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Children of the revolution

A protester threatens a riot policeman with a water pistol during a demonstration in front of the police headquarters of Athens, December 15th 2008. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP
When a 15-year-old schoolboy was shot in Athens in December, it triggered the worst civil unrest in Europe since 1968. Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith join the frontline activists to talk anarchic protest, political upheaval and police brutality[print_link]

Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith
The Observer, Sunday 22 February 2009

A heavy chain binds the iron gates of the philosophy faculty of the university of Athens, the city where the notions of philosophy and of university were invented in the shadow of the Acropolis. But this does not mean that the building is empty, or that there is not effervescent discourse in progress; quite the reverse, the place is teeming with people and ideas. It has been – as have thousands of colleges, schools, city halls, offices and every other kind of building across Greece – occupied. Put under occupation by, in this case, the students. So that the walls, inside and out, like every wall in Athens, are lined with the slogans of the insurrection which propelled the most tumultuous and prolonged riots in a European city since 1968, after the killing by police of a 15-year-old, Alexis Grigoropoulos, as he chatted with friends on a street corner on 6 December 2008.

Many of the axioms are reminiscent of 1968, blending humour and mischief: “Merry Crisis and a happy New Fear” and “Kill the cop inside you”. Others are merely enraged: “Fascist state, you are deaf – the gallows await you!” Others are relevant to the moment: “Billions for the banks, bullets for the children.” And one dismisses that era of revolt by their parents: “May ’68 is dead. Fight Now!”

Inside what is properly known as the Faculty of Philosophy, Psychology, Pedagogy, Music and Mathematics, students discuss the origins of the uprising, and its causes. They talk first about the “precarity” of their lives, and the fact that in Greece a quarter of those aged between 17 and 25 are unemployed. One student, Alexis, explains how for two years they have been occupying campuses all over Greece in protest against the government giving formal university status to private colleges (many of which have franchising agreements with British universities). Another student, Chariklia, says, “Half of all women who leave high school are out of work. What is the future for them and what does that say to the school kids who came on to the streets with us?” They talk about short-term contracts, “outsourcing”, work without security or representation, of the impossibility of finding a good job unless connected in a client system of patronage and who-you-know. Then the conversation becomes more general. “Society has the face of freedom and choice,” says Angeliki. “But that is all it is, a facade. This bad job or that bad job, this rubbish on television or that rubbish on television, this product or that product. We are rebelling against that false choice.” Time after time, students and activists pleaded with us not to make cliched references to Ancient Greece, but then a girl named Yianna said: “Don’t forget that in Greek myth, chaos was not disorder, it was a vacant space awaiting occupation. Chaos was the space into which the silver egg was laid which hatched Eros.” We laughed, because now that cliched reference is unavoidable, and a hint of the complexity and intelligence behind the chaos of December’s uprising, and the aftermath it has unleashed, is out in the open.

Much has been written about the ferocity of the attacks on shops, the destruction of property and its cost to the Greek economy and image (Athens has been less affected by criminal violence than any other capital in Europe). And more will be written in retrospect as it becomes clear that the uprising is not against anything that is uniquely Greek, but against postmodern society and a system of globalised capitalism. There were riots in support of the Greeks outside the country’s embassies as far away as Brazil, and as rioting now spreads to Bulgaria, Latvia, Iceland and Russia, the Greek uprising has been called “the first credit-crunch riot”. They are certainly the first riots against the “cult of greed” about which we hear so much these days. But, it emerges, they are also about much more than that.

In Greece, the insurgents have been given a collective name, the koukouloforoi – the hooded ones, because they hide their faces with balaclavas, gas masks, crash helmets and Palestinian keffiyehs to conceal their identity, but also as protection against the regular soakings with tear gas. But what if the violence of the koukouloforoi is not “mindless”, as Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis put it, but mindful? What if their contempt for society, politicians and consumerism has a lexicon that is not just revolutionary dogma? And, as the authorities in Bulgaria, Iceland and Latvia failed to ask before the riots came their way, and Britain has so far failed to ask: what if it happens here?

Alexis Grigoropoulos was shot dead at the corner of Messolongiou and Tzavela streets, but the signs above the shrine to the dead boy now call both thoroughfares Alexis Grigoropoulos Street. Football scarves, candles and flowers are laid at the spot, at which people linger in silence. There are thousands of messages and tributes. To quote a few of them is to articulate the mood: “Let beauty bloom from your blood”; “You hold your head up just enough to see the sky”; “And we go on, but we won’t go slow, we’ll put up such a fight. Keep your head high, kiss your fist, and touch the sky. It is not too late.”

The corner is in an alleyway of a quarter of Athens called Exarchia, described by visiting reporters as a “ghetto” of “self-styled anarchists”. As a neighbourhood, Exarchia is more complicated than that. It resembles the Lower East Side of Manhattan: a vortex of alternative culture, lifestyle and politics, but with more political edge, peppered by fancy bars and bistros, so that elegant, non-rioting couples might venture out for a daring date by crossing the triangular square – in which youths huddle around fires and where riot police patrol their quarry – in search of some nice gastro bar.

At the western edge of Exarchia is the polytechnic, where thousands flocked after Grigoropoulos was killed. Only fine art and architecture are taught on this campus now, students lurk in the shadows of recent history beneath graffiti reading “Kill the cops”. It’s a place that only weeks ago was an urban battlefield of burning cars and torched property. The smell of charred masonry still lingers in the air. In the district’s heart is the square around which the little streets are lined with bars, cafes and squats. Streets like Themistokleous, which climbs past sexy lingerie boutiques, cellar tavernas, a shop named Dark Cell Records and a bustling Saturday-morning fruit market to a place called Nosotros, from the balcony of which flies a red and black flag. It is the meeting place for some of those whose creed formed an iconic expression, if not a kernel, of the December uprising – anarchism.

Nosotros is a place of meetings, film screenings, endless political discourse and quite a few beers, where migrant workers can get free evening classes in the Greek language. It is here that Niko, a youth who works in a bookshop, draws the starting line for several nights of conversation: “When they killed Alexis, everyone felt it could have been any of us, so we made it all of us. The riots, then the uprising, went from there.”

One slogan still painted across the shops ravaged in central Athens during December says simply: “Buy until you die” – it is accompanied by the circled A of the anarchists. Niko has no problem discussing his reasons for smashing shop windows: “It was almost funny to see the faces of the people whose ‘right to shop’ we had deprived them of, like we had insulted their religion – which we had, I suppose.”

“Besides,” volunteers another man, joining the conversation, “smashing things up is not what matters. Above all, this revolt was an assertion of dignity and a statement of presence. Of all the slogans, our most important was, ‘We are here.'”

The second man, a carpenter, turns out to be a historic figure in the Greek anarchist movement. He comes from the town of Agrinio, which has a tradition of anarchism. Nikos Ioannou argues that while previous rebellions had been against a military junta (from 1967-1974), “There are similarities between then and now. The means of control have changed, and people enjoy a perception of freedom, but we would argue that the colonels were less powerful than a shopping mall, and in this way, Greece has turned another page in its history with this insurrection. Greece is a society in which individual rights were never established. This uprising has given people who were never part of our movement a new understanding of what it means to be who they are.”

The conversation continues deep into the night. We discuss the different traditions of and differences within anarchism, and a man called Tassos, branding himself an anarcho-syndicalist, describes his attempts to spread the energy of the uprising into his construction workers’ union. We also discuss the United Kingdom and why, according to Valia, a photographer, “You are not able to create the kind of uprising in your country that we have created here because the methods of control in your country are far more sophisticated and accomplished. And your people are more subservient.”

When we suggest to Ioannou that the anarchists lit the touchpaper in December, he replies: “Maybe, but the main ingredient was the school kids. Greek youth saw themselves in the face of this boy, and that is why school kids were the flour in the dough of the insurrection.” Not only that, but the school children, of whom Alexis Grigoropoulos was one, tend to be those most eager to give the insurgency political shape, although they had no previous political experience. One of those involved is Stefanos, aged 15, who has joined a demonstration to try and secure the release of those arrested during December. He notes the fact that they are to be charged under anti-terrorist legislation and says that: “Smashing things up may be a way to relax, but it isn’t going to change the future. I never expected to be involved in anything like that, and if they hadn’t shot a boy my age I probably wouldn’t be. But now that I have been I want it to make a difference, not to end there.”

The demonstration is attacked by the police, leaving our group trapped between a baton charge and a wall of tear gas, nasty stuff imported from Israel after Greek supplies ran out in December. That night, militants from the Black Block – a wing of the anarchist movement which counts large numbers of teenagers in its ranks – is arraigned outside an immigrant advice centre that they have occupied in order to defend migrants in their own way. The Black Block is to be found, usually masked, at the core of violent international demonstrations against G8 summits in Genoa and Prague. It does not usually talk to the media and in Athens tends not to hang around for a chat in Nosotros either.

The group is facing down columns of riot police who broke up their demo earlier that day and seem to be of a mind to seize back the migrant centre. It doesn’t happen, this street battle is no pushover for the police.

“When we last met up with those ones wearing blue,” says one of them, “down in Pireus, we had their shields and helmets flying all over the place.” The police have hardened their tactics of late, but they know that one more stray bullet, one more dead teenager, and Greece will have an all-out insurrection on its hands, with the Black Block – whose numbers in Greece far exceed those anywhere else except perhaps Italy – willing to fight it.

The speaker at the demonstration, a young woman we shall call M, who joins me across the road, knows England well and makes a salient point about Greece by reference to the UK. “We are at one extreme edge of Europe, but not really part of Europe, and you are at the opposite edge, but also not part of Europe. Here, an uprising, there… nothing. Though the violence is the same in your country, in fact it’s much worse. But you commit it against each other; knife crime, drunken fights and gangs. Here, we challenge the state and the banks, not each other. This is to do with consumption,” she continues. “In 1975, Greece was promised the benefits of capitalism, but never really got to sample them like you did. We never had the delusion of wealth for the masses, of mass consumerism, which is now causing your crisis, but which neutralises you in a way. Your violence is about consumption: alcohol, drugs, television and clubbing. But we’re not drunk or stoned, and we have just been tear-gassed on a demonstration, not in a nightclub. This is not a gang fight, it is a fight against the state.

“What we have had in Greece is a civil war that never goes away. I am young, from a left-wing family, and some of us who come from left families, educated but constantly persecuted, have grown up with political warfare, the police in our homes, the struggle in our lives. My family has suffered a political murder in every generation since the Nazi occupation.”

There is long, bitter and deep history behind this Greek uprising. Like other countries under Nazi occupation, a heroic resistance was fought in Greece, largely organised by communists. But in war’s wake, Greece became a pawn in the nascent Cold War. The resistance, which had fought alongside the British against Hitler, found themselves persecuted by a British-backed government. Britain, and later America, then took the side of the Royalists and the far right which had collaborated with the Nazis in a bloody civil war which defeated the left in 1949. A precarious attempt at a reform of authoritarian rule began with the election of George Papandreou’s centrist party in 1965, but was crushed by the “colonels’ coup” of 1967 – steered by the CIA.

In that history, one moment resounds loudly in the events of last December, a call to the streets as a legacy in itself: the student occupation of Athens’s polytechnic in November 1973, and its subsequent, brutal repression by the junta. The number killed when the colonels ordered tanks into the polytechnic campus, crashing through its gates, has never been ascertained, but no one disputes the fact that the highest casualties were among the 150,000 non-student civilians who had converged on the streets outside the occupied building in support of the occupation. The junta’s victory was brief, however, and the polytechnic occupation – which was itself the culmination of six years’ democratic opposition to the regime – was seen as the catalyst of its eventual downfall.

One of the most famous images of the days leading up to the 1973 occupation was the face, beaten to pulp, of Makis Balaouras. He is nowadays either to be found in the dusty offices of the weekly paper Epochi, with pictures of the Beatles and Che Guevara on walls otherwise lined with box files, or marching on the streets with his 19-year-old daughter, including one demonstration on which we were separated from him after a phalanx of riot police drenched all of us with tear gas.

His history with the police has left its mark. Balaouras looks wearier than his 56 years and talks – with a striking mix of gravity and good nature – about a “passing of the relay baton” between the uprising of 1973 and last December’s riots, “from one generation to another. The legacy of dissatisfaction is passed on in Greece by special circumstances. The crucial moment was after the war, when in other countries those who had fought the Nazis were hailed as heroes, while here the generation that liberated Greece was executed, exiled and imprisoned, and those who had collaborated with the Nazis were rewarded. This experience plays a role in what we see happening now.

“When it came to 1973,” he continues, “we wanted to get everyone, more than the students, involved. For that, I was arrested many times, beaten, tortured and, after the occupation, jailed in solitary confinement for three months. A friend of mine called Moustakis was tortured so badly they had turned him into a vegetable by the time he died.”

Balaouras pauses and then adds: “And all the while, your hippies were coming to the beaches as if Greece was a playground [that would be people like Leonard Cohen and the character played by Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!], even though one of our demands was that they stay away! But these have been grandiose battles that we have fought here, the struggle in Greece has a magnitude to it, a tradition of resistance spawned of that magnitude, which we see resurrected today.”

But not all veterans of 1973 are sympathetic to the December uprising. One leading member of the polytechnic occupation was Dimitris Hadzisokratis, who now leads a left-wing parliamentary group wary of the current insurgency, as are the powerful Communist Party, whose views his alliance shares. He meets us in his office in parliament, to contrast then with now. “What happened last December was an explosion, not a revolt,” says Hadzisokratis, “which means something else. The situations are entirely different, we were rebelling against a dictatorship, they are rebelling against a democracy. We had a set of demands and goals. Yes, there were ultra-leftists and anarchists involved, but they were doing something else, and that’s all I see in this explosion. Who are they fighting, exactly? It is amorphous, it has no aim and, as such, it will reach an impasse and will be judged as pointless.”

Those steering the current uprising, many of whom are decisively not anarchists, take offended issue with Hadzisokratis’s notion that the December uprising was without demands. Panos Garganas, who edits Workers’ Solidarity, the paper of the radical leftwing Socialist Workers Party (SEK), retorts: “There were clear demands. Disarming the police and calls for the government to resign were very prominent.” Garganas founded the party while an exile from the junta in London, and is now a lecturer in civil engineering at the polytechnic itself.

“This was not,” he says, “something that came out of nowhere. Greek history was volatile and unstable from the 1930s until the 1970s, and now the experience of the 30 years since the events of 1973 has been building towards a head. Athens is one of the few places where Bill Clinton faced hostile demonstrations. The worldwide outrage against the war in Iraq in 2003 never abated in Greece, the demonstrations went on and on. Over the past two years, the student movement has staged continuous occupations against government plans to put private colleges on a par with the state universities, against a constitutional provision. Most parliamentarians favoured this privatisation, but the students defeated the measure with their own actions. And this confidence is emboldened by the government being caught in a string of scandals – corruption so brazen it’s like they’re eating boxes of chocolates without even bothering to take off the wrapping paper. ”

Like any party of the far left, Garganas’s SEK operates, as one of its members in the university’s economics faculty, Manolis Spathis, puts it: “As a small cogwheel trying to get bigger cogwheels moving.”

“Our task now,” says Garganas, “is to move this new-found confidence into areas which characterise the latest phase of capitalism – issues such as the defence of migrant workers and rights in the workplace.”

This involves offering support to a range of extraordinary and often unexpected and continuing offsprings of the December uprising – wave upon wave of sit-ins and occupations of city halls, vacant spaces, offices and factories.

Most unexpected of all was the occupation of a call centre operated by the Altec telecoms group by employees threatened with redundancy without compensation. Altec was part of the recent break-up into the private sector of Greece’s formerly state-run telecommunications system.

“There was a complete lack of political culture in the place,” says Giorgos Sotiropoulos, who worked as part of the technical support team. “A call centre is as alienated as you can get. It’s insidious. You’re pitched against your co-worker by the fact that the supervisor is counting how many sales you make in how many calls and minutes. So it really mattered that it was a call centre we occupied, because the kind of enemy this insurrection in Greece is fighting is typified by this work. The enemy is amorphous, it is virtual, and that makes fighting it far more challenging than fighting a junta of colonels. Our enemy is a society which offers procedural freedom, and perceived freedom, but no physical, substantive freedom. But this situation is not irreversible, and we demonstrate this by finding a way of being free through uprising.

“It was a huge decision,” continues Sotiropoulos, “and an incredible experience for most people, ladies with children, people who had never thought they would get involved in such a thing. A whole new vocabulary, a whole new feeling of collaboration that none of us had ever known. We just stayed there for five days, hung banners from the windows, and at night women would come and bring us food and pastries. In this movement, you testify by your actions. It is an eruption of the real thing against virtuality.”

After tortuous negotiations, the occupiers finally won an agreement for redundancy payments and jobs for some people who wanted to stay on. “Without the uprising, this would never have happened,” says Sotiropoulos. “It was in the air and got people thinking in a totally different way.”

Sotiropoulos and his friends gather for another demonstration on a cold Wednesday night, the uprising again moving into quarters beyond the polytechnic walls, this time in outrage against an attack on a cleaning lady called Konstantina Kuneva, and thereby against two features of society: outsourcing and the subsequent abuse of migrant labour. Kuneva, who is from Bulgaria, works for a company called Oikomet, which won an outsourced contract to clean the Athens metro. Kuneva was also an organiser of the Household and Domestic Cleaners Union and began campaigning for union recognition at Oikomet, better conditions and pay on a par with what it was before privatisation. On 23 December, she was abducted and forced to drink sulphuric acid. She has gone on to become the unexpected emblem of the Greek uprising, several thousand taking to the streets for the march, attacked and split into two groups by riot police, the rear half drenched in tear gas, and the inevitable riot duly beginning.

One feature of these occasions is the destruction of CCTV cameras, which are not simply put out of action by the balaclava-clad activist climbing the pole like a lumberjack up a tree but, as icons of the enemy, trashed in the spirit of some Aztec sacrifice. The youth hammering away until he (or she) prizes out its white “heart” to hold aloft to the applauding crowd. Another fusillade of face-flaying, lung-wrenching tear gas follows, restaurant windows are smashed. Finally, Sotiropoulos turns to us and says: “What’s the point of this? Time to find the subway, clear our lungs and get a beer.”

Another cloud of thick smoke clears, this time caused by the fans’ flares and smoke bombs at the Olympic football stadium as AEK Athens take to the field. You can see the flag behind the goal – that of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. Unlikely in a British ground, it has been hoisted there by one of a group of AEK fans called Original 21, after the gate number of their section at the team’s old stadium, who are overtly and militantly political.

Around Alexis Grigoropoulos’s “shrine” in Exarchia, the letters AEK are painted everywhere, with a circle round the A. Yards from the site of the shooting is the Original 21 fan clubhouse – the slogan “Fuck Modern Football” and a skull wearing AEK colours painted on the hoardings. Utterly strange to the world of English football, these AEK fans are part of an international alliance with “twin” crews supporting Livorno in Italy, Marseille in France and St Pauli Hamburg in Germany, with whom they rally to help fight fans of teams with a fascist identity and for anti-globalisation demonstrations in loose co-ordination with the Black Block. Around the Grigoropoulos shrine are also slogans painted by the Livorno Autonomous Brigades who, with the Original 21crew, were to the fore in December’s uprising and street fighting with the police, at which they are markedly adept.

At the match, they are easy to spot, with their Palestinian keffiyehs and heavy-metal Exarchia T-shirts. A lad called Vassilis explains how at both football and during riots, “youth confronts the frontline weapon of the state, its foot soldiers in the police. But we want to fight the system itself, not just its soldiers, that’s why we do the political stuff.” Another fan, Dinos, explains that the ethos is that of “being ‘ultra’ in all areas of our life, supporting the team with the same passion as we attack authority and the system that did what was done to Konstantina Kuneva”.

You were on those demonstrations too, for the cleaning lady?

“Yes, of course, and with our comrades from Livorno at Genoa against the G8 when they killed another young boy. We spent all last December on the streets. After they killed Alexis, the police didn’t dare enter the stadium, so we attacked them outside.”

Into this melee comes another element, a group calling itself Revolutionary Struggle, which last week assaulted a police station with automatic weapons, shot and injured a police officer in Exarchia on 5 January and ambushed a riot police bus with machine guns 10 days later. The group is a descendant of the now disbanded November 17th movement, named after the day the polytechnic was stormed by the junta, akin to the Italian Red Brigades or German Baader-Meinhof group, which issues long theoretical attacks on the anarchists and other left groups for not conjoining its armed struggle, and which is bitterly counter-attacked by the anarchists as “elitist” in return. This week, the new Sect of Revolutionaries emerged, attacked a police station with grenades and left a maiden proclamation in the form of a computer disc on Grigoropoulos’s grave, listing journalists, media celebrities, leading capitalists and state functionaries among its targets

Far from this fray, Professor Constantinos Tsoukalas, the elder statesman of Greek political philosophy, watches all this from his lofty apartment, lined with venerable books, which he especially likes for “its asymmetry” and view of the Acropolis. He see “the uprising as a symptom of the end of political hope and the beginning of something else. One of the nefarious consequences of the end of the Cold War and the emptiness of the global market that was supposed to put an end to ideology but, in crisis, has instead created this moment of great ideological tension.

“I mean look at the spectacle of these politicians: this Greek government and every other government – though perhaps Obama is an exception – lurching from day to day without a clue what to do apart from babble. Not only does the Greek government have no plan, it does not even pretend to have a plan. What they are demonstrating – Karamanlis, Berlusconi, Blair, Brown, Sarkozy – is that there is no longer any reason to go into politics apart from power in and of itself, the money that power brings and the further money that having been in power brings. They degenerate the game with greater and greater visibility, and the more they degenerate it, the more degenerate the people who go into politics. Which leads to moral indignation, despair and anger.”

That in turn, continues Tsoukalas, becomes either “various forms of depression, as in your country, or to a statement of presence – a loud NO! as happened here, and a maelstrom”.

A maelstrom which has been spreading across Europe ever since a banner bearing the command Rebel!, translated into several languages, was hung from the ramparts of the Acropolis itself.

(Guardian Article on Greece)

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