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29
Mar2013

Mapping new terrains of racist violence

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[1] (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 of investigating the attacks. Bearing in mind these conditions and the ongoing stream of horror stories that emerge in the Greek media of migrants being attacked and tortured[2], a few things become apparent: that understanding and communicating the actual extent of the issue 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 and failures to do similar things before, yet each failure has nevertheless revealed new important details about the rise of fascist violence in Greece, drawing connections to the extent of far right wing support amongst the police, local employment relations, legacies from the Greek dictatorship, national and European immigration policies, austerity and international conflict, particularly with the wars in Syria as well as most of North Africa and Afghanistan. In other words, this issue is not merely a national one but has ties and relevance far beyond the 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[3]. 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 who for example 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 talking to people in the city makes it clear that attacks, in fact, are a near-daily occurrence. The figure, the RVRN willingly admit in their report, is not even the tip of an iceberg. This is also clearly outlined in their findings published after six months of gathering data. The obstacles experienced include lack of cooperation or outright hindrance by the police; the fact that many migrants are afraid of giving information because of their immigration status, or unwilling due to scepticism that it will improve their immediate situation; that the NGOs gathering the data are underfunded and overworked and the recording is an extra task that they don’t always have the time and capacity to do; that the data is geographically biased as it is dependent on the areas where the NGOs are operating; and finally that it can be tricky to prove that an attack is racially motivated when there are neither police records of racist violence nor court records, since hardly any cases make it that far. 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. 

Starting from the assumption, then, that comprehensive verified data will not be possible 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 only be an indication but will hopefully highlight the relative invisibility of the problem in terms of reactions despite its actual widespread visibility through media representation. 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

There are two main issues to consider in this instance: the real threats to and interests of the 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 becomes the first defence against deportation, abuse, arrest, attacks and, in the case of Greece, against being stuck in one of the worst asylum and immigration systems in Europe. The sense that remains after speaking to migrants and reading interviews and stories published in media is that the experiences of public spaces in the city of Athens are like that of a war zone. And like 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’ [4]. For these reasons many migrants avoid public spaces, leaving their home only for the most necessary of task, while at the same time trying to avoid contact with official bodies. Since invisibility is a sensitive and varying condition for the individual migrant depending on legal status, the question is what needs to be made visible and what is best to keep invisible, how should these visualisations take place and finally, what visual representations might subtly invoke in terms of action, or inaction.

 

Images of tragedy

To begin with the last question: as with images of ecological devastation and war, the repeated pictures of bloody attacks on migrants and bodies found on the beaches of Greek islands may initially invoke outrage, then desperation, then apathy at the growing immensity of the problem. These images of suffering are the outcome of an order that is seemingly beyond our reach, larger than our capacity to act. In a manner similar to theatrical tragedies, these representations inspire pity for the fate of others and an underlying fear of falling into the same one. While the theatre style of tragedy initially produces identification with the main character, it then sweeps away the emotions of pity and fear creating a distancing to the event through a “catharsis”: in the knowledge that this fate is not ours we turn our backs to it. The audience 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”, in this case an Other that is often racially defined. In tragic theatre at one point the lead character makes a decision that is counter to a divine will or order 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 even trying to cross. This is also evident in the treatment at border controls and in detention centres across most of Europe, vilification of asylum-seekers in right wing media and especially in the idiosyncrasies of the European asylum system. As an example: while Germany and Sweden[5] are the two main countries currently granting asylum to Syrian refugees, nevertheless, as a consequence of geography, Syrian refugees usually arrive to Europe via Greece from which they have to find ways of travelling unseen across much of the continent, hiding in the back of trucks or smuggling themselves on board air-planes in order to reach the few European countries that welcome them. Instead of being able to apply at embassies when they arrive in Europe, geography becomes a bloody filter for the increasing numbers as many fail in the journey, go through extreme suffering or die in the attempt. 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 being a refugee.

Some of this is carried over to the ways in which the knowledge of fascist violence in Greece is received in the rest of Europe. The representation of the crisis, the anti-austerity riots and fascist violence have become commonplace in international media and begin to feed into a representation of Greece as an all-in-all more barbaric society where the condition of crisis has become normalised, riots and fascist attacks become an everyday occurrence. Greece emerges as a barbaric Other on both an economic and social front. The international community (sic) has levelled condemnation and collective disciplining on a national level, some discipline taking an explicit form in the case of economic policy, and implicit in the social and cultural fields. Aiming these disciplinary mechanisms at a national level has in turn produced responses invoking “the nation”. In the extreme right this has taken place most visibly on a cultural and social level through nationalist welfare media stunts and through violence against migrants. For parts of the left this has taken place through a return to nationalist economics.

 

The mapping project

These are some overall considerations of the effects of stereotypical representation of suffering and violence that risk espousing inaction through apathy or self-justification, or action as a nationalist defence against variations of international conspiracy. Having made these clear, 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 ongoing 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] http://www.unhcr.gr/1againstracism/racist-violence-recording-network-findings/

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[2] 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: http://international.radiobubble.gr/2012/11/walid-story.html

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[3] Entire conversation between “Adam” and the police from the 11414 line, translation from Greek, from an article written by Dimitris Angelidis, originally published by EFSYN  (http://www.efsyn.gr/?p=23188) Efimerida ton Syntakton, in English - Newspaper of the Journalists.

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[4] Cf. http://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2012/11/03/athens-angry-mob-destroys-migrants-shops-one-migrant-stabbed/ and http://bloko.gr/diafora/syllhpseis-kai-prosagwges-se-epeisodia-ston-agio-pantelehmona.html

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[5] http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/04/us-syria-europe-refugees-idUSBRE8820NR20120904

and statements from Sweden: http://www.migrationsverket.se/info/5833_en.html

and Germany: http://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/germany-offers-take-5000-more-syrian-refugees

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