When Fascists Turn Violent

Yiannis
Boutaris stared back at a sea of angry faces on May 20—a few muttered insults. Boos
erupted from pockets of the crowd. “Leave,” they demanded.  

His tireless
advocacy for LGBTQI rights, outspoken opposition to unchecked nationalism, and push
to highlight the city’s Ottoman past and Jewish history have made him a central target of Greece’s far right. In
seven years as mayor, Boutaris has championed Pride parades in the northern coastal
city, initiated plans for a Holocaust memorial museum,
and expanded tourism from Turkey, Israel, and
the Balkans.  

Mayor Yiannis Boutaris outside his office in Thessaloniki, Greece, June 11, 2012.Eirini Vourloumis/The New York Times/Redux

In early
2018, right-wing nationalist sentiments building throughout Greece over the
refugee crisis and economic troubles erupted in protests tied to the ongoing
naming dispute between Greece and neighboring Macedonia. On January 21, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets of
Thessaloniki to oppose any inclusion of the word “Macedonia,” which is also the
name of a northern region of Greece, in the official title of the former
Yugoslav republic. Amongst banners reading “There is only one Macedonia and it
is Greek!”, some far-right participants distributed fliers dubbing Boutaris a “slave of the Jews,” and others attacked a pair of anarchist squats,
setting one ablaze. By the time the squares and streets emptied, unknown
assailants had defaced the Holocaust monument in the city center. They left behind
the logo of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, which first entered parliament
in 2013.

Although
he had long been an obsession of the far right, Boutaris began to receive
threats and hate mail more frequently. He ignored most of them. “Since I took
over [as mayor], I have calls, I have letters saying, ‘you are fucking Jew,’
‘you are a fucking Turk,’” he said.

But
at the annual commemoration event in May, a mob attacked him.


Boutaris
has attended every commemoration of the early twentieth-century Turkish killings of ethnic Greeks since assuming office. Although only two
weeks past a heart operation this May, he was determined to attend the
ceremonies held throughout the city. In an unassuming navy suit—tieless, but
with a commemorative yellow badge on his lapel—Boutaris went from one event to
the next. Last on the day’s program was a flag-lowering ceremony at
Thessaloniki’s White Tower monument, situated on the three-mile promenade
tracing the city’s coastline.

Leaving the
small black sedan on a nearby street, Boutaris, his driver, a bodyguard, and
Kalypso Goula, the president of Thessaloniki’s city council, approached the
tower where more than a thousand people were already present.

Panayiotis
Psomiadis, the right-wing former regional governor of Thessaloniki, cursed at
the approaching mayor. Boutaris stopped near the tower.

Boutaris
wasn’t fearful when the shouts first started, but the hostility swelled. The
moment lingered, pregnant with tension until someone in the back shouted,
“Let’s go.”

Within
seconds, he was encircled by frantic young men, who shoved him and spat. Bottles
flew in his direction. A punch came, and then another. His small entourage gripped
him by his rawboned arms and guided him toward the car as the mob lashed out
at them, several punches landing on city council president Goula as well. The
attackers followed, some sprinting from the back to catch up. A tall, limber
young man in a black, skin-tight Everlast shirt and matching athletic shorts
delivered a series of powerful kicks to the mayor’s sternum. Boutaris lost his
balance and tumbled to the ground, the crowd kicking at him. The guards got him
back up. Finally, they reached the car, Goula prying open the passenger-side
door. Boutaris slid in, and the car sped away as a final string of strikes
burst the rear window into a scatter of jagged shards.

Goula
stayed behind: The mob’s anger was gone, and in its place was deafening
applause. 


In Greece,
far-right violence isn’t new. Vigilante attacks and far-right gangs were common
during the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn during the 2012 parliamentary elections. Modeled off German national
socialism, the party’s street-roaming
assault battalions
paved the way for other would-be attackers seeking to
redirect blame for the country’s economic crisis to foreigners, leftists, and other
political opponents. A brutal wave of violence, mostly targeting migrants, reached
a climax in September 2013, when a Golden Dawn member stabbed to death 34-year-old anti-fascist rapper
Pavlos Fyssas. Following that murder, much of the party’s leadership was
arrested, and 69 members are still on trial for allegedly
operating a criminal organization. The rising tide seemed, finally, to have
ebbed.

The door of a showroom in Thessaloniki vandalized with swastikas in July 2018.Nick Paleologos/ SOOC

In the last
year, though, a startling resurgence of xenophobic violence has again worried
observers. From 2016 to 2017, the number of hate crimes documented by Hellenic
Police more than doubled, growing from 84 to 184 incidents. In early 2018, the
violence showed little signs of letting up. Fueled by frustration over the
refugee crisis, anger over the Macedonia name talks, simmering tensions with
Turkey, and discontent with the left-wing-led government, protests were staged
in several cities, and xenophobic violence regularly made headlines: Pakistani
migrant workers were attacked in their homes and in fields,
refugees were pelted with bottles and stones on Greek islands, and non-profit
organizations working with refugees received a spate of death threats. Jewish
memorials and cemeteries were desecrated several times in Thessaloniki and
Athens, and a neo-Nazi group, Crypteia, took credit for an arson attack on the Afghan Community of
Greece’s office in March.

Foreign
Minister Nikos Kotzias has received more than 800 death threats against himself and his family
this year, he told the Greek radio station 247 FM in June. Prompted by the name
talks with Macedonia, they included envelopes containing bullets and boxes of
blood-soaked soil.

“I don’t
know that it’s a revival, I think it’s always been there,” University of
Reading professor and Golden Dawn expert Daphne Halikiopoulou said of recent
developments, explaining that there is a long history of far-right political
violence in ebbs and flows. “Drawing on this nationalism at a time when Greek
people are quite radicalized because of the crisis and discontent, makes
[violence] okay [for some].”


Boutaris was lucky: His injuries
turned out to be minor. But after the attack, police officers insisted that the
mayor go to the hospital. Inside, he spotted one of his attackers being
bandaged in the corner.

The attack
rattled Greece and captured national and international headlines, signaling the
far right’s willingness to carry out violence in broad daylight. Several people
were arrested over their alleged involvement, including a 44-year-old police
officer and a minor. Political parties across the spectrum issued formal
condemnations, and the Pontic organizations that hosted the event denounced the
violence. Syriza described the incident as a “fascist assault,” while the center-left
Movement for Change political alliance called it “embarrassing” and “unacceptable.”
Although the right-wing opposition party New Democracy decried the attack,
left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accused the party of contributing to
nationalist sentiments, saying it “lays out a carpet for the far right.”

Some,
though, reveled in the moment. In the northern city of Kavala, Christos
Paschalidis, an ultra-nationalist official, wrote on Facebook that Boutaris “got what he
deserved.” Writing on Twitter, Dimitris Kambosou, the mayor of the southern
village of Argos, rushed to label Boutaris a “traitor” for his moderate position on the
Macedonia re-naming in the wake of the incident. (Weeks later, New Democracy
expelled Kambosou over an intensely anti-Semitic rant in which he said Boutaris “can say
what he wants because he wears the [kippah].”)

Golden
Dawn openly praised the incident. A party statement celebrated it as “popular
rage,” and a separate press release accused Boutaris of “tarnishing” the
commemoration’s sanctity. Ourania Michaloliakou, the daughter of Golden Dawn
chief Nikolas Michaloliakos, complimented the assailants. “Bravo to each and
every one who carried out his duty in Thessaloniki today,” she posted on Twitter. “Respect.”

The
response, Halikiopoulou said, “actually
highlights the absence of liberal thought in Greece. It shows that many
semi-accept that it is okay to punch people in the face for having different
ideas.”


Threats,
intimidation, and physical violence have failed to deter Boutaris so far. Reelected
in 2014 by those who favor his liberal policies, he plans to run for a third
term in May 2019. Though under no illusions about the fragile political
climate, he insists he will continue his efforts to foster a more tolerant
climate in the city and broaden tourism from diverse countries: Racism and
xenophobia, he believes, have no future in Greece.

“I am
considered a traitor because ‘I love Turks,’ ‘I love Jews,’ I love gays,’ ‘I
love refugees’… This is totally foolish, so I don’t pay much attention anyway,”
he said. Taking drags from a filter-free cigarette, he sat on a July afternoon in
a deep, cushioned chair in his souvenir-adorned office. A dull black-and-grey
lizard hand tattoo wriggled as he crushed the cigarette into an ashtray. On his
desk lay a cluster of folders and papers. “If I am a traitor, I ask them: What
did you do for your country apart from saying ‘Alexander the Great’? Alexander
the Great died more than two thousand years ago. Did you create jobs? Did you
support the market [through] tourism?”

Since he
was attacked, people passing Boutaris’s home have yelled and cursed at him. He
remembers the attack clearly: coaching himself to remain calm. He also remembers the small child one of the men cradled
while chasing him, shouting. 

 “Nationalists are always violent,” he said. “They
don’t hear anything else other than what they believe.”

Leave a Reply