The Night of Wednesday, September 18, 2013
As the sun swung low in the evening sky over Athens, the first columns of smoke began to spill into the sky. The smoke came from the fires of burning trash bins. Spilling into the narrow streets and tree-lined boulevards, people lit the fires as they went. Some wore masks, balaclavas, even motorcycle helmets. The red-and-black flags of the anarchists swept into view. Expecting street fights, some armed themselves with clubs. Others knelt with hammers to smash sidewalks so they could use the rubble to throw.
These scenes are all too familiar to us in the summer of 2020, and they were familiar scenes to the Greeks in the autumn of 2013. Years of tension had gripped the country. Riots, marches, brawls on the pavement, and battles with riot police had been ongoing since the Great Recession struck.
During the day, news of the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a 34-year-old rapper known for his anti-racist lyrics, had swept across the country. Responsibility for the killing had been claimed by a member of Golden Dawn, the far-right political party notorious for its racism, hooliganism and Neo-Nazi ideology. Rumours flew that Golden Dawn had ordered the murder. Outraged by the crime, thousands of Greeks took to the streets to voice their anger and express sympathy for Fyssas. Golden Dawn had many political enemies, but on this evening there also came many ordinary people who were shocked by the political murder of a singer, people who were horrified to think that the murder may have been ordered by someone in Parliament itself.
Greeks over the age of fifty could remember times when the government routinely brutalized its citizens, but things were different now. Weren’t they?
Everyone seemed to sense that, with the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, things had reached a new level. The Prime Minister addressed the country to appeal for calm and assure the people that justice was coming. As they heard his words, people wondered what else was coming.
That night, marches took place in over eighteen cities. In Athens, crowds were estimated to be over ten thousand strong. In one district, marchers attacked a police station. Protesters used chemical fire extinguishers to create smokescreens. They flung Molotov cocktails and chunks of debris at riot police. Fireballs leapt off the pavement. It was an expression of rage, not only because of what happened to Pavlos Fyssas, but because eyewitnesses said the police allowed the murder to happen. For many, this rumour was proof that Golden Dawn had infiltrated the police.
Meanwhile, the gears of justice creaked into action. The murder of Pavlos Fyssas caused alarm in the government. Many politicians who had long avoided openly condemning Golden Dawn could not contain their anxiety and suspicion.
The accused murderer, Giorgios Roupakias, was already in custody. After fatally stabbing Pavlos Fyssas, he had called his wife and urged her to throw away all of the Golden Dawn pamphlets and paraphernalia he had laying around their house. This bungling last-minute attempt to dispose of evidence failed. It also contradicted his behaviour at the scene of the crime, where he brazenly informed the police officer who arrested him that he was a party member.
It was too late for Giorgios Roupakias to pretend he had no connection with the party, and it was too late to pretend that the party had no connection to the murder.
Golden Dawn began as a magazine. Founded in 1980 by an ex-army political activist, the magazine attracted a very small collection of militant right-wingers who saw it as their mission to defend Greek culture by battling the liberals, socialists and immigrants who were undermining the unity and greatness of the Greek nation.
From its earliest days, the organization was unusual. For several years, it promoted “Hellenic Neo-Paganism,” modern-day worship of Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, and other mythic residents of Mount Olympus. By the time the ‘90s rolled around they abandoned this, perhaps judging that boosting for Zeus wouldn’t appeal to the working men and women of Greece, where the main religion is Greek Orthodox Christianity.
Registering as a political party in 1993, their supporters established a reputation for crashing public demonstrations to beat up their opponents. This did not help their cause. They won nothing in the elections of 1996. By the early 2000s, they were all but irrelevant: a small club of racists, homophobes and ultra-nationalists with a fetish for Nazi symbolism, outcasts and dead-enders.
Then came the Great Recession.
Greece has a special place in the story of the Great Recession. What matters most to this story, and to the tragic death of Pavlos Fyssas, are the consequences that the Great Recession had for the Greek people. Spawned by the financial crisis that began in the USA in 2007, shock waves spread eastward across the Atlantic like a tsunami, surging over the shores of Europe, overwhelming the continent with waves of crisis and poverty. Tiny Greece became a hostage to this crisis. It slowly robbed the Greeks of their country, their jobs, and their futures.
You might think that the Greek government would have stood up for its people, defended their jobs and their future, and protected them from the ravages of the disaster. You would be wrong. From 2008 onward, as the Crisis worsened year by year, the elected representatives of the Greek people continuously sold them out. The people saw it all happening before their eyes, but what could they do to stop it? When they gathered in front of Parliament in their thousands, day after day, week after week, to make their voices heard, their government ignored them. It seemed that democracy was broken.
Enter Golden Dawn.
By the summer of 2012, Greece’s “safe,” mainstream political parties so utterly disgraced themselves with their response to the Crisis that voters began deserting them, seeking hope with radical newcomers and outsiders. Golden Dawn attracted the bigoted fraction of society, but it also attracted voters appalled by the spectacle of their country being stripped bare by the Crisis. Using their vote as a protest became their only option for change.
Without the Crisis, Golden Dawn could never have risen.
Returning from the grave, it was careful to present itself as “a party like any other.” Its behaviour in Parliament ranged from the predictable (opposing taxes on shipping companies) to the exotic (twice questioning the Speaker on the subject of chemtrails.) Election posters promised they would be “cleaning up the city” and “removing the dirt”. Their solution for migrants slipping into the country through the border with Turkey: landmines.
Outside government buildings, they established themselves in other ways.
In June 2012 a notorious incident occurred live on Antenna TV. The show’s producers chose to seat half a dozen politicians around a table too small for their passions. A young Golden Dawn MP (and former army commando) became so infuriated with the female socialist MP across the table from him that he jumped up and flung a glassful of water into her face. When the female communist party MP seated on his left swatted him with a handful of papers, he completely lost his composure and slapped her at least three times before the other guests and TV crew intervened. The crew locked him in a room in the studio while they called the police, but “he broke down the door and escaped.”
The women he assaulted sued him, but on the day after the incident, he filed a lawsuit of his own against both women for “defamation”, claiming they had staged the incident to vilify him. He also declared his intent to sue Antenna TV for "unlawfully" locking him in a back room.
The whole incident was not good for the party’s image (or so they thought). The MP who slapped his colleague was already under investigation for suspicion of being the getaway driver during an assault several years before (he lost his temper because the socialist MP brought it up.)
How could a “neo-Nazi” party be legal? Mainly because their policy and registration said nothing about Nazism. Officially, they planned for things like building up Greek industry, helping families with their taxes and reducing government corruption. Their vow to expel all illegal immigrants was radical, but it was not unheard-of. Switch some place-names around, and their plan could have been used by many nationalist parties around the world.
In the streets, Golden Dawn organized volunteers to help the elderly. They offered free medical consultations to people who’d lost their medical coverage. They managed food and clothing donation centres. They ran “Greek-only” blood banks. They set up soup kitchens; the man who murdered Pavlos Fyssas worked at one of these kitchens. With the government cutting welfare and social services because of the Crisis, many people needed this help. Golden Dawn paid particular attention to impoverished families (Greek only, of course). These social efforts earned them credibility with voters.
However, beneath their formal plan and their social service, Golden Dawn was saturated with racists, anti-Semites and Nazi idolizers. In person, they barely bothered to hide it. As tired and feeble as Holocaust denial and nostalgia for Nazism may sound, they were built-in to the party’s personality. In their speeches, their rallies, their “summer camps,” and their clubhouses, their essence was plain to see. It was in how they described immigrants, socialists and journalists as filth. It was in their militarism, the uniforms.
It was in the “hit squads” that they covertly recruited, trained and operated. On the night of September 17, 2013, one of these hit squads found Pavlos Fyssas.
For the first time, they had targeted a Greek.
The Ministry for Public Order and Citizen Protection began combing its records for criminal cases suspected to have Golden Dawn involvement. They wanted to go beyond prosecuting the man who murdered Pavlos Fyssas. Their plan was to prosecute the party itself as a criminal organization. This set the bar much higher than going after individuals, because it would require Parliament to strike down Golden Dawn’s parliamentary immunity. In the 38 years the Greek Republic had existed, such a thing had never been done. Every Greek party is protected from persecution through laws created after the abuses committed by the dictatorship. But if Parliament refused to do so, the case would be dead.
The Ministry reached out to immigrant communities for their records of racist violence committed against them to help build the case. One Pakistani community leader turned over a file of 900 incidents reaching back to 2009, including murders. Even without soliciting information from the public, the government had plenty to go on. They had evidence of money laundering, human trafficking, aggravated assaults, extortion - and as the investigation continued, detectives would find much worse.
Headed by the special police anti-terrorism unit, arrests began on September 18 and went on through-out the day. Police raided multiple Golden Dawn party offices for evidence, as well as the residences of certain members. The operation focused on individuals linked to the Fyssas murder, but included high-ranking members of the party leadership. The party leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, he who founded the magazine all those years before, was arrested on the following Saturday, September 21.
A total of 69 people were detained in the wave of arrests. The first steps had been taken to bring justice to the family of Pavlos Fyssas, and many other victims. But the arrests were only the first step. Proving that the party had been involved in the murder, and bringing them to justice, would be a long and twisting road, especially when the details of what happened on the night of the murder were still far from clear.
The family of Pavlos Fyssas held his funeral on Thursday, September 19, in west Athens, where he grew up. That same day, people held assemblies in places as far away as London, Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona, in his honour.
The Story continues in Part 3 of SET UP A FIRE
Special thank-you to Aria for her generous help proofreading these stories!