‘It Bears a Strong Resemblance to Lynching’: The Greek Arts Community Protests the Death of LGBTQ Activist Zak Kostopoulos

Artists and activists are taking a stand against growing violence against marginalized communities in Greece.

LGTBQ activist Zak Kostopoulos. Photo via Facebook.

Greece’s artistic community has taken to the streets to protest crimes against minorities following the death of LGBTQ activist and drag performer Zak Kostopoulos in Athens on September 21. Demonstrators gathered—hundreds or thousands, depending on the estimates—for a rally in Athens to protest the police’s handling of Kostopoulos’s death, while 40 people who were involved with last year’s documenta sent an open letter to Greek officials likening the tragedy to a lynching.

Kostopoulos, who was 33, can be seen in a video attempting to escape from a locked jewelry store as two men beat him. Additional footage shows police taking him, limp and bloody, from the scene in handcuffs. He died on the way to the hospital. Coroners have so far refused to rule conclusively on the cause of death.

“What we are fighting for is to not allow the cover up of the circumstances of his death, which is being attempted,” artist Andreas Angelidakis, who first brought the incident to documenta’s attention, told artnet News. (The most recent edition of the quinquennial exhibition took place in both Athens and Kassel, Germany.)

Local news reports initially claimed that Kostopoulos had been attempting to rob the jewelry store with a knife, but video footage shows a police officer holding a knife. “At the beginning he was labeled a robber, but then a video surfaced showing two policemen holding the knife which he allegedly used. Later it was proven that the knife did not carry Kostopoulos’s fingerprints, and was just being planted on the scene,” Angelidakis said.

An LGTBQ activist on Facebook, Gregory Vallianatos, claims that Kostopoulos entered the jewelry store in order to get away from a group of men who had been fighting and threatening him.

LGTBQ activist Zak Kostopoulos in costume as “Zackie Oh.” Photo via Facebook.

LGTBQ activist Zak Kostopoulos in costume as “Zackie Oh.” Photo via Facebook.

“The police did not question anybody at the scene, and did not call any witnesses,” Angelidakis added. “The two men who initially lynched him have been set free, and the policemen who kicked him, and perhaps finished him off, have not been charged.”

“The violence of white straight males in Greece and the macho-ism is unprecedented,” added iLiana Fokianaki, founder and director of nonprofit art institution State of Concept Athens who joined the demonstrations, in an email to artnet News. “Discrimination against refugees, minorities, LGBTQI persons, and women is becoming all the more intense in Greek society.”

Kostopoulos, who was HIV positive, had been working to reduce stigma around the disease and was part of the activist group Positive Voice. He also performed in drag under the name “Zackie Oh.”

“His life was far from easy,” his friend, journalist Christina Michalou, told PinkNews. “Many times people would not shake his hand or would even avoid being in the same room with him because they thought they could get AIDS by breathing the same air or touching him. We always admired him for his strength.”

documenta’s open letter was sent to Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, and Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister. In light of the “increasing number of cases of violence targeting minorities and underprivileged members of society in Greece,” the letter urges the government “to take an unequivocal position against violence” and make sure “all involved perpetrators are brought to justice.”

The signatories include documenta 14’s artistic director Adam Szymczyk, former Documenta CEO Annette Kulenkampff, artists Hans Haacke, Cecilia Vicuña, Hiwa K, Ibrahim Mahama, Maria Eichhorn, Tracey Rose, and Vivian Suter.

Read the full letter below.

Concerned with increasing number of cases of violence targeting minorities and underprivileged members of society in Greece, and the corresponding brutalization of public discourse, the undersigned artists and organizers of documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel feel obliged to call for justice again—and now with regard to the most recent, shocking events that took place last Friday, September 21, in Athens.

A 33-year-old LGBTQI activist and drag performer Zak Kostopoulos was savagely beaten up by several men in the centre of Athens, while others stood around, watching in complicity. The ensuing police intervention was recorded on videos, now available on internet. That intervention was similarly brutal and exclusively aimed at restraining Zak Kostopoulos, and not on capturing the perpetrators. With multiple injuries, Kostopoulos died on the way to hospital. The circumstances of the attack are now a subject of investigation and some of the suspects were detained, then released. Yet, aside of the legal process that was set in motion, it is crucial to understand and expose the larger fascist mindset that propels such incidents and renders them as socially acceptable acts of retribution.

On June 04, 2018, the participants of documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel—artists, organizers and curators—issued an open letter of solidarity addressed to Yiannis Boutaris, the Mayor of Thessaloniki, who was assaulted by right-wing mob during a public celebration in Thessaloniki on May 19, 2018. The attack became symbolic of the divide between the open-minded, overall progressive policy on gender and ethnic minority issues, implemented by Mayor Boutaris during his two terms as the Mayor of Thessaloniki, and the firmly authoritarian, ressentiment-driven stance of his hate-mongering enemies.

It is certainly not coincidental that one of the perpetrators of the Athens attack had previously published, via Twitter, a vulgar and aggressive statement pasted on photograph of Mayor Boutaris helped by his aides during the Thessaloniki attack in May:“This is what the traitor looks like when the Pontians f*** [expletive] him. Those like him will end up like him. Beware.”

These words became reality just months later, on September 21, when their author was among those who physically assaulted Zak Kostopoulos.

The public killing of Zak Kostopoulos bears strong resemblance to lynching. In order for the currently expanding culture of violence not to prevail, in Greece and elsewhere,“society must be defended”—the title of Michel Foucault’s 1975-76 Collège de France lectures is more than pertinent today. It is in this spirit, and in the wake of Zak Kostopoulos’s death, that we would like to urge you, as the Mayor of Athens, to take an unequivocal position against violence. In our letter of solidarity with Mayor Boutaris on June 04, we quoted the African American theologian and freedom fighter Martin Luther King Jr., who said,“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

With this sense of common urgency, we ask your office for a clear public statement, and to ensure that the legal process is open and transparent until all involved perpetrators are brought to justice.

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