December 13, 2008
James Hider in Athens
On the metal gate of the Polytechnic campus hangs a trophy snatched during the running street battles across Athens: a plastic leg protector belonging to a riot policeman. Alongside it is a black banner that reads: “15-year-old dead. Cops pigs murderers.”
Black-clad, self-appointed guards prevent passers-by taking photos. The streets are barricaded with charred cars and the stinging smell of teargas lingers in the air, making pedestrians weep and sneeze.
If anarchy had its own Baghdad-style fortified green zone, it might look like this. Inside the campus – off-limits to police under laws dating back to the fall of the junta in 1974 – fresh-faced students, anarchists, workers and unionists huddle in discussion around camp fires fuelled by looted goods from gutted chain stores.
“We are struggling for something better,” said GK, 20, a skinny electrician. “We have decided to storm only big businesses, chain stores and banks and not small businesses, because they are everyday workers.”
The “masked ones”, as they are known, hold informal assemblies each day, where everyone has a chance to discuss where this “revolution” is headed. They even debate whether it is a revolution.
“It is a social riot,” said another gate guard, “and it’s still going on. We don’t know yet where it will lead.”
At the occupied law faculty in the city centre, middle-class students argue that the arson attacks, which have destroyed hundreds of banks and shops, are hurting their cause. At the more hardcore Polytechnic there is still an appetite for destruction.
“Sometimes the kids get angry and we can’t control them,” said a 29-year-old beekeeper calling himself Crazy Goat.
He was on guard duty at the gates while others inside took turns sleeping and stocking up on supplies. These included a mass of fire extinguishers, which the rioters have learnt help to counter the effects of teargas.
The week of mass demonstrations and nightly clashes with police was triggered by the shooting of a 15-year-old boy in nearby Exarchia, a bohemian area of student bars and cafés. “No one knows exactly how it started. Students started sending SMS messages on their mobiles to come here,” said Crazy Goat.
The shooting has, however, tapped into a deeper sense of alienation, disillusionment with a Government viewed as corrupt and distant, as well as frustration at the dilution of Greece’s scrappy, politicised character in the consumerism of the eurozone. In the alley where Alexandros Grigoropoulos died, a shrine of flowers, candles and written tributes has sprung up, tended by residents.
“In Greece, everyone is shocked by the killing of the boy,” said Vassili Ilyakopoulis, 55, a local artist. “It was a catalyst. Greece has a long tradition of social struggle, now the older generation are trying to get by and have forgotten the old ways. “t’s a new generation’s first baptism of political fighting, it’s their own great moment.”
From their campus sanctuaries, the students and protesters plot how to keep their movement alive once the fury is over and the momentum flags. They plan radio stations, marches, hit-and-run attacks on police stations and courthouses across the city.
Members of the Communist Party organise shopping rosters and clean-up squads for the graffiti-covered student canteen. Their great fear is that people will go home for the Christmas festivities, drink too much and forget about their revolution.
Thousands marched through central Athens again yesterday, lobbing rocks and paint bombs at police.
“Let’s burn this brothel down,” shouted one youth outside the Parliament building. Police responded by firing teargas.
The fact that the violence has continued for so long is due, in part, to the radical left-wing ideologies that the youth here discuss so earnestly among themselves.
But it is also because there is such widespread disgust with the centre-right Government, as well as with the Opposition, who have, in their eyes, shamelessly tried to exploit the situation and topple the shaky administration.A workman barricading a row of shopfronts with metal sheets near the centre of the rioting said he supported the rioters’ cause.
“We should start to change things in Greece,” said Aris Adam, 55. “There’s too much corruption, money coming into the country and being siphoned off. What happened to all the money from the Olympics?”
A social worker in her fifties, passing the Polytechnic, was less sympathetic.
“Anarchists want us to go to the jungle,” she said, negotiating streets lined with burnt cars, staved-in cash machines and smashed traffic lights. “I don’t like the anarchists – how can they live without a state?”
As fresh clashes broke out, police started to run out of teargas after battling rioters day and night for a whole week.
Sources said police riot squads had fired a total of 4,600 teargas canisters as rioters torched hundreds of banks and shops and occupied campuses.
Police have since appealed to Israel and Germany to send them emergency supplies. The protesters, for their part, have claimed that police have been using stocks of teargas dating from the 1980s that contain corroded chemicals and which have caused some demonstrators to collapse or seek medical attention.