Burning €20 notes, the photo of a young man, and a sea of despairing faces: Dozens of Roma are demonstrating outside a courthouse in Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. Christmas is coming, but no one here is in the mood for celebrating. Once again, a member of the Roma community has been killed during a police operation. And once again, it would appear that the political consequences will be minimal.
Kostas Fragoulis was just 16 years old when he was seriously injured after being shot by a police officer on December 5. He died of his injuries in hospital a few days later. Kostas put €20 ($21) worth of gas in his car at a gas station in western Thessaloniki and drove away without paying. Police officers who happened to be at the station at the time pursued him by motorcycle. During the ensuing chase, one of the officers shot Kostas in the head.
Since Kostas’ death, Roma have been demonstrating against police violence in cities across the country. Several left-wing groups have joined the Roma minority’s protests.
Just a few weeks previously, on December 6, much larger crowds had taken to the streets in Greece. They did so in memory of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigopoulos, who was killed by a bullet from a police gun during a demonstration in 2008. The anniversary of his death has become a kind of unofficial day of protest in Greece against police violence. Anger about the death of a Greek who is not a member of the Roma community would seem to be much more widespread.
‘Could they not have shot at his tires?’
“Did they really have to kill Kostas for a measly €20?” asks Angeliki, shaking her head. “Other people who are not Roma steal too, but they don’t get killed for it.” Angeliki is in her mid-fifties. She is sitting with her adult son beside a small stove in a shack that has been cobbled together from wood and plastic.
Here, just an hour’s drive west of the Greek capital, Athens, hundreds of Roma live in an improvised camp. The people here earn a living as waste pickers or day laborers. There is no electricity or running water.
Although the freezing wind sweeps in from the sea and lashes against the thin walls of Angeliki’s shack, it is relatively warm inside. “They shot Nikos a year ago,” she says. “Did they really have to point a gun at him? Could they not have just shot at his tires?”
Police fired over 30 bullets
Nikos Sabani used to lived only a few shacks away from Angeliki’s home. Had he lived, he would have been 19 years old now. But he was killed in a frenetic police chase in October 2021. The seven officers pursuing him fired off 30 bullets. They assumed that Nikos and the minor who was driving had stolen the car they were in.
Nikos’ father Jannis now looks after his son’s widow and children. “Just recently, my wife and I were stopped by the police while we were searching for scrap at the side of the road. He asked me my name and when I told him, he realized who my son was. He told me that Nikos deserved not just 38 bullets but 108 bullets,” he recalls angrily.
Police officer no longer in custody
Jannis Mantzas is sitting in a café in Evosmos, a district of Thessaloniki. The 45-year-old looks weary. Since Kostas was shot, Mantzas, who works as a research associate at the Panhellenic Association of Greek Roma, has been on the go non stop: First there were the protests, then meetings, interviews, the funeral and the first court hearing.
“The police officer who shot Kostas has been released,” says Mantzas incredulously. He goes on to say that the officer’s movements will be restricted until the trial: “He’s not allowed to leave the country. That’s all!” The indignation is written all over his face.
‘We want justice’
The court’s decision not to remand the officer in custody has further fueled the anger felt by the Roma community. Mantzas explains that it is above all in times like these that people stand together. All across Greece, people are supporting the victim’s family and collecting money to pay the lawyers’ fees.
People don’t want revenge or violence, he says, “we want justice.” But more than anything else, they don’t want any more victims of excessive police violence.
Accusations of structural racism in the police force
Mantzas bemoans the fact that the chase during which Kostas was fatally injured was not only disproportionate, but entirely unnecessary: “The gas station attendant knew Kostas, his father and the car. He would have got his money.” The boy didn’t flee because he didn’t want to pay for the gas, he continues, he fled because he didn’t have a driving license. It was, he adds, a knee-jerk reaction by a 16-year old from a socially disadvantaged area.
Mantzas is certain that the police would have reacted differently if Kostas had been a “white Greek.” “It was a racist crime,” he says, adding, “it’s high time the police got better training.”
Government did not act on proposals
After the killing of Nikos Sabani, the Panhellenic Association of Greek Roma wrote to the government, proposing a number of measures that could help improve the tense relations between the police and the Roma minority.
“We were told that they would study the proposals and then make a decision,” says Mantzas. “A year has passed and nothing has happened. Now, another person is dead.”
Anti-Roma attitudes in Greek society
Giorgia Fassou is 53 years old and comes from Kalamata in southern Greece. As far as she is concerned, it is first and foremost a societal problem. The retired journalist has for many years been fighting for the rights of Roma and for an end to their stigmatization in Greece.
She points out that over 10,000 Roma in Greece — Greek citizens — live in camps without electricity or running water. “The majority of Greeks know nothing about this. As far as they are concerned, Roma are second-class citizens,” says Fassou.
Politicians do more to foster this attitude than to counter it. When Nikos Sabani was shot last year, Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis congratulated the police officers by Twitter: “It is absolutely obvious that the police officers did their job well and protected both their lives and society by defending themselves. Bravo,” wrote the minister.
This article was originally published in German.