GREECE: Fighting for control of the square, in the pandemic-era

Extract from an article by Iason Athanasiadis published on Balkan Insight, on 14 May 2020 – accessible here 

A police raid on young Greeks in an Athens square has triggered a wider debate about relations between the state and its people.

The raid, following another one two days earlier, triggered fierce debate over the role of police in enforcing public health measures as Greece begins to lift its COVID-19 lockdown, amid accusations that security forces – frequently accused of acting unaccountably – are being used by the conservative government to promote gentrification in a city where years of extreme austerity since 2010 have torn at the social fabric.

No sooner had the gas cleared than St George Square – part of an eclectic, multicultural neighbourhood popular with artists – had been dubbed the new Exarcheia, the graffiti-scarred Athens district loved by some, loathed by others, for its long history of leftist activism and confrontation with police.

“This is reminiscent of the ‘squares movement’ that we experienced in the early crisis years and other cases where squares became reference points for protest and contestation,” said sociologist Theodoros Fouskas, in reference to the early 2010s when Greece was plunged into almost a decade of devastating financial crisis.

“The difference now is that, due to social distancing, well-frequented squares become disputed spaces and the potential for confusion arises, because in other cases there wouldn’t be the need for the authorities to interfere.”

Architect and social theorist Stavros Stavridis saw a more cynical motive in police intervening in predominantly lower middle class neighbourhoods while well-heeled districts are left undisturbed.

“This is not so much the innocent handling of a public health crisis as socially-marked practices intended to change the city towards exclusion and control,” said Stavridis.

“The coming impoverishment will result in certain groups being ejected from public spaces in which they cannot participate as consumers.”

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