How the murder of a Greek rapper by Golden Dawn thugs sparked an anti-fascist backlash that eventually led to the neo-Nazis’ defeat in the streets.
The Night that Changed Everything
- Issue #5
Illustration by Ioannis Oikonomakis. Photo by Kostas Koutsaftikis / Shutterstock.
Looking back, the night of September 17, 2013, the night during which the anti-fascist Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas was assassinated by members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, was the night that changed everything. Not only for us, Pavlos’ friends, but for the wider socio-political landscape in Greece as well.
Back in 2013, after many years of lingering in social and political obscurity, Golden Dawn was at the very height of its popularity. Following the transformation of their movement into a party in the early 1990s, the neo-Nazis only had political offices in two Greek cities, Athens and Thessaloniki, and won just 0.1 percent of the vote in the 1996 elections. But the Greek debt crisis gave the party a shot in the arm, bringing it to the forefront of national politics and allowing it to enter parliament. Meanwhile, the party’s members developed a strong social presence in Greece’s main cities and, most importantly, in the streets of its poorest neighborhoods.
Until the night of September 17, 2013, that is.
The Rise of Golden Dawn
By 2013, Golden Dawn had managed to open 70 offices all over Greece, with most main cities now hosting at least one party office. From the beginning of 2012 onwards, several popular media outlets also started promoting Golden Dawn’s political positions, offering them airtime and visibility, rapidly transforming the party into an almost hype-like phenomenon. Golden Dawn was now the emerging social force and “the dynamic party” — the new faces on the Greek political scene.
It should not be forgotten that at that time the country was — and still is — facing its most severe political, social and economic crisis since World War II. The Greek population was disillusioned by the political system and by representative democracy in general, with its corrupt political establishment and unpopular neoliberal policies and austerity measures. Within this context, Golden Dawn arose as the “nationalist” answer to the rising left-wing and anarchist movements that led a spectacular cycle of struggles starting in 2010.
Golden Dawn’s increased visibility was soon translated into unprecedented electoral victories. In 2012, they received 6.97 percent of the vote and elected 18 MPs to Parliament, making them the sixth-largest political force in the country. In 2013, they also started publishing a second, weekend-only newspaper called Empros (“Ahead”), with the aim of reaching a wider audience than they could with the first one (Golden Dawn), which was clearly associated with the party and less “moderate” in its positions. In August 2013, Empros was selling roughly 7,500 pieces per week.
At the same time, Golden Dawn’s mobilizational capacity also increased, with more and more members joining the party’s ranks and hundreds of attacks against immigrants and trade unionists taking place between 2011 and 2013, including the brutal assassination of a young Pakistani immigrant, Shehzad Luqman, while he was on his way to his work. Golden Dawn activists also made their presence strongly felt during national holidays, while racist pogroms in immigrant neighborhoods became an increasingly common phenomenon.
The judicial system turned a blind eye to all of this, and the government led by right-wing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was not particularly eager to act against Golden Dawn either. Quite the contrary: the neo-Nazis were rather useful to them. First of all, in light of the decreasing popularity of the governing New Democracy party and the conservative establishment’s ideological proximity to Golden Dawn, with both holding strong nationalist and anti-immigrant positions, New Democracy MPs and close advisors to the prime minister refused to exclude the possibility of a future coalition with the neo-Nazis — some were even openly suggesting it.
Golden Dawn was also useful to the government in a different way: its thugs helped to distract the attention and divide the organizational resources of the anarchist and left-wing movements that had become the main source of opposition to austerity in the streets. With Golden Dawn active in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods, the movements were forced to also develop some action plan in that direction, withdrawing resources from more direct confrontations with the state and from the construction of grassroots alternatives on the ground.
In short, the rise of Golden Dawn forced the movements to devote much more time and attention to anti-fascist actions and organizing. They did so by means of Antifa parades (both on motorcycle and on foot) through the immigrant neighborhoods where Golden Dawn was active, as well as by organizing anti-racist festivals, counter-marches and oppositional events whenever and wherever Golden Dawn also happened to be organizing one. The movements also tried to make their Antifa actions and anti-racist arguments visible in public discourse as much as possible. Nevertheless, the problem remained: Golden Dawn continued to enjoy considerable popularity within Greek society, both in social and in electoral terms.
Until that night of September 17, 2013. The night that changed everything.
The Murder of Pavlos Fyssas
On the night that changed everything, Pavlos Fyssas — a.k.a. Killah P — went to a local café in his working-class suburb of Piraeus, the port city next to Athens, to watch a football game of Olympiakos, his favorite team. Pavlos was a politically engaged rapper from a working-class suburb that had been transformed into a Golden Dawn stronghold. Just like the other suburbs of Piraeus, his neighborhood was originally founded as a refugee settlement for those who came to Greece following the population exchange with Turkey in 1923. The refugees set up their slums, and being poor people, many of them joined the ranks of the biggest working-class organization of the early-twentieth century: the Communist Party.
Much time has passed since then, but not much has changed in those suburbs: their residents are still poor, some of the poorest in Athens, and they are still working-class people — increasingly joining the ranks of the unemployed with the decline of the shipyards. Lately, however, Golden Dawn has managed to spread its lethal influence in these neighborhoods, some of which became the party’s working-class bastion. And that was something Pavlos could not accept.
As the neo-Nazis gained strength in the area, Pavlos started speaking out against Golden Dawn and its violent actions — and even if he was not very well-known as a rapper nationwide, he certainly was within his own neighborhood. He began to openly challenge the Nazis’ cultural hegemony and monopoly of power in the neighborhood he lived in. That was enough to put him on Golden Dawn’s blacklist.
So that damned night, the café where Pavlos and his friends were watching the game was full of Golden Dawn members. And by the time the game was over, more of them were waiting for him outside, armed to the teeth with knives and clubs. It turns out that Pavlos was recognized by one of the Nazi thugs, who sent a message to their local leader. Since Golden Dawn operates according to a highly authoritarian structure, it is very probable that a series of calls and messages went up all the way to the top of the party hierarchy. The order was given from above: take him out!
Pavlos told his friends and girlfriend to run while he held his ground to delay the Nazis. He fought two of them — Pavlos was a strong guy — but more arrived, encircling him and holding him back, until one Golden Dawn member named Giorgos Roupakias drove up in a car, took out a knife and stabbed Pavlos in the heart.
None of us will ever forget where exactly we were when we heard the news of Pavlos’ assasination. It was the night that changed everything. Including our lives.
The Anti-Fascist Backlash
Pavlos’ assassination was what social movement scholars would call a transformative event — a turning point, both for the Antifa movement and for Greek society more generally. Eventually, it became one for Golden Dawn as well. It marked the intensification of anti-fascist actions across Athens and the rest of the country, and the political delegitimation and widespread social disapproval of Golden Dawn. It was like a wake-up call for many, having unfortunately only become so for one reason: because this time the Nazis had crossed a line — they had killed a Greek.
Of course Golden Dawn was already a murderous organization long before Pavlos’ assassination. It had attacked hundreds of immigrants and trade unionists, the country’s Medical Unions were screaming about it, it had even murdered a young Pakistani immigrant. In 2012, Golden Dawn thugs attacked the house of four immigrants, Egyptian fishermen, who were living in another suburb of Piraeus, seriously injuring one of them. A year later, they also attacked and injured a number of trade unionist of the Communist Party in the same neighborhood, in an action intended to mark their political dominance in the working-class movement — the symbolic “change of guards.”
According to the Racist Violence Records Network, the year 2011 witnessed 63 cases of severe racist violence in Greece. This number rose to 154 in 2012, and 166 a year later. In one way or another, Golden Dawn was involved in many of these. Nevertheless, nothing happened: except for the Antifa movement, nobody seemed interested. Neither was the government or the judicial system.
After Pavlos’ murder, however, massive protests erupted all over Greece. The Antifa movement and Greek society as a whole demanded justice and the punishment of the perpetrators. Golden Dawn initially denied all responsibility, but it was later forced to admit, in the words of party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, that they carried “political responsibility” for the crime. Eventually the reluctant judiciary was compelled to act — on the orders of the right-wing government — and started a prosecution case against the neo-Nazis on charges of running a criminal gang.
At first, Parliament had to vote for the immunity of Golden Dawn’s MPs to be lifted. Then, a suitable place for the trial had to be found. The Golden Dawn MPs, including their leader Michaloliakos, were eventually arrested, along with 65 of their members and the killer Roupakias. A long time has passed since then, and the slow-moving trial is still ongoing. In fact, such a long time has passed that the Golden Dawn MPs had to be released, and Roupakias cannot be held captive in prison anymore without a verdict — meaning he is now only under house arrest.
The only positive thing to have emerged from this outrageous situation is the fact that Golden Dawn was almost completely delegitimized in the eyes of the Greek people. This delegitimation was itself mostly a result of the rapid response of the Antifa movement in the wake of the assassination, not of the snail-paced trial or the government’s opportunistic response. Even though two Golden Dawn members were also assassinated in a mafia-style execution shortly after Pavlos’ death, an operation that was supposedly carried out by an anarchist group that no one had ever heard of before nor heard from again later, Golden Dawn’s social standing was irreversibly affected in the wake of September 17.
Today, four years later, Golden Dawn is still electorally strong, winning 6.99 percent in the last elections — but clearly statistics do not tell the whole story. The party undoubtedly lost the momentum it enjoyed back in 2013, when it polled at 15-18 percent for some time. Even in electoral terms, Golden Dawn received 60,000 votes less in 2015 than it had in 2012. They maintain the same percentages only because of vast abstention in the latest elections (44 percent), which is itself a consequence of the country’s deep political crisis and of citizens’ disillusionment with Syriza’s neoliberal turn after the 2015 referendum.
Golden Dawn’s Social Defeat
Most importantly, however, Golden Dawn’s organizational capacities have been severely weakened in the wake of Pavlos’ murder. Some 40 percent of the party’s offices have since been shut down, their newspapers are selling less and less issues (readership of Empros is down to about 1,000), and social mobilizations and public appearances are rare and visibly weaker. According to the polls, Michaloliakos is by far the least popular leader in the Greek political landscape — which is an impressive achievement given the fierce competition. The mass media now appears to find Golden Dawn’s positions unacceptable, and the popularity and visibility it once enjoyed with the press are long gone.
Even during the long summer of migration in 2015, when more than a million people passed through Greece on their way from Turkey, with some 70,000 still trapped in the country today, solidarity with refugees was the dominant theme. Golden Dawn did not manage to capitalize on the events. It tried — visiting the islands of the Northern Aegean, for instance — but even there the Antifa movement was present to cancel their plans with militant counter-marches. Even the Golden Dawn office in Mytilene, on Lesbos, at the very front-lines of the so-called “refugee crisis,” was forced to shut down at the time of writing.
Thanks to the militant marches and motorcycle parades around immigrant neighborhood, the Athenian squats that prioritized Antifa actions as a response to the rise of Golden Dawn, as well as the occupation of new buildings by the Refugee Solidarity Movement to host undocumented migrants and refugees all over Athens, the anti-fascist resistance managed to reconquer much of the terrain previously lost to the neo-Nazis, and is currently winning the struggle for control over the streets.
The most important lesson we can draw from the Greek experience, therefore, is that Golden Dawn was not defeated in the court rooms or on the terrain of electoral politics. Their trial is still dragging on, and they continue to win a relatively large share of the national vote. Despite these political and judicial setbacks, however, the neo-Nazis were certainly defeated on the streets and in the political consciousness of Greek society, which now largely considers their actions and ideas unacceptable.
It is thanks to the militant direct action and solidarity work of the Antifa movement that Golden Dawn’s social legitimacy has been seriously undermined, while their organizational capacity has also been seriously diminished in the process. The Greek experience therefore shows how important it is not to lose political ground to the extreme right, to establish a firm anti-fascist cultural hegemony, and to regain social movement control over the streets and neighborhoods more than anything.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/magazine/pavlos-fyssas-greek-anti-fascism/
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