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Society

Nov. 17 March Aftermath Pits New Democracy vs. Leftists

November 18, 2020

ATHENS – Mostly successful in keeping marchers off the streets of the capital on the Nov. 17 anniversary of a 1973 student uprising that helped fell a junta – the ban under a COVID-19 second lockdown – the morning after saw the New Democracy government taking on criticism from leftist parties.

While the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA – rebranded as SYRIZA Progressive Alliance – denounced the ban and took part in marches, the biggest from the KKE Communists, none of whom protested canceling cermonies for March 25 Independence Day activities or the Oct. 28 Oxi Day commemorating Greece's refusal to surrender to Italy at the start of World War II.

The leftist groups complained the government was acting in an authoritarian manner although Greek courts – after a judges union said the ban was unconstitutional – upheld the prohibition, even as political sniping kept up.

Former prime minister and major opposition SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras posted a photo of himself attending a socially distanced gathering for the Polytechnic with no report he was fined or detained.

“With responsibility and observance of health protection measures, this year we again honored the dead and the struggles of our people for democracy, independence, and justice,” he said in a post on social media.

“We broke the senseless ban,” he said. “Democracy and historical memory cannot be quarantined.”

Police said they detained more than 100 during several attempted rallies across Athens, while clashes occurred between protesters and riot police around the capital, said Kathimerini, those apprehended citing for violating COVID-19 rules.

The Communists, as did a contingent from the tiny MeRA25 party of former SYRIZA finance chief Yanis Varoufakis, said they would march with masks and keep a safe social distance but demonstrating was against a ban on gatherings.

Nov. 17, the day the uprising was quashed, is marked each year with wreath-laying ceremonies at the Athens Polytechnic commemorating those who died there, followed by marches to the U.S. Embassy. The United States had backed the dictatorship that ruled Greece for seven years from 1967.

But the government banned this year's events, citing public health concerns as the country struggles to contain a resurgence of the coronavirus that is straining hospitals and leading to record numbers of deaths. 

A nationwide lockdown has been imposed until the end of the month, but authorities tightened restrictions during the Polytechnic anniversary, banning gatherings of four or more people from Nov. 15-18.

Thousands of police were deployed in Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki to prevent marches. The annual Polytechnic marches often turn violent, with protesters clashing with riot police.

A Communist Party-backed union held an initial brief gathering outside the U.S. Embassy, with about 250 people wearing masks and marching in formation, maintaining distance from one another.

But a later, larger gathering by about 1,500 people in central Athens dissolved after police detained several people and eventually used tear gas and a water cannon. The Civil Protection Ministry said police had repeatedly requested the protesters disperse, to no avail.

“Those who, through their actions, show disregard for what is happening around them, are displaying antisocial behavior and contempt for those fighting for their lives in the hospitals,” the statement said.

Police also detained protesters defying the ban in the northern city of Thessaloniki. Penalties range from 300 euros ($356.25) for individuals attending a gathering that violates the ban, to 3,000 euros ($3562.53) or organizers and 5,000 euros ($5937.55) for organizations who arrange events.

A small group of people also threw firebombs at a police station in Thessaloniki, causing no injuries or damage.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis laid a wreath at the Athens Polytechnic amid tight security.

“Every important anniversary gains new meaning through the conditions in which it is celebrated,” Mitsotakis said, explaining his priority was protecting public health and helping the young especially hurt financially.

He had blamed them, however, for the spread of a second wave of the Coronavirus by frequenting nightclubs and bars – which his government allowed to stay open until now as part of a bid to get the economy going.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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