Police violence, especially against minorities, is a feature of daily life in Greece. The death of a 16-year-old Roma by the gunshots of a police officer make this clear once again. An outline.
The murder of Kostas Fragoulis
Just before 1 a.m. on Monday, December 5th, 16 year old Kostas Fragoulis, who was father to a 9 month old baby, drove his pickup-truck to the service area of a gas station in Thessaloniki’s district of Diavata. The young boy, a member of the Romani community of Agia Sofia, Thessaloniki, fuelled his vehicle with 20 Euros worth of petrol and departed without payment. He was making his way back to Agia Sofia, located just 500 meters from the station, where his group of friends were holding a small gathering. However, he would not make it back to his friends and family, as four police officers who had stopped their motorbikes nearby were informed by a staff member of the breach and were given a description of his vehicle, starting a chase that would end in the youth´s tragic death.
While he had stopped at a red traffic light on a main road, the four officers approached him on their bikes and came to a halt just behind the passenger’s seat window. This is when the 16 year old accelerated speed and a roughly 400 meter chase ensued. Having soon reached the train tracks located nearby, Kostas seemed to have repeatedly lost control of the pickup-truck and come to a halt unwillingly for a couple of seconds, during which police ordered him to step out. According to the testimony of the policeman accused of the boy´s killing, Kostas seemed to speed towards his colleagues’ motorbikes when the officer discharged his firearm, striking the teenager fatally. Earlier however, one of the officers involved, had spoken over police radio ascribing the driver’s last attempt at regaining speed to his apparent «loss of control of the vehicle» and not as an intent to ram the policemen´s motorbikes, casting doubt over the self-defense claim of the shooter.
While the exact details of the events leading up to the tragic loss of the young boy’s life will probably remain unclear to the public, the police officer responsible for the unjust killing was released on December 19th, merely six days after the 16 year old lost the battle to his fatal wound in Thessaloniki’s «Ippokratio» General Hospital, where he had been treated for a week. Eventually, the fact remains that Kostas Fragoulis was killed by law enforcement merely for having failed to pay 20 Euros worth of gas and having attempted to evade police custody for less than half a kilometer. Naturally, this shattering event sparked outrage and led to protests among Romani communities and their allies all over Greece, with other Romani organizations publicly voicing their solidarity Europe-wide. However, the main emotion expressed by Kostas Fragoulis’ close circle as well as the heads of «Ellan Passe», the Panhellenic Organization of Greek Roma, is grief, pain, and exhaustion over what has been called the «continuous targeting of a whole community». Indeed, Kosta´s unjust killing happened just fourteen months after the murder of 20 year old Romani man Nikos Sambanis in Attica´s district of Perama, who was shot over 30 times by a police officer while being chased after allegedly having stolen and seized a car.
The Nature of Police Repression in Greece is Systemic
The circumstances leading to the young man’s killing in 2021 had prompted changes in law enforcement leadership as well as four new regulations, stipulating the re-training of police officers, the digitalization of operation centers, the introduction of «bodycams» to be worn by front-line officers, and updates in police’s «handbook» restricting the use of firearms during chases. However, it should be noted that reporters working for one of Greece’s largest newspapers asked a number of front-line officers about this «handbook», all of whom denied knowing of its existence.
Hence, the question remains: If the technical response led on by Sambani’s death did not work towards a solution of the problem of police brutality in Greece, demonstrated not only by the recent killing of 16 year old Fragoulis but multiple reported incidents of excessive use of force as well as the alleged rape of a 19 year old woman by two male officers in a police station just this past October. Is this not an unmistakable sign of a dire need for greater systematic change? The answer seems to be clear: Greece’s most vulnerable groups are suffering at the hands of the country’s law enforcement agencies while the Prime Minister, at times with the unanimous blessing of all members of parliament, continuously pumps money and personnel into those same agencies, without sustainably and effectively addressing any of their issues.
Most interestingly, Mitsotakis maintains a low profile when it comes to rampant police violence. After all, arming the executive is one of his most important domestic policy projects. Helmeted policemen on motorbikes have become a symbol of the omnipresence of the Greek law enforcers and the law-and-order policy of Nea Dimokratia. Mitsotakis was also initially silent on the protests and riots of the Roma community, preferring to promote the €600 Christmas bonus paid by the government to police officers. He can make good use of the votes from the bloated security apparatus in the presidential elections in spring 2023.
Violence and Ethnicity in Greece
As awareness of ethnically and racially motivated violence ranging from far-right extremist networks to police agencies and the frequent interlink of these two groups in the U.S. and most European countries has gradually risen at the latest since the killing of George Floyd in 2020; it rarely seems to extend over the discourse regarding Roma people, who are and have been historically facing excessive amounts of discrimination, segregation, and stigmatization and have been additionally suffering from invisibility on any meaningful political level.
However, it is important to connect their systemic and violent targeting to the racist politics and the excessive securitization in the name of «law» and order that has been taking place at Europe’s borders, in the streets of countless European cities and villages, and the largest, most diffuse and ungraspable death site, the Aegean Sea. At the end of the day, the violence against people belonging to the same group as Fragoulis and Sambanis have been less impactfully felt and dealt with than any deaths of non-racialized members of Greek society. Precisely because of their ethnic heritage and the volatile meanings attached to it. Their belonging to «other» communities is what justifies their surveillance and victimization in the eyes of people demanding «security» and «safety» with complete disregard to the vulnerability of numerous people who share the same hometowns, neighbourhoods, streets; and complete disregard to the vulnerability of people who were once able to live a stable life in their home countries too, but have been forced to move by undertaking immense risks.
In fact, it took the brutal murder of leftist activist and musician Pavlos Fyssas, a non-racialized young Greek man, by members of the neonazi organization «Golden Dawn» in 2013, for Greece’s dominant societal and political groups to gradually shift their attention and «uncover» the equally brutal crimes against immigrants, refugees, and Greek people of color that had been taking place in the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki by those same right-wing terrorists for years. Even then, and now, the protests organized in solidarity with victims of grave political injustices such as student demonstrations on university campus, feminist marches in city centers, or the recent uprisings in peripheral Romani villages, are labelled as «riots» and are met with force by police and frowned upon by media outlets and politicians.
In the words of Javed Aslam, a leading member of the Pakistani Community in Greece, which seems to have been disproportionately targeted by right-wing violence and police unlawfulness over the last fifteen years, a community which he spoke on behalf of during the antifascist gathering on the first day of the resumption of court hearings against «Golden Dawn» in October: «We are here because we want justice. And what do they want? They want blood. They want to chase us with clubs, and they want to see blood, our blood.»
While violence inflicted by police and military bodies on the Greek mainland, islands, and on the high sea might not at first glance seem to necessarily belong in the same category as the rogue, indiscriminate attacks carried out by paramilitary groups in these places, the result often seems to be the same. Especially when examining recent alarming reports of right-wing organized criminal networks and private military companies (PMCs) being at work in Greece´s borderland regions hand in hand with «official» agencies. And, while Romani people have historically been part of the Greek and all other European societies and are thus not viewed as «newcomers» of any kind, as long as the targeting of individuals based on ethnic heritage, religion, race, and gender is continued by the recently risen regimes prioritizing securitization, the safety of all vulnerable groups remains under threat.