Sunday, December 14, 2008

In Athens, the university of anarchy

International Herald Tribune
December 14, 2008

By Rachel Donadio

ATHENS: Early Saturday morning inside the gates of Athens Polytechnic University, a dozen groggy young people in hooded sweatshirts slumped on folding chairs around a smoky fire.

Others trickled in, holding cups of coffee. Small gypsy children scampered around with wheelbarrows, collecting empty beer bottles. One lit a cigarette.

But the young people and their friends were not simply recovering from a long night of drinking or studying. They were regrouping for revolution.

Many of the violent protests that have rocked Athens in recent days, after the police shot and killed a 15-year-old boy on Dec. 6, have taken place in and around the university, driven by a group of anarchists that has long occupied the buildings here. Garbage fires burn in its courtyard. On the streets outside, youths throwing gasoline bombs and rocks have clashed with riot police officers armed with tear gas.

The National Technical University of Athens, as it is officially called, is one of Greece's leading schools, training engineers, architects and scientists since 1836. It moved its main campus outside the city center in the 1980s, leaving its neoclassical downtown buildings largely to the whims of protest groups.

The university administration seems to view the squatters as uninvited house guests who overstayed their welcome so long ago that they have become fixtures. They hold regular demonstrations and often destroy university property.
But these protests have been different.

"In former times, a couple of years ago, there were only students protesting," said Constantinos Moutzouris, the university's rector. "This time there are all kinds of groups. This is difficult to control."

Conversations with those inside the university revealed a mix of students, older anarchists and immigrants protesting everything from police brutality to globalization to American imperialism.
Some are simply thrillseekers along for the ride.

Administrators say that evicting the anarchists now, especially after the protests of the past week, would entail a police operation they are unwilling to undertake for fear of instigating further violence or destruction.

Under an asylum law instituted after the police crushed a student rebellion at the polytechnic university against the military junta in 1973, the Greek police are not allowed on university property unless invited by administrators.

Yet unlike when the police killed protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, a tragic episode in a dramatic time, emotion over the Athens shooting has intensified, not faded, over time.

In Greece, the police are seen as both overly aggressive and disconcertingly passive. Although a police bullet killed the teenager, sparking the latest violence, the government then told the police not to use force to tamp down the protests, to avoid further mayhem. The cost of the ensuing riots, in which businesses and cars were torched, is estimated at $1.3 billion nationwide.

Outside the university gates Saturday morning, merchants were sweeping up the broken glass from their vandalized shops. The hulks of burned-out cars sat like carcasses in the streets.

Asked what the shops had to do with the death of the student, one black-clad young woman said, in perfect American English, that they represented "the corporate machine." The protesters do not have a traditional hierarchy, she said, but held "collective meetings" in the university auditorium.

Like rave parties, the protests are called through text-message chains or on Web sites like

Protesters have said they will continue to demonstrate until the police charged with killing the teenager, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, are tried and jailed.

In an inner courtyard, someone has spray-painted "Don't Blame Us, The Rocks Ricocheted." A lawyer for the policeman who killed the teenager has said that the bullet was deformed, so that it was probably not a direct hit.

The Greek authorities have insisted that the violence has been driven by a radical handful, whom they refer to as "the known unknown."

That term is "nonsense," said Dimitris Liberopoulous, 44, a freelance book editor and anarchist sympathizer who discussed the protest movement over coffee in Exarchia, the neighborhood surrounding the university. "It's a game of semiotics," he said.

He said the authorities did not know who the protesters were, nor understand their frustration at class division, the poor economy, a broken education system and a corrupt government.

"We are thousands of people," Liberopoulous said. "We live in a parallel society with parallel values and parallel ideas."

That the authorities have not identified and arrested the ringleaders seems more a question of political will.

Greece has witnessed low-level political violence for decades. Starting in the mid-'70s, the terrorist group November 17 killed at least 23 people until the Greek authorities largely dismantled it before the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Last year, another group fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the U.S. Embassy here, causing damage but no injuries.

It is unclear whether the self-styled anarchists have ties with terrorist groups. But security experts fear that terrorist groups might see the new unrest as fertile ground for attacks.

They also worry that the anarchists themselves might up the ante.

More protests are expected this week, though Athens was largely calm Sunday.
"There's a proverb," Liberopoulous said. "That a civil war never ends.

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