Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Campus police proposal riles Greek students

This article was published by Al Jazeera.

Students demonstrate outside parliament in Athens on January 28.

ATHENS, Greece – University students are preparing to fight an education bill they say will harm freedom of expression on campuses. 

The conservative New Democracy government wants to create a new police force for universities, empowered to arrest and charge those considered troublemakers. Although campus police would not bear firearms, they would be able to call in riot police and other reinforcements. 

The government also wants to introduce disciplinary boards with powers to suspend or expel students.  

Perhaps most controversially, students could face scrutiny for putting up posters or banners, and for “noise pollution”. 

“We’re afraid of the disciplinary measures in the bill, which essentially allow vigilantism on campus, and all forms of political expression are interpreted as misdemeanours,” says Hara Mantadaki, a political science student at Panteion University for the Social Sciences. She spoke to Al Jazeera in the midst of a student protest against the measures, where loud music was being played and banners were being painted – routine events on Greek campuses. “Even what we’re doing here would not be allowed,” she said. 

When it came to power in 2019, New Democracy abolished campus immunity from police entry, known as asylum, dating to the 1980s. 

“People trying to avoid police forces were preparing to enter these [university] buildings because police forces did not have the right to enter there,” says Angelos Syrigos, professor of international law, now deputy education minister responsible for passing the new measures. 

“The main problem is people coming from outside, not university students,” Syrigos told Al Jazeera. “I strongly believe that 90 percent of the problem is going to be solved with the introduction of the checking of the people entering the university buildings. Police forces are needed for the remaining ten percent.” 

Many of the measures the government proposes – such as better lighting, surveillance cameras, gates with card readers and on-campus security guards – are broadly accepted by the academic community. 

“Security is not what it should be… [It] has been scaled back a great deal in recent years for financial reasons,” Evangelos Sapountzakis, assistant rector at the Athens Polytechnic tells Al Jazeera. “The result is acts of violence, thefts and so on. We need state money to boost security.” 

Last year, intruders stole $200,000 worth of equipment from the Polytechnic. Sapountzakis says these are typical annual losses. 

But police have created a bad impression since they acquired the power to venture onto campuses at will. 

“There were many times when riot police had surrounded students and kept them hostage inside the campus. There were occasions when teargas was used outside the building and prevented us from entering,” says Alexandra Vatopoulou, a 2nd year Accounting and Finance student at the Athens University of Economics and Business, who opposes the measures. 

Last February, students filmed a police officer with a drawn gun outside the AUEB. 

“The policeman had come wearing civilian clothes,” says Thanos Golomazos, a 3rd year Management student who was present. “He stood out here and started terrorising and frightening people. When students faced him he pulled out a gun… it was he who caused the incident.” 

The government insists that on-campus violence justifies a permanent police presence. Last October, eight masked and gloved assailants entered the AUEB rector’s office. They grabbed him by the neck, threatened him, smashed his computer, vandalised his office and posted a picture of him online with a sign around his neck sporting an anarchist slogan. In the past, faculty members have been attacked or bricked into their offices. 

Syrigos was himself attacked in 2017 for asking three people to use posters instead of painting slogans on a university wall. “My students and I stopped one of these people and handed him to police forces… it was the first time that a person coming from these groups went to court and was tried for these activities,” says Syrigos. He would like such action to be institutional, not personal. 

Yet faculty and administrators who supported Syrigos then have now sided with students. 

“Externally sourced security that doesn’t answer to university authorities puts into doubt the freedom of the academic  environment,” Sapountzakis told Al Jazeera. 

The government has found itself politically isolated. “The only thing the government is achieving is to irritate a vexed society and a student body that is anxious about its future,” says Hara Kefalidou, shadow education minister for the socialist Kinima Allagis. 

An iconic clash 

The immunity of Greek university campuses from police goes back to November 1973, when the military dictatorship then ruling Greece used the army and police to smash a student protest at the Athens Polytechnic, just 300 yards away from the AUEB. Although no-one was hurt on campus, an estimated three dozen people were killed on the night of the operation and during the days that followed. 

The incident caused a popular backlash against the ruling colonels, whose regime collapsed the following year. The students who began the unravelling of the colonels’ regime were idolised as the nation’s conscience, and many of the socialist politicians who came to power in 1981 were drawn from the legendary “Polytechnic generation”. Once installed, they passed a law forbidding police entry onto campuses. 

The clashes of 17 November 1973 have since become an annual pageant, with students and anarchists raining Molotov cocktails on police, and setting up roadblocks around the Polytechnic. 

In November 2019, the rector of the AUEB tried to prevent a student assembly that was to plan that year’s anniversary, by shutting down the campus for a week. Students broke the padlocks and held their assembly anyway. 

“As we were about to begin, we saw the riot police who are normally parked around the back of the building, attack the students,” says Golomazos. 

Though designed to prevent a replay of the events of 1973, the police intervention became an uncanny re-enactment of it. Police took possession of the campus, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. “In the days that followed people came here to support us,” says Golomazos, perhaps unaware that the students of 1973, too, had received succour from the public through the locked gates of the Polytechnic. 

Glamour spilled over into licentiousness, however. Anarchists and people who’d been released from jail used campuses to escape arrest when clashing with police.  In 2011, it was a socialist government which partly repealed campus asylum, allowing the rector to invite police on his own authority. The leftwing Syriza party restored it in 2017. 

This bill offers Syriza a chance to improve its approval ratings, believes Kefalidou. “It is giving the kiss of life to extremists, specifically the [leftwing] Syriza opposition, to start a cat and mouse game on university campuses. We don’t need this tension.” 

Syrigos stands firm, however. “[Syriza’s] reaction is against what Greek society thinks,” he tells Al Jazeera. “So this is going to be a very good opportunity for the government to show its big difference from the opposition parties on an issue that has the support of the vast majority of Greek society.” 

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