In a prison hospital in Athens, Greece, a man named Dimitris Koufontinas lies unconscious most of the time. Almost a month into a water-only hunger strike, one of his tremendously weakened organs could fail, and he could die at any moment.
As always, there’s a lot happening in the world. Ongoing wars between countries, civil wars within them and threats of war elsewhere; at least one full-blown famine; dramatically growing rates of poverty and hunger all over the place; attempted coups in some countries and successful coups in others, various national elections, multiple assassinations of political activists and journalists — all just in January alone.
And even if the winter of 2021 were not quite so eventful, Greece is far away for most people in the world. Recent Greek history, even more distant. Which always seems especially unjust being here in the United States of Amnesia, the most forgetful place on Earth, because as with so much of the world, the modern history of the US is inextricably tied up with the modern history of Greece, from the massacre that gave rise to 17N, to the fact that members of this long-disbanded armed group are being singled out for persecution in Greek prisons today.
Dimitris Koufontinas has written two books while in prison, one of which is out of print. The other looks like it can be found in hardback form in both Greek and German, but not in English. But what seems to come up most, whether you search in English, German, or Greek, if you look for the name Dimitris Koufontinas or the November 17 Group, are statements in support or in opposition, with a little tiny bit of space for some kind of objective journalism in between. Prominent among the statements against, say, releasing disabled former 17N prisoners on humanitarian grounds, are tweets from the US State Department condemning any leniency against those they call terrorists.
Of course, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and this reality couldn’t be more true of Dimitris Koufontinas.
What is especially remarkable to me, as I was brushing up on recent Greek history in preparation for writing both a song on the subject (“November 17”) and this piece, is that even the counter-terrorism state department types writing their entries keeping track of their various nemeses around the world readily acknowledge that the origins of 17N stemmed from the massacre carried out by forces of the Greek military junta at the campus of Athens Polytechnic University on November 17th, 1973.
This massacre gave rise to 17N in much the same way as the re-formation of an armed resistance movement in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s was a direct consequence of what became known as Bloody Sunday, or the Bogside Massacre, carried out by British Army in 1972. As in Ireland, the drowning in blood of peaceful protesters, among other events, caused some people to resort to responding with violence in kind.
Support for the Greek military junta, and for the violent suppression of left and anarchist movements in Greece in the decades following the Second World War, was a key component of US and British foreign policy in southern Europe, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with concurrent events in Chile, Vietnam and elsewhere at the time. Along with the head of the Greek riot police, one of the first people to be assassinated by 17N was the CIA station chief for southeastern Europe — and he was not the only US citizen killed during the armed struggle.
After the restoration of democracy in Greece, class conflict there did not disappear, and neither did the immense influence of oppressive institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Huge left and anarchist movements in Greece continued to be violently repressed by armies of police, many of whom who held, and continue to hold, a fascist worldview.
But as with many other parts of the world, by the end of the twentieth century, for a wide variety of reasons, many armed resistance movements were disbanding, and in 2002, 17N became another to do that.
Dimitris Koufontinas — 17N chief of operations or “terrorist mastermind,” depending on which press releases you read — turned himself in, and has been in prison ever since. Under the previous government in Greece, although in prison, his conditions of imprisonment were relatively humane, and even improving. With the rise since 2019 of the New Democracy Party in Greece, however, with relatives of 17N victims now once again in prominent positions of political power, laws have been passed specifically to target this one man for treatment that amounts to torture.
On January 10th, Dimitris Koufontinas stopped eating. He’ll likely die soon, and when he does, maybe you’ll see something flash across the screen, and he’ll get his 15 seconds of fame, outside of Greece, with an AP story and a BBC report. And when you see this story, you should know that it did not begin with any of the assassinations, bombings or other actions this man may or may not have carried out, regardless of what they say on the screen.
It began on November 17th, 1973.