk about the work of KEERFA (Movement United Against Racism and the Fascist Threat) in Greece. They discussed the importance of building a united front in the face of anti-immigrant racism and fascism in Greece.  In 2012 Golden Dawn’s entry into Greek parliament sent shockwaves across the globe. This violently neo-nazi organization tried to take advantage of the economic and political crisis in Greece.  The humanitarian crisis that was caused by the savage austerity measures and cuts in social spending, layoffs (a.k.a. Memoranda Agreements) imposed by the EU, the IMF and the ECB created suffering, a climate of fear and uncertainty, something that Golden Dawn tried to use. By using its parliamentary presence to shield its storm-trooper like attacks on the streets.  They organized a series of violent attacks using their offices as staging grounds. The victims of these attacks were migrants, refugees, LGBTQ people, anarchists and leftists. After the murder of antifascists hip hop artist Pavlos Fyssas, the antifascist movement erupted. Below we discuss the role KEERFA played in organizing a united front against racism and fascism, that led to Golden Dawn’s crisis today.  

To listen to the audio of the interview, click here. Below follows the transcript of that interview.

Iannis: We are here in Athens, Greece with KEERFA coordinator, Petros Constantinou.  KEERFA stands for Movement United Against Racism and the Fascist Threat.

 Petros, in the last elections we saw Golden Dawn lose all their 18 parliamentary representatives.  This is widely seen as a victory for the antifascist movement. In the US, and also in Europe, we have seen the alarming rise of fascists, far-right groups and parties since the election of Donald Trump. Many of these groups looked to Golden Dawn as a model. The stunning defeat of Golden Dawn in the recent elections did not fall out of the sky. KEERFA’s experience in Greece holds lessons for the international antifascist movement. Petros can you explain why KEERFA was founded 10 years ago, what type of organization it is and how it operates?

Petros: KEERFA was founded in 2009.  It was the period just after the great revolt of 2008, following the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos by a policeman in Exarchia. Thousands of people took to the streets, mostly young battling the police for two months in the streets of Athens. 

They chanted: “you have bullets for the youth and money for the bankers”.  This was the first rebellion after the crisis of 2008. They were also standing in solidarity with the migrants.  The same day that Alexis Grigoropoulos was murdered, a young Pakistani immigrant, Mazir Gioul, was severely injured while waiting in line to apply for asylum.  He died of his injuries six months later in intensive care, but in essence, his life was taken that day. The government responded to the revolt by playing the racist card and by attacking the youth movement, “the hooded youths,” as they referred to them.

This racist campaign opened a space for the then fascists of the LAOS party of Karatzaferis (People’s Orthodox Alarm).  And simultaneously, the racist campaign to open concentration camps for migrants in two different areas of Athens, further opened the space for fascists. Today in this period another fascist has entered parliament: Velopoulos of the Greek Solution Party, who entered parliament as Golden Dawn lost their MPs.

So KEERFA was launched in this context: to stop the rising fascist threat and to fight against racism. For us it was from the very beginning, a joint struggle against racism and fascism. It is impossible to stop the fascists without winning the argument that we are in solidarity with the refugees, and that we need to open the borders and to close the detention centers. And we need to oppose the ruling class efforts to split workers, calling immigrants “criminals”, “invaders who are stealing jobs from the natives”, “using up the money for medicare and social services.”  In order to fight all this you need to unite people, the workers and young people against racism. That was the idea behind the launching of KEERFA. 

KEERFA was also launched as a militant force in the street: to stop the neo-Nazis from organizing attacks against refugees, the burning of mosques, the attacks on the offices of the political parties of the left.  To stop physical attacks against everybody who was different, in terms of sex, color, religion, nationality and so on. So, we were faced with the neo-Nazi agenda which was put into practice with all these attacks.  It was therefore very important to launch a campaign and a mass organization in order to isolate them and fight the racism coming from the government. In that period, the government of New Democracy very quickly formed the Pact for Migration.  This was a law coming from the European Union to attack those seeking asylum, by opening detention centers, attacking the right to asylum, and giving the police the right to arrest and imprison asylum seekers, the first time since the Second World War. These were the policies coming from the top that were supported by the fascists on the street. 

Iannis:  So, we have racism coming from the top and the Neo-Nazis use that to organize from below.  We are seeing the same thing in the US with the Trump administration, where the racism of the Trump era has enabled the fascists to build.

Petros: In Greece in that period the fascists tried to build “citizens groups”.  Their members tried to become popular by claiming to represent the local communities who were angry with the refugees and “criminals” in their neighborhoods, and also with the leftists eventually, of course hiding the fact they were neo-Nazis. We organized from the very beginning against these “citizens groups”.  We organized a mass demonstration in the neighborhoods and in the streets against them. The strategy we followed in building these campaigns was ultimately successful. But at first we were faced with different choices.  

One option was passivity: that is to say that the government and its institutions will solve the problem, and to give the police the priority in dealing with them. This would have been disastrous. The social democrats who were part of the government then, and part of the problem, pushed for this tactic. What is amazing is that the Minister of Public Order Michalis Chrisochoidis, who was in PASOK, a social democratic party, is now Minister in the new government led by the right-wing New Democracy. This is the very same person who is implementing racist measures today and is behind the recent attack on the squats in Exarhia

We demanded that they act to stop the fascists. We met Chrisochoidis in his office and he promised he would take measures. But the local police were cooperating with the fascists, and this was the biggest problem for the antifascist movement. The fascists had the cover of the police in these attacks against the refugees.  The refugees would go to the police station to make a complaint against the fascists and the police would call the fascists to notify them that the refugees were filing a complaint against them. And then the refugees would get beaten up by the fascists. So right after he met KEERFA, Chrisoidis went immediately to meet with the fascists.  It was disastrous.  

The other option could have been to “beat them with sticks and helmets and have physical fights because there was no other way”.  We did not choose this option, to militarize the fight with the fascists. Because the fascists had the cover of the police, this would have been a physical fight with the police. We would have lost in this fight. But on a practical level, this would not have been the way to attract large numbers of people in the fight against fascism.  Instead we appealed to the local pro-democracy mayors across the political spectrum, also including the anarchists, to have a united struggle in the streets against the fascists and we succeeded in this tactic. So, in the same demonstration, we had on the one hand the most militant part of the movement, ready to defend the demonstration in case of an attack. And on the other hand, we had mass demonstrations of thousands. In the neighborhood of Nikai where Golden Dawn was able to build a base and open offices, there was a mass movement from the very start, that included the mayor and the local Pakistani community, who were being attacked physically by the fascists. So we united all these elements under one front and we had mass demonstrations where we always outnumbered the fascists. This was the tactic that led to the victory against fascism.  If we think historically how we defeated the neo-Nazis today, it was through a prolonged period of mass struggle, uniting people in the unions, in the student movements, in the neighborhoods everywhere to oppose their racist and their fascist provocations, one by one. 

Iannis: So immigrants are very central to the antifascist movement. 

Petros:  Yes. The Pakistani community was involved as an organized body in this struggle and gave a lot of support to the antiracist and antifascist movement.  As a community they did not choose to just go to their embassy and make a formal complaint with their government in Pakistan. Instead they went out into the streets en masse. They were against their embassy and against their government and united with the left and with KEERFA. In 2012, the Greek government announced a huge operation which they called Zeus. It was a racist operation where 100,000 immigrants were searched in the streets and 6,000 ended up in the concentration camp in the area of Amygdaleza. The Pakistani community, as the main organizers, organized alongside KEERFA a demonstration in the summer of 2012.  Athens is usually empty in July because of the heat and because it’s full of tourists. Despite this, there was a demonstration of 20,000 outside of parliament. It was a shock for the government to see such a response to their racist measures. 600 demonstrators were arrested that day. The Pakistani community has been the backbone of the antifascist and antiracist movement, inspiring others, such as the African community and the Bangladeshi community, all the time standing shoulder to shoulder with this movement. 

Iannis: KEERFA actively tries to seek the support of the trade unions in this struggle, right? This is seen as a central part of KEERFA’s work.

Petros: Yes, it is extremely important to involve the trade unions in the fight against racism and fascism.  The workers unions have a history of anti-racism which we saw in Greece in the 1990s with their approach to immigrants. One million Albanian and other workers from Eastern Europe came to Greece after the collapse of the state capitalist regimes, (referred to as “existing socialism”.) They came here and were faced with all sorts of racist policies. The labor centers in Greece, especially the teachers’ union and the doctors’ unions were central in supporting the rights of the migrants. They opposed quotas about how many refugees would be allowed into Greece, even the main trade union federation was opposing quotas, the only trade union in Europe to do so. There was a huge campaign for the legalization of the migrants’ status.  The teachers, openly opposing the government, registered the children of migrants in schools. Even though it was illegal, the teachers did not care and argued that all children had the right to be in school. The number of children admitted to school was in the thousands. The doctors opened the hospitals. 

So, now we arrive in 2015 and we see the trade unions fighting against the fascists, opening the borders from Lesvos to the North of Greece, fighting against racism and creating a huge solidarity movement.  The trade unions were always at the heart of this movement and were very important in the fight against fascists. They knew the fascists were doing the job for the bosses by working towards splitting the unions, by creating fake “yellow unions”.  This was especially true in the port area of Perama in Pireas. That is why the fascists attacked the trade unionists belonging to the Communist Party who are organizers in this trade union. The bosses were behind the fascists. They wanted to create divisions among workers by pointing at the unemployment of Greek workers.  Essentially, they were trying to impose reduced wages, by as much as 50% and to try to get immigrant workers fired, basically trying to destroy the union. These were really the attacks of the bosses.  

In one stunt, Golden Dawn tried to donate blood for “Greeks only”, and the doctors told them to get lost in no uncertain terms. All this organized opposition against racism and fascism, this was one of the main ways we got the majority of the population in Greece to shift towards antiracism and antifascism. Even middle-class people who were afraid in this period of crisis, shifted towards us.  There was a general radicalization and it explains why we have a big political left turn in Greece. The fascists tried to stop this move to the left but they were defeated. If you want to understand how Syriza came to power, it was because of these struggles. The workers’ struggle, the antifascist and antiracist struggles, the struggles against the police. The workers movement was very strong, in the thousands, to isolate Golden Dawn even when they managed to get 500,000 votes. Golden Dawn could not mobilize more than 1,000 members in the streets, even in the largest nationalist demonstrations. In other demos, they were always isolated and stopped by the antifascists, they could not get on the streets or the squares.  They could not even get a hotel to have their closed meetings. So, it is clearly the power of the workers unions that was the best instrument to smash the fascists.

Iannis: We all understand why we cannot stop fascism in the courts. However, the Golden Dawn trial has played a very big role in their demise. Can you tell us a little about this?

Petros:It was very important for us to demand that there would be a civil prosecution in the trial of Golden Dawn. In Greece, this is not automatic. The state pretended to prosecute Golden Dawn. But we managed to change this. We brought to court the lawyers of the antifascist movement “Jail Golden Dawn”, of the family of Pavlos Fyssas, of the trade unionists of the Communist Party, all in court together. The voices of these lawyers did not allow the state to control how the trial developed. But it also placed full responsibility on the state and especially on the police.  The lawyers exposed the relationship between the police and the fascists. And this was a very important part of the trial. The fascists pretend they are against the system, but the system uses the fascists against the workers, the youth, the left and so on. It was therefore extremely important that the trial created a big problem for the neo-Nazis’ strategy. What they tried to do was use their parliamentary presence to hide the street battalions and hide their true character. They tried to use the political crisis in order to gain mass support. They tried to turn the votes for them into militant street actions against the migrants and the left and so on.  So the trial is very important because they are facing accusations of running a criminal organization. (Iannis: because they were using their offices to stage these attacks and weapons were found there). And if they wanted to try to win in court, they had to stop the physical attacks on the street. So, the antifascist movement created a big contradiction in their ranks which the leadership of Golden Dawn tried to contain, but splits ensued. Attacks kept exposing Golden Dawn as neo-Nazis. The four years of the trial have exposed them as a criminal organization in the eyes of millions. That is why they ended up losing more than 200,000 votes in the last elections.  And this is very important to understand, not all their voters were neo-Nazis. This was proven in these elections. They were petit bourgeois who were confused. People who were not part of the movements nor the trade unions and who were easily won by the neo-Nazis’ racism and demagogy. So, the argument about not voting for the murderers of Pavlos Fyssas was very important in being able to split them. Therefore, the trial played a very important role in exposing the relationship between the neo-Nazis, the police and the system.  

When they are in court, the neo-Nazis deny being part of these attacks or having any knowledge of them, thereby showing themselves to be such cowards. 

Iannis: Golden Dawn tried to distance itself from the murder of Shezad Luqman and also of Pavlos Fyssas. The trial has proved that their members were responsible and that the order to kill Pavlos Fyssas goes to the top of the Golden Dawn leadership. 

Petros: The work the lawyers did in this trial is very important. We managed to bring down the most important neo-Nazi party internationally. We are very proud of that. But of course, that is not the end of the road now. The new government of New Democracy is opening up that space again. Fortunately, we now have a lot of experience on how to fight this, with the strong antiracist and antifascist movement we have built. We are optimistic that in the new round, it will be the final one to keep them down.

Iannis: So antiracism and antifascism are very much connected.

Petros: For us the fight against islamophobia, the fight against homophobia, the fight against all this campaign of “criminality,” “drug addicts” (often referred to as “poor devils”) we have to connect with all these fights because neoliberalism is in crisis. It is showing its ugly face because it cannot deliver. For example, Donald Trump is opening the door to the neo-Nazis and the fascists.  And that is why the movement in the USA is very important for us. We do not count the movement based on the number of demonstrators. We have to look at it from a larger historical dimension. Millions have demonstrated against Trump since his inauguration. And this has to do with the family separation at the border. So millions are against racism. For us it is very important for the antiracist, antifascist and even for the anticapitalist movement to get hold of this picture and not to lose it.  

Iannis: Last thing, Petros. What advice would you give to antiracist and antifascist activists in Europe and the US, having had this tremendous victory against Golden Dawn, the model for neo-Nazis all over the world? You in Greece were able to put an end to that nightmare. 

Petros:  First of all, we are proud because we are part of an international movement. For us the victory against the neo-Nazis in Greece would not have been possible without the support of the movements in the US, in the UK, in Europe during the period of the memoranda (EU/ IMF/ ECB imposed austerity measures) in Greece.  And in the period of the revolt over the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos. Also, in 2015 the huge solidarity movement around Europe, to open the border. It is not the case that we would advise some other movements.

We are part of the same movement. How we defeated the neo-Nazis, we believe it to be important. When Golden Dawn entered parliament, there was a lot of panic. We did not panic because we did not underestimate them. We started KEERFA more than 10 years ago because we saw that there was a fascist threat. At the time Golden Dawn was 0.12% electorally. They did not become a threat because of the votes they gathered. The reality was they grew because of the crisis of the system, the crisis of capitalism, the political crisis and the collapse of the traditional parties around Europe such as the Social-Democratic PASOK, and right-wing parties. It opened the space for the far-right parties, and for Trump in the US.  And if you do not open, as a priority, a united front against fascism and racism and for open borders, then you will be isolated. We think this is what happened in France. It is the other example we have to examine. Because the French movement is historic when it comes to workers resistance. But there is no organized resistance against fascism and racism. And this opens the space for Le Pen. Then look at what happened in Austria, that is a very good example. There the antifascists and antiracists who took the initiative managed to kick the fascist Freedom Party out of government. I think KEERFA is not the only one that succeeded. There is a huge movement that can win victories. How was it possible to save Carola Rackete, the captain of the rescue ship from prosecution? Because there was a solidarity movement in Europe organized all the way from Italy to Austria to Germany.

For us it is very important that there is international coordination. On October 12, we are holding in Athens our yearly international meeting to which are invited US organizations, such as United Against Racism and Fascism, NYC and Washington D.C. United Against Hate. It will be a very important moment.  And then on the 20th of October there is an international meeting in London. We are going to coordinate. For March 21 2020, the UN day against racism and discrimination we have set up international coordination. We have learned a lot from the experience of other movements, especially from the movement in the US.  One thing I want to advise the comrades and friends in the US is not to underestimate the power of their movement. (Iannis: the huge demonstrations against Trump, family separations, etc..). After all, for us it is one of the biggest inspirations. It is important not to lose ourselves in this period and to hold on to this wonderful picture.