ATHENS – The hard memories a Nov. 17, 1973 student uprising in Greece’s capital that brought about the beginning of the end of a military junta are being recalled again, with a heavy police guard during demonstrations.
Some 5,700 police were on duty, supported by drones for an annual event that along with being a commemoration of the sacrifice of students killed for their resistance to tyranny often sees anarchists conducting violence.
Much of the city center was closed off to traffic and the major subway stop bypassed in Syntagma Square which has seen tear gas and chemicals used in the past against protesters.
The annual protests mark the day in 1973 when at least 24 people were killed at the Athens Polytechnic, when the junta sent troops and police against a pro-democracy student rebellion, said Agence France-Presse in a feature
“Two (young boys) died in my hands,” Melpo Lekatsa, who was helping dress wounds at the Polytechnic on the night of November 17, 1973 as a 21-year-old student, told state TV ERT.
The brutal crackdown shocked the rest of Europe and began the erosion of the authoritarian rule of a regime of Colonels, whose leader was later imprisoned and died without remorse.
“It was a heroic act by people who moments earlier, hadn’t realized that they would be unafraid of bullets and who would place their bodies in front of tanks,’ said 70-year-old Lekatsa, who was arrested and tortured by the junta.
The Polytechnic ‘made people realize the junta was more brutal than they had imagined,” she said although the anti-Communist regime had the backing of the United States and then-President Richard Nixon.
Some 20,000 people took part in the 2021 demonstration in Athens, with a further 14,000 in the second-largest city Thessaloniki and massive crowds were expected this year with the COVID-19 pandemic waning.
Police were especially on guard in the anarchist stronghold neighborhood of Exarchia where they frequently clash with anti-establishment groups who seize on trouble to make moves against authorities.
There was already a strong police presence there to guard workers doing construction of a new Metro stop that has drawn strong and even violent opposition from residents who don’t want it.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – whose government was been caught in a spyware scandal reminiscent of the junta’s paranoid attempt to track people’s doings, said the uprising “established the most complete democracy our country has ever known.”
The bloodstained Greek flag that flew that night over the Polytechnic’s iron gate, which was crushed by a tank, is carried at the head of the demonstration each year, said AFP, the day ending with a protest outside the American embassy.