The asylum

By Harry van Versendaal

In “Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos’s much-applauded last film, three walled-off kids are subjected to the perverted language games of their uber-controlling parents: hence a large armchair is “the sea,” a lamp is a “white bird,” a cat is “a life-threatening animal.”

Greeks, of course, are no strangers to linguistic abuse. “University asylum,” a law that bans police from campuses so as to safeguard “the free dissemination of ideas,” has started to feel much like the opposite.

Professors and students are regularly bullied and physically abused by groups of non-students, ranging from self-styled anarchists to ultra-leftists. Threats and destruction of public property are often accompanied by beatings. University-owned buildings are occupied by outsiders who use them for private purposes such as hosting publishing centers, radio stations and websites like the “bourgeois”-bashing Indymedia network. During clashes with the police, protesters use the premises to regroup and to renew their supplies of petrol bombs before getting back to the streets. Although some education is involved in all of that, it surely is not of the sort the lawmakers had in mind.

The asylum law was established in the early 1980s by the late Andreas Papandreou’s socialist PASOK in a bid to forestall a repeat of the army raid that crushed the Athens Polytechnic uprising against the military junta in November 1973. The uprising is a watershed moment in Greece’s modern political history and many politicians have, often unscrupulously, capitalized on their part in it. Politics here is still much about managing symbols.

Hence it’s easy to see how the ongoing debate about whether to scrap asylum legislation has become a symbolic battlefield in a war that exceeds the old-style left-right divisions. The rampage following the police shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the pock-marked Exarchia district last December caused cracks on the left between the motley crew of banner-waving radicals and the more sober elements who were put off by the orgy of vandalism and violence. Hundreds of cars were torched and shops destroyed or looted in the riots that cost some 100 million euros in damages as the conservative government ordered riot policemen to keep their batons sheathed for fear of justifying its right-wing bogeyman profile.

The riots exposed the cynicism but also the divisions and ideological confusion of the Greek left, as reactions ranged from delight and schadenfreude to sadness and despair. Voters eventually punished those who sought to exploit the backlash, none more so than SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras, whose reluctance to clearly condemn the violence quickly transformed him from socialist wunderkind to villain. His party, a coalition of radical left-wing factions, was seriously damaged in the elections that followed. Mainstream voters, once charmed by his ostensibly maverick style, did not like what they saw on their television screens.

The uncomfortable truth is that leftist activists are increasingly flirting with violence, prompting further soul-searching among their nonmilitant fellows. A number of professors, writers and journalists have over the past year been attacked on campuses and in bookshops, also in the ostensibly pluralist Exarchia. Even Soti Triantafillou, a self-described leftist author who lives in the area, was recently harassed during a book presentation by a group of men who threw eggs at her for being “a capitalist lackey.” The assailants warned Triantafillou, who has in the past received threats against her life, that she is a persona non grata in that part of town.

Decades of anti-rightist reflexes ensure that any move on university asylum will not go down easily. Even mild measures that go without saying in foreign institutions, like the introduction of university security guards and identity cards for students proposed by the Athens Law School last week, have met here with opposition from students – even those belonging to the New Democracy-affiliated group. Such ideological paradoxes expose vested interests that escape left-right dichotomies.

Critics of the asylum law claim it is a meaningless safeguard – and they are right. Any dictatorship’s first move would be to do away with the Constitution and, in that sense, it’s true that the asylum law does not carry much weight on a practical level. But symbols can have real power over people’s behavior. Green-lighting police patrols inside campuses risks causing more problems than it would solve. After all, scrapping university asylum altogether because you can’t stop a bunch of so called anti-establishment youths from using it as a base is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The law allows prosecutors to intervene when a felony is committed – but the police has only rarely, and only too late, taken action inside the premises despite the extensive wrongdoing. Anyone who lives in this country knows that keeping the law in place while preventing its abuse is a matter of political will. Ironically, this time the hot potato is in socialist hands. Perhaps it’s better that way. It took a socialist public order minister, the deft-handed Michalis Chrysochoidis, to launch a tough crackdown on troublemakers in order to prevent a repeat of the havoc on the anniversary of Grigoropoulos’s death.

Chrysochoidis, the man behind the dismantling of local terrorist group November 17, knows that, once again, much will depend on public consent. And as the 2002 terrorist crackdown showed, there is no better way of gaining this than by stripping wrongdoers of their heroic aura. The government will only manage to clean up the mess when the public comes to see university asylum for what it has been reduced to: an excuse for real, not theoretical, anarchy.

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