Mapping racist violence in Athens

In response to growing collusion between the far-right and the police in Athens, a new initiative seeks to map, on a rolling basis, violent attacks on migrants in the city.

Jaya Klara Brekke
15 July 2013

The 11414 phone-line is a widely publicised initiative established by the Greek Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection in response to international and domestic criticism of police handling of racist violence, an example of which is a damning report by the Racist Violence Recording Network (henceforth RVRN). Their criticisms included that the police are often more likely to turn people away, beat or arrest them under the pretext of lack of immigration documents than they are to investigate racist attacks.

With these conditions in mind and in addition to the never ending stream of stories in the Greek media detailing attacks and torture of migrants [1], a few things become apparent: that understanding and communicating the actual extent of racist violence in Greece is very important; that doing this is also very tricky; and that to do it in a manner that will have any effect on the situation is extremely difficult. This is, therefore, a tentative text, written as an introduction to an attempt that might very well fail: to map, on a rolling basis, the attacks on migrants taking place in Athens.

The aim is for this mapping to raise awareness of the situation internationally and to act as a tool for counter-action locally. There have been attempts to do similar things before, and while meeting substantial obstacles, each attempt has revealed new important details about the rise of fascist violence in Greece, highlighting the overlap of the far right and the police force, racist local employment relations, residual attitudes from the Greek fascist dictatorship, national and European immigration policies, austerity and international conflict. In other words, this issue is not merely a national one but has roots and relevance beyond Greek borders.

Below is a transcription of a phone conversation with a police officer recorded by 27 year-old “Adam” from Somalia that was published in EFSYN on the 12th of January[2]. Adam had recently been attacked by six black-clad men close to Larissa Station in Athens who broke his hand and stabbed him before he managed to escape. A few days after the incident, he called the recently established phone line for racist attacks to get help. The line claims to be a free 24h line for emergencies and to be entirely anonymous and confidential:

Policeman: [in Greek] “yes?”

Adam: [in English] “Do you speak English?”

Police: [In Greek] “What? Only Greek.”

Adam: [In English] “No English?”

Police: [In English, as in the rest of the dialogue] “Speak.”

Adam: “Speak English, sir?”

Police: “Yes.”

Adam: “Okay. I am from Somalia. On Saturday, sorry, on Friday they attacked me. I saw this phone number and was told "they can help you."”

Police: “Wait a minute ... [pause] Who attacked?”

Adam: “They wore black and were six people. This was the second time. The first time was near Agios Panteleimonas. They broke my hand. This is the second time.”

Police: “Tell me your name, please.”

Adam: “My name? Do you need to know my name?”

Police: “Your name, sir.”

Adam: “My name is Adam. I am from Somalia.”

Police: “What is your name, sir?”

Adam: “I said my name is Adam.”

Police: “Surname?”

Adam: “What?”

Police: “Your last name.”

Adam: “My name is Adam, my last name is also Adam.”

Police: “Your phone number?”

Adam: “It is the number I am calling from.”

Police: “I can not see your number.”

Adam: “69 ....”

Police: “Wait a minute, please. [Pause] Do you know the people who attacked you?”

Adam: “If I see them, of course I can recognize them.”

Police: “What did you say?”

Adam: “If I see them, of course I will know it is them.”

Police: “And the names?”

Adam: “What?”

Police: “Do you know the names of the people you were attacked by?”

Adam: “Their names, sir I do not know. But they wore black clothes and were 19-20 years old. Six-seven people.”

Police: “Six-seven, right? Ok. Where do you live”

Adam: “I am living in Acharnon.”

Police: “Acharnon, where?”

Adam: “Near Agios Panteleimonas.”

Police: “What did you say?”

Adam: “Do you hear?”

Police: “Yes.”

Adam: “Acharnon behind Agios Panteleimonas.”

Police: “Sir?”

Adam: “You know, the large church?”

Police: “Yes.”

Adam: “Yes. I do not remember the number.”

Police: “Tell me your name again?”

Adam: “My name is Adam Adam.”

Police: “Father's Name?”

Adam: “Ramin.”

Police: “Good. I have your phone number.”

Adam: “Good.”

Police: “If I need you I will contact you.”

Adam: “If I am needed?”

Police: “Yes. I will contact you.”

Adam: “That's it? Because I heard on TV that you help people who have been attacked.”

Police: “Yes.”

Adam: “And now you tell me, sir, that if you need me, you will get in touch? And that is it?”

Police: “It is Ok.”

Adam: “That is it?! Sir, people are getting injured, some have even died. And you say "if I need you, I will get in touch?"”

Police: “What did you say?”

Adam: “Dying, sir, people are assaulted, afraid to go out on the streets and you come and tell me "if I need you, I will get in touch?"”

Police: “When it happens again, call the Police.”

Adam: “When it happens to me again, I should call the Police?”

Police: “Mhm, yes.”

Adam: “You're not the police?”

Police: “Yes.”

Adam: “You are the police.”

Police: “When they get close, call the Police.”

Adam: “The first time I was attacked, sir, I went to the Police. They had broken my hand. The police only asked me if I have papers.”

Police: “Mhm.”

Adam: “Do you find this acceptable?”

Police: “...”

Adam: “I just want to know if you think this is right.”

Police: “Look, whatever. I have your number. When I need you, I will call you.”

Adam: “Thank you. Thanks for listening…”

The Racist Violence Recording Network is one of only a few initiatives that have been gathering verified data about racist violence in Greece since 2011. It consists of the UNHCR and twenty-three NGOs and other organisations that gather data submitted voluntarily by migrants themselves when for example they seek medical help at the Medicin du Monde stations in Omonia Square, Athens or Perama, near Athens. The RVRN report, published in October 2012, cites a figure of 87 attacks between January and September of that year with 83 of those taking place in public spaces. But a glance at local media and as accounts on the street attest, attacks are a near-daily occurrence. The figure, the RVRN willingly admit in their report, is not even the tip of the iceberg.

This is also clearly outlined in their findings published after six months of gathering data. There are ofcourse a number of difficulties one faces when gathering such data, including lack of cooperation by the police; lack of cooperation by migrants themselves due to fears of revealing their immigration status or scepticism of such initiatives having any immediate impact; severely understaffed, overworked NGOs charged with gathering data; that the data is geographically biased toward areas where the NGOs are operating; and finally that it can be tricky to prove that an attack is racially motivated.

Few cases are reported and even fewer reach the courts, and as such there are neither police nor court records of racist violence. The solidness of the data gathered by the RVRN is both a strength and weakness. Since it is aimed as an advocacy tool, the data needs to be irrefutable. And yet this is also what severely limits the amount, breadth and scope of what is recorded while relegating the field of action to reforming police behaviour and government policies.

Appreciating that comprehensive verified data will not be possible then, the aim of the mapping project will in part be to demonstrate the difference between the number of verifiable cases and the number of cases otherwise known but not verifiable. These numbers will therefore act as an indication which will hopefully highlight the relative invisibility of racist violence in official records. So before going into detail about the aims and methods of the mapping project it is worth discussing some of the reasons, methods and potential effects of visualising racist violence.

Invisibility and visibility

Two issues are worth considering in this instance: real threats to and interests of migrants; and the effect that visualisations invoke in the viewer. Where reporting a violent attack is more likely to end with your own arrest than an investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators, invisibility may very well be a first defence against deportation, further abuse and, in the case of Greece, being stuck in one of the most punitive asylum and immigration systems in Europe.

When speaking with migrants and reading interviews and stories published in media, it is quickly apparent that for many migrants, public spaces in Athens are like that of a war zone. And much like in a war zone it is safest to remain invisible to the enemy – the police and neo-fascist groups as well as the suspicious gaze of ‘the mobs’. For these reasons many migrants avoid public spaces, leaving their home only for the most necessary of tasks. Since invisibility is a sensitive and varying condition for the individual migrant depending on legal status, the question when thinking of mapping racist violence is what exactly needs to be made visible and what is best to keep invisible, how should visibility be presented, and what might be the reaction to such visual representations.

Images of tragedy

To begin with the last question: as with images of ecological devastation and war, the projection of images of bloodied migrants and bodies found on beaches may initially invoke outrage, then desperation, then apathy at the growing immensity of the problem. In a manner similar to theatrical tragedies, while one initially identifies with the protagonist, the audience soon becomes the silent witnesses to the tragedy, in this case the tragedy of death and suffering on the borders of Europe. The risk of overwhelming numbers or repetitious images of suffering is that they inspire fear and paralysis, and in the end distance and apathy, rather than affinity and action.

This fate, not being “ours”, becomes one that belongs to “others”, and in this case an other which is overwhelmingly racially defined. In tragic theatre there is typically a point in which the protagonist makes the fatal decision to counter the divine order of things, subsequently triggering the fall from grace, the tragic event. When refugees, through their mere presence, challenge the nationalist order of geographical belonging, suffering is often subtly hinted at as an implicit aspect of their condition. And so the feeling in Greece has turned from pity and apathy to outright resentment at the migrants for their questioning of such belonging by merely existing. Reproducing images of suffering by a particular people risks identifying that condition with racial categories, thereby isolating, naturalising, and forming a distance from it. Suffering becomes part of what is understood as the condition of being a refugee.

The mapping project

The question remains what should be made visible and what is best to leave invisible, and how this will be done. These questions cannot be anticipated as the project will only prove itself in practice. However a brief outline of the intention is as follows:

The main contribution of the mapping is understood to be the provision of real-time information. Being constantly updated, it can be an on-going reference point where an outline of the quantity and scale of attacks, their location and severity can be grasped in a glance. Because government advocacy is not the main intention of this project, it is less important that data is gathered in a standardised and verified format.

The map will therefore distinguish between, but still include information submitted by individuals, witnesses, media and independent media – in some instances also incidents that are not fully verified. Given the complexity of the legal status and story of each migrant their individual identities will remain hidden unless they has already been publicised elsewhere or the person wish to publish their identity themselves. This of course also counts for anyone else that might risk police persecution or fascist violence. The aim is to make the map as accessible as possible to groups or people wishing to contribute information about incidents and to use it as a tool for anti-fascist work, while keeping it as secure as possible.

[1] One of the worst known cases of torture recently is the story of Walid, an Egyptian worker on the island of Salamina. Hear his story here.

[2] Entire conversation between “Adam” and the police from the 11414 line, translation from Greek, from an article written by Dimitris Angelidis, originally published by Efimerida ton Syntakton (EFSYN), in English - Newspaper of the Journalists.

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