Protesters hold a giant banner during a silent march through the streets… (Kostas Tsironis / Associated…)
ATHENS — Hundreds of Greeks and activists from 19 other European countries took to the streets of Athens on Saturday in protest against a far-right party that critics fear could feed extremism across the continent.
The rally against Golden Dawn, viewed by many as one of the more dangerous groups of reactionaries in Europe, comes amid reports of increased vigilantism and attacks on migrants waged by its members and supporters since the party catapulted onto Greece’s tumultuous political landscape in June, winning 18 seats in the nation’s 300-member parliament.
Backed by scores of civil rights groups, anti-racist movements and imposing intellectuals, including Nobel laureates Dario Fo and Bernard Kouchner, organizers took to the streets, leading a silent yet symbolic march from the nation’s legislature to the Acropolis – one emblem of democracy to another – in what they called “a wake-up call” not only for the Greece, but other European nations facing rising tides of far-right extremism.
“We’re not denying the fact that Golden Dawn was elected to parliament. Nor do we aspire to physically oust them from the chambers of democracy,” said Benjamin Abtan, the chief organizer and president of the European Grassroot Antiracist Movement. “But Greeks have to realize that they are neo-Nazis and that their success story will whet the appetite of other far-right extremists in Europe. Racism, anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism are growing without any strong and determined mobilizations from the democrats.”
Despite weeks of planning, Saturday’s demonstration drew not only slim crowds but interference from a police force widely viewed as including some Golden Dawn sympathizers.
Five activists – four French and one Greek national – were detained while trying to enter the grounds of the Acropolis to unfurl a giant protest banner. All were eventually released. The banner, which read “Europe against anti-Nazism,” was propped outside parliament instead.
Founded in 1985 on the orders of a former Greek military junta leader, Golden Dawn began as a small disorganized far-right group with no democratic ambition but emerged from political obscurity to capture 7% of the vote in June.
With 80% of Asian and African migrants sneaking into Europe through Greece’s porous frontiers, the party capitalized on anti-immigration sentiment and played on the fears of an enemy within: over 1 million legal and undocumented migrants competing with Greeks for jobs, housing and social support in an economy on the brink of collapse. Rising crime rates also pushed many disillusioned Greeks to its side.
At least four of its 18 elected lawmakers face criminal investigations for allegedly aiding and abetting anti-immigrant attacks, according to authorities in Athens. The party vehemently denies the accusations.
“We’re not cannibals here at Golden Dawn,” said party spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris.
“Nor do we suck the blood of foreigners,” he added, fiddling with a key chain that features a replica of a Bereta handgun. “We are Greek patriots, true nationalists and we practice what we preach: a Greece for Greeks only.”
Such racist rhetoric forced Facebook last month to strip the party’s page and those of its lawmakers from its site. In recent weeks, members of the government have moved to outlaw the party whose core beliefs mix the ideas of Adolf Hitler with a nostalgia for ancient Greek culture.
Even so, such moves have done little to tarnish Golden Dawn's reputation as a far-right political success story. In fact, its chivalric and military images are gaining appeal.
A nationwide opinion poll published Wednesday showed support for the party increasing to about 10% since the June elections, overtaking the socialist PASOK party and now ranking in third place.
“We are consolidating our support as other parties crumble,” Kassidiaris told The Times. “Let them have their march. Let them say whatever they want. We know we are in the hearts of the people. And we are here to stay.”