29 Sep 2013

Swastikas but no faces please – Golden Dawn in crisis

Following the arrest of Golden Dawn’s leader yesterday Paul Mason visits the party’s HQ in Greece and finds the party faithful defiant but disorientated.

The sun is shining and, for the Golden Dawn guys clustered around the door to the party’s HQ, this is the weather to get your deltoid muscles out.

They’re all wearing black vests or t-shirts: some with the party’s swastika-like logo, others with a popular sportswear brand called Pit Bull. Popular with Golden Dawn, that is.

But it’s no ordinary Sunday. Last night much of the party’s leadership were arrested and indicted for organised crime. The 32-point charge sheet includes murder, extortion, possession of unlicensed weapons and – chillingly – involvement in the disappearance of up to 100 migrants, presumed dead. The crackdown was triggered by the murder of left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas: the man charged is a Golden Dawn activist.

Overnight they were taken to court and charged, emerging defiant. “Enjoy your bailout!” Ilias Panagiotaros (pictured right) told waiting cameras. Last year he told me there should be “civil war” in Greece – pitting the far right against the left and the migrants.

His shop, back then, was selling uniforms to the police and armed forces, as well as the usual paraphernalia of military fantasy – balaclavas and combat gloves. Now he himself is flanked by anti-terror cops, armed with automatic weapons and wearing the self-same balaclavas and combat gloves.

Which leaves the guys at Golden Dawn HQ disoriented. This is not a leader cult but it does have a classic militarised command structure: cells, commanders, orders, discipline.

However that structure is now decapitated and seemingly uncoordinated. Another Golden Dawn lawmaker Christos Pappas surrended himself to the authorities this morning.

The leftists will come to our homes if you show our faces Golden Dawn members

I turned up outside the HQ, in an Athens suburb, and asked to speak to somebody about their response to the charges. Inside the doorway were four or five men in black t-shirts: there are crash helmets on hand, together with hefty flagpoles. But they didn’t want to speak.

Eventually one told me, off camera: “This crackdown is happening because we are growing so fast. We have 20 per cent in the polls and so they had to stop us. It’s nothing to do with the murder.”

The demographic of the people arriving is pretty similar: the black uniforms, shaved heads, Aviator sunglasses and gothic tattoos give them a strong group identity.

What they’re not so keen on is their individual identity. “Don’t film our faces” they shout. I ask why not – since they are happy to wear in-your-face violent imagery on their t-shirts, why should their faces not be filmed? Someone thrusts a crash helmet into the camera lens and others try to calm him down.

“The leftists will come to our homes if you show our faces,” they shout.

Eventually it subsides. Two weeks ago I would have been a lot more apprehensive around these guys but they are almost physically crestfallen. They cling to the hope that their leaders will be freed by the courts, or that people will rise up in their support.

If neither of these things happens, human rights groups fear the hardcore activists will stage some kind of provocation: the leader’s daughter has already called for people to be prepared for the “ultimate sacrifice”.

The leader’s daughter told supporters:

“I wonder if you are prepared to die for what you believe in, without honour or glory?”

But with every hour that passes peacefully, it becomes possible that the Greek government’s gamble will come off. They had to sack two police chiefs, two intelligence chiefs, and re-assign eight key police commanders to get here. But if it works – and the party is effectively destroyed by criminal charges – it creates a new dynamic.

Much of the tension in Athens over the past year has come from Golden Dawn’s unofficial mastery of certain squares and districts – and the alleged blind eye turned by police. That tension has conditioned the responses of all mainstream political parties, and even the media, who’ve given up trying to film in tension spots.

But I can feel this changing.

The stakes for “normal” politics were already massive: how and when the Greek economy can escape austerity.

If those questions can now be decided without the constant menace of the muscle men then effectively we’re in a new political phase here.