On 16 December, ten days into the unrest in Greece sparked by the killing of a 15-year-old boy by the police, a group of Greek students occupied the National Broadcasting Network. Interrupting a report on a parliamentary address by the prime minister, they raised a banner that read: ‘Stop Watching – Everyone on the Streets!’ Those who joined them would have missed the footage broadcast the same night on Al Tsantiri News, in which hooded men were seen smashing shop windows in Athens with iron clubs, then a short time later chatting amiably with the police. Al Tsantiri (a play on Al-Jazeera) is known for sending up the news in the style of the Daily Show, but this wasn’t a joke. The footage confirmed what many Greeks already suspected: that the government was using agents provocateurs to increase the violence and discredit the protests.
Greeks know not to expect much from their state apart from graft and inefficiency, but the killing on 6 December of Alexis Grigoropoulos was an unacceptable provocation. Grigoropoulos was shot, according to some reports, for little more than taunting a police officer; the officer has been charged with ‘premeditated manslaughter’, but claims he acted in self-defence. The week that followed saw mass demonstrations culminating in a general strike, the occupation of universities throughout the country, the torching of public buildings, the firebombing of police stations and the destruction and pillaging of hundreds of shops, with damages estimated at a billion euros. No one in Greece seems very surprised by the scale of the response. Patience had been wearing thin with the government, with the police, and with a state of affairs in which the country’s new rich shop in the stores (now trashed) in downtown Athens while educated Greeks work as taxi drivers and bartenders. Only a martyr was needed. Grigoropoulos was perfect for the role: young, sweet-faced, from a good family. He was also Greek, unlike most of the victims of recent police violence, whose deaths were barely noticed.
Anarchists mobilised within an hour and a half of the killing. With their masks and Molotov cocktails, they caught the eye of photojournalists, but were soon outnumbered by students, migrant workers, teachers, trade unionists and others in their twenties and thirties, many of whom scrape by on as little as €700 a month, usually by living with their parents. The uprising spread from Athens and Thessaloniki to every provincial city, organised by networks of friends communicating through text messages, Facebook and hi5, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Protesters took to the streets spontaneously, not only to express their fury at the police, but also to cast a vote of no confidence in the country’s leadership. The one demand they shared was that the government resign. Their protests struck a chord among students in other European countries dismayed by their dim economic prospects and unresponsive leaders. There have been demonstrations of support in Italy, Spain, France and Germany; in a sombre speech on 15 December, Dominique Strauss-Kahn warned that unless other European governments move quickly to boost their economies, they may find themselves facing similar unrest.
New Democracy, the centre-right party led by Costas Karamanlis, came to power four years ago, promising to ‘reinvent’ the state, root out corruption and launch educational reform. Today the state is still in the business of providing benefits and favours, not least to its own officials, a patronage system Greeks call rousfeti; the public sector remains as inefficient, corrupt and bureaucratic as ever; and the schools are so poor that Greece now has a higher percentage of students abroad than any other country in the EU. A fifth of the population lives below the poverty line, youth unemployment is 25 per cent, and the minimum wage is half the EU average. The anarchists believe the solution is a ‘total rejection of work’, but most of the protesters would be happy with more work, at a better rate of pay.
In October the government was nearly brought down – it clings to power by one seat – when several aides to the prime minister were implicated in a scandal involving land swaps with a wealthy Orthodox monastery, at a cost to the public of more than a hundred million euros. There’s a sense among Greeks that nothing is sacred any more: not with a government that failed to prevent the spread of forest fires in 2007, in which dozens of people died, and then cut deals with developers afterwards; and not with politicians like Karamanlis’s friend Christos Zachopoulos, the former secretary general of the Culture Ministry and chairman of the Central Archaeological Council, who approved a grant to a reforestation project that his own advisers told him would damage Byzantine monuments. (That’s just one of the offences that came to light after Zachopoulos, threatened with blackmail by his former assistant and mistress, jumped off his balcony to avoid disgrace. He survived the fall.) Greece doesn’t brutalise its citizens to the degree that it did under the Colonels, but neither is it providing them with a future, or even a secure present. No wonder a recent survey found Greeks to be the most pessimistic people in Europe.
The Greek protests recall – indeed were shaped by – the November 1973 occupation of Athens Polytechnic. On that occasion two dozen students were killed when a tank crashed into the gates of the university. After the fall of the Colonels in 1974, parliament passed an ‘asylum’ law banning police from entering universities except at the request of their rectors. The ban was intended to protect students from attacks by the security forces, but the long-term effect has been to enable anarchist militants – many of them not even enrolled as students – to establish a base for urban insurgency on campuses and to organise almost entirely outside police surveillance, a cause of anxiety for the Greek left, which has supported the protests but sought to distance itself from the ‘blind violence of the hooded people’.
The police, curiously, have retreated from confrontation with the street-fighting anarchists, preferring to chase down protesters at the tense but mostly peaceful daytime rallies. Amnesty International has reported that two of its Greek members were beaten with batons, and accused the police of engaging in ‘punitive violence against peaceful demonstrators, rather than targeting those who were inciting violence and destroying property’. (Riot police emptied 4600 tear gas canisters, and had to make an emergency request to Germany and Israel to replenish their reserves.) But when the cities were burning at night, the cops were scarcer than firefighters during the great forest blaze: after midnight the cities belonged to anarchists, arsonists, looters – and, it seems, to hooded agents provocateurs with iron clubs. The stated objective behind this ‘defensive posture’ was to avoid further casualties, but many Greeks wonder whether the government had struck a tacit deal with the rioters. ‘We let you torch and plunder to your hearts’ content, and you let us continue pretending that we are in charge’ was the wording suggested by Takis Michas, a journalist at the liberal newspaper Eleftherotypia.