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These nights are for Alexis; a closer look into the december uprising in Greece

Lola Rent | 25.01.2009 16:28 | Analysis | Globalisation | Social Struggles

Eleven days after the 15-year old boy Alexandros Grogopoulos was killed by a police bullet in Athens, I decide to travel to Greece. The following article is no news, nor is it an analysis of the news. It is an attempt to create more understanding of the inner workings of the uprising, the sociopolitical and cultural climate in which it took place and the movement behind it.

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the occupied theatre school in Thessaloniki
the occupied theatre school in Thessaloniki

who's got the guns?
who's got the guns?

black angel, athens Dec. 2008
black angel, athens Dec. 2008

It does not attempt to give an objective representation of the uprising instead it is written from a highly subjective perspective and a compilation of interviews I held with people from the anarchist/ anti-autoritarian movement in Thessaloniki.

I travel to Thessaloniki. This city in the North of Greece is, with its 1 million habitants, the second city of Greece after Athens. A great part of the city is inhabited by ‘’minorities’’, immigrants, refugees, students, youths, elderly people…In the week following up to the police murder of Alexis (short for Alexandros) people went into the streets of Thessaloniki to gather in spontaneous demonstrations and many schools and universities were occupied. Banks and corporate stores were trashed and torched, Egnatía (one of the main streets) was completely blocked for traffic by burning barricades and police stations were set on fire.

Via a friend of a friend I end up in one of the freshly occupied faculties of University: the theatre school. When I arrive that Friday night I order a beer at the bar, which opened up for the occasion (the occupation). When I sit down in one of the chairs to write my journal I am soon surrounded by some drunken Greek girls. They tell me more about the occupation of the theatre school. Vasso and her friends: ‘’We entered the building on Sunday afternoon, the day after Alexis was killed. Now, it functions as an asylum for people and their ideas which means the police can’t enter the building. We didn’t want to be at campus because we would be more isolated. This is a good location because it’s central. It is occupied by people for people, we cooperate. Its an anti-State action…It will be occupied at least till the 20th of january.’’ Because the building is a part of the University, it has a so called ‘asylum’ status, which means that the police can’t enter the building, under no circumstances. When occupied, the universities are transformed into autonomous zones, where there is space for the community and movement to gather freely and organize.

The asylum status is in place at every University in Greece and was established officially as Academic Asylum Law in 1982 (–law 1268/1982) as a result of a popular uprising against the Junta regime in the year 1973, which was brutally crushed by the State. See also:

When I find myself in the smoky office of the theatre school the following evening, Aggelos walks in. He is willing to tell me more about the uprising and the movement behind it. Aggelos is currently working as a lawyer in Thessaloniki. He is part of the anti-autoritarian movement A.K.A movement which was created in the months preceding the EU Summit in porto Karras in 2003 out of the desire to create a more structural platform for the many different anti-autoritarian groups in Greece at the time. [...]

Soon after, I’m invited to a highly personal tour du tourist radicale. While we quickly make our way through the streets, Aggelos speaks to me of the strategy of anarchists and other radicals whenever they plan to have a riot in the streets: ‘’Whenever there are riots to be done or there is a demonstration we choose to go through the two main streets: Egnatía and Tsimiski. They go through the commercial centre of Thessaloniki, with many targets to choose from; multinational corporations, banks, ATM’s, policestations, government buildings etc. Another reason for picking these streets is because the people of all other neighbourhoods come into the centre for shopping, working whatever..and the universities are nearby.’’ We turn around the corner and pass the headquarters of the Thessaloniki police, which is permanently guarded since the riots. Around the corner we see a highly protected riot bus, fences have been placed around the building and a bunch of heavily armed cops hang out in front.

The police murder of the 15-year old boy cannot be seen as an isolated incident, although this is what the authorities want you to believe. Alexis is one of many victims of police violence, which holds the Greek society hostage. Since 1985 approximately 25 people have been killed by police bullets, although the number is likely to be much higher since it doesn’t include the number of people who died as a result of police violence in prison. Many Greeks, not only the minorities, have experienced some form of police violence or oppression in their lives. Perhaps the reason behind the high(er) level of violence used by the Greek police can be traced back to the post-Junta historical context when the Junta’s power was transferred to parliament, a democratic system was established and consequently the police took over from the army in oppressing the Greek people in 1974. There are examples of the police cooperating with right-wing extremists. Every now and then some cop is exposed for being a member of a right-wing extremist group or organization, like the killer of Alexis, who is a member of the fascist Golden Dawn group.

Aside from the police problem Greek society harbours social, economic and political problems that played their part in fueling the uprising. For many people it is difficult to survive financially.
[...]There is an establishment that accumulates wealth for itself while the people have to improvise in order to survive. Businesses are shaken down by corrupt tax officials , EU money disappears before it reaches the projects it is meant for(1). For many it is obvious that those in power and in money do whatever they want and that the government collects a lot of money that goes straight into their pockets. A taxi driver says:‘’Power corrupts and when you are on the outside looking in you make sure that when you finally get in, you get your share too.’’

For the youth, “no future” is a reality, especially when you’re a child of an immigrant. In Dromos, the freshly opened up social centre for immigrants and refugees in Thessaloniki, I get to talk with Gazmend. Gazmend is an Albanian immigrant, he fled Albania when an armed uprising broke out after the collapse of its economy is 1997. We talk about his experiences as an immigrant in Greece and the law for immigrants that was passed in 1998: ‘’The law connects a working permit to a recidential status. If you don’t have 300 workstamps (=working days) in 2 years, even if you miss one and have been here for 15 years, you will get deported. Mostly you buy these stamps because there is another law which ‘’allows’’ immigrants to buy 20% of these stamps. In this way the government earns extra money from the immigrants. Also, if you’re under 18 and over 60 you are not allowed to stay because you are not working. You are allowed to stay with your parents but as soon as you turn 18- even if you are born here- you have to return to your country of origin. You have no rights. When the law was passed in 1998, many illegal immigrants applied for a legal status and there were very long ques and a big chaos. Many remained in Greece without papers.’’

I also talk to Li. Li teaches art history and is part of the Clandestina info-network for immigrants and refugees. The network is based around a website (in Greek, Turkish, Albanian, Russina/Ukrainian, English and soon German) that informs people about the aspects of the European genocide of immigrants and refugees, the situation of immigrants in Fortress Europe and especially Greece, and also the struggles of immigrants, refugees and the solidarity movement. Li: “The attack on Konstanina Kuneva(2) reveals the true nature of Greek society: The ‘’new conditions of work’’ mean that workers are hired to companies and managed as slaves by a new slave trading system. Especially in sectors of the less privileged workers like the cleaning and construction sectors. This Third World labour market also has its Third World tactics of scaring, warning and punishing the disobedient ones…’’

Tefik tells me more about the position of refugees in Greece. He is one of the people who took the initiative to open up Dromos. He is a refugee from Turkey. ‘’Thousands of Irakis and Afghanis tried to get asylum in the past few years but most of them were deported. When the papers do get examined 99% is rejected. Greece has one of the lowest acceptance rates of asylum seekers in the EU. Greece usually ignores most (EU) legislation for the rights of refugees. Police and border police torture more easily and most people turn a blind eye to torture… Detention centres have abominable conditions here, even though the legislation covers all kinds of so called rights of hygiene, social rights, etc…’’ About Dromos and his work for refugees, he says: ‘’We don’t just run the social centre, we run a broader network. The difference between us and other groups who work for refugees (NGO’s, charity groups) is that we also provide places for refugees to sleep and we’re active politically; we’re not just interested in demanding more rights for refugees, we are demanding everything, the full quality of life. Our activities are humanitarian and political. The immigration problems were created by the EU and imperialist countries. They invaded our countries and therefore we can’t recognize their legal framework. So when someone crosses the border I cannot think ‘this person is here legal or illegal’, I don’t care.’’

Li: ‘’Any society is sick if it cannot accept others, if it controls, oppresses and uses people for its own purposes. [...] We cannot claim better lives for ourselves if we don’t fight on the side of refugees, immigrants and other marginalized people for their rights. Ever since their arrival in great numbers in the early 90’s immigrants have been doing all the dirty jobs and have provided the country with cheap labor, which created a boost of the economy and increased the country’s wealth. Without their sweat and blood the Olympic Games in 2004 could not have been realized. The Greeks are very oblivious of this. In order to inflict positive, social change we must not only attack the State and its institutions but question the hostile attitude towards the marginalized people in our society and understand that there is a new rift in society – “natives against immigrants”. [...] So in this context, the ‘’December uprising’’, the riots and the rebellious moments in the streets, must be taken as a powerful moment in itself, but should also be measured against real social change…In other words, as the German comrades say: “Aufstand ist unser Argument”, the uprising is an argument in itself. A very clear political message went out from the uprising as people knew exactly what they were targeting: banks and police stations, big business, that is to say, the […] symbols of Capital and the State. Therefore the incidents don’t need further analysis.

So, the ‘minorities’ who take up a large part of Greek society have every reason to be angry. Fueled by a mix of rage, despair and sadness people went out in the streetsto demand the change they are longing for, with the uprising as their powerful argument. [...]

The movement of the (radical) left in Greece is a vibrant mix of people with very diverse political ideas and identities. Within the movement you can speak of sub-movements, which again, can be divided. Li: ‘’There are many kinds of ‘’anarchism’’ and ‘’anti-authoritarianism’’ here, we are talking of a relatively mature movement that has been growing since 1974, after the colonels’ junta had to transfer its power to parliament.

[...]Me and some friends estimate that over 5.000 are in some way involved in organized struggles here…Yet this December, the whole protest wave might have involved, and is still involving, around 30.000 people that identify with anarchists and anti-authoritarians [in Greece]. 20% of the people asked in a survey published on the website, are in favour of attacks against banks, and over 15% are in favour of attacks against police stations. So imagine how great the number of people is who approve of what happened without actually participating… Demos must have involved the greatest number of people ever throughout the country. On the first Monday after the assassination, for instance, there were at least 100.000 on the streets in many towns in Greece at the same time on very dynamic and confrontational demos.

Aggelos explains more about the position of the anarchist and anti-authoritarian movement in society and their goals: ‘’Promoting resistance & solidarity […], supporting and creating structures which we believe to be cores of freedom, resistance and self-management. Assemblies in neighbourhoods, independent unions, student syndicalism, prisoner support, environmental subjects etc. The majority just intends to keep the spirit of resistance alive.
Few have further goals and that is why the majority of actions are either solidarity actions to social classes (immigrants, workers, students, convicts unemployed etc.) or direct actions such as arson attacks to system targets (banks, police, media). There is hope that, since the insurrection brought us anarchists closer to the society, we may now emphasize social struggles.[…]There is absence of political structures (e.g. federations) that can organize anarchists and their affiliations and there is little attempt to strengthen our position within the society. As a result, our ideas become often part of the society, while we – as a political movement – rarely do so. If we act together with social movements, the general anti-State slogan fades as specific targets emerge. But we also shouldn’t underestimate the fact that the greek State is so corrupt, clumsy and ineffective, that people just don’t put their hopes on it anyway.’’

Kayati:‘’It is common for the different groups of the Greek movement to question authority and go out in the streets.’’

In an interview with a Dutch journalist a Greek professor stated that the anarchists cause no real (terrorist) threat to the current system because ‘they are too vague, they don’t know what they want.’

Li: ‘’Yes, there is vagueness if someone is watching the anarchists and anti-authoritarians with a telescope. But it is variety, rather than vagueness, that one sees when one looks closely. And we should ask ourselves: What does it mean to “know what you want”? Do the neo-liberals know what they want? (Profits and death perhaps?...) And also: Which movement exactly knew what it wanted? Mainly, the only people who like the absense of vagueness in a social movement are the Bolshevik sympathizers, who think they know exactly where a movement should be lead. But luckily this is not the world we are living in today. […] One cannot deny that the actions associated with anarchists until now, definitely belong to many more people, people who are not organized nor interested in public actions, who gave expression to their rage. So if the media like to call all that “anarchy”, and also call it “vague”, well, the truth is always more interesting, isn’t it?...’’

Kayati: ‘’We are not so vague, we say disperse power and divide it. A society based on direct democracy is what we want.’’

The many burned stores and smashed ATM’s are the silent witnesses of the riots from a few weeks ago. The heat of the battle seems to be over. Aggelos and I walk into a posh film theatre, which is occupied to hold a popular assembly. The whole building is packed with people and a few street dogs, the main auditorium hosts around 500 people who seem to do an amazing job in listening to each other.[...] Aggelos. ‘’These assemblies have the purpose of providing people the space to gather so that they can address or debate certain issues they face in society, not necessarily to organize as a movement.’’ These kind of gatherings are called ‘’popular assemblies’’, they are open to all members of society (except cops) and every issue relating to the social struggle can be addressed. They have the potential to widen the movement or create a new one. The gatherings that play a central role in the continuation of the movement are called ‘’open assemblies’’. They are also open to everyone but are held in order to move forward as a movement, not every issue can be addressed. Therefore their character is more strategic and focused on organizing the movement. Like the spontaneous character of the demonstrations and riots, many assemblies arose spontaneously out of the ashes of the burned cities and towns. The uprising opened up space for people to gather, connect or discuss the many problems in the Greek society today. A popular assembly in the neighbourhood of Sykies was born out of the December rebellion. Now the community realizes that in a best case scenario it will take a very long time to take them down in a legal way, it is discussing the demolition of the unwanted antennas from a mobile-phone company in their area.

Kayati: ‘’We, as a movement, have now retreated from the streets to think about next steps to be taken, on how we can set up a more permanent structure for organizing ourselves and the people to work towards a society that is not authoritarian in the way it is set-up. […]We’re trying to take this assembly model to a next level by going into neighborhoods and try to let people set up their own assembly.’’ The left radical or anarchist movement (or separate groups which belong to this movement) are usually more closed. Some rather stay true to their own ideology than to try to widen the movement and connect with other members of society. Danis: ‘’The anarchist initiative of Thessaloniki (the name of the Thessaloniki assembly before 2003) was more closed in the 3 years before 2003. I can understand why people choose for a more closed structure to organize themselves but the level of how closed you are should depend on the situation in your social landscape. For that reason it would be unwise to keep our closed structure for organizing today because we would isolate ourselves from the people taking part in this social uprising.’’
This development is fairly new in Greece as the past riots and uprisings were less widespread socially and were more characterized by a so called ‘hit and run’ tactic, in which a particular group of the (left radical) movement would attack the State and its tentacles, to quickly become invisible again. After ‘the hit’, the group runs and becomes invisible to repeat this strategy. Kayati:’’The character of the current uprising is anti-authoritarian and beyond the left.’’

Since peace, may it be temporarily, returned in the Greek streets it is time for the movement to think over its strategy on how to continue and keep the spirit of the uprising alive. Li:‘’I’m optimistic about the (anti-authoritarian) movement doing more serious things, such as connecting with the people by opening up spaces for the popular assemblies, but I don’t know yet where we are heading to, nor can we make up any new theory about the situation. Its not a revolution like the one in Oaxaca for example, where people have tried to establish, and have managed in many ways, a whole new alternative society based on a basic democratic model with self-run schools, barbershops, gardens, medical centres…
I was very moved when I read about international solidarity […] of the Mexicans and Russians with our struggle because we, unlike them, live in a very privileged society and don’t even get close to the level of State repression and poverty […] they face in their lives or to the level of social struggle and effective change of the Zapatista movement. [...]

On New Year’s Eve I find my riot. When my friends and I ask the way to the meeting point, our guide asks: ‘’I bet you are going to riot?’’ Half an hour after midnight a group of people gather near the Kamara square in the city centre. What the exact plans of this group are is not yet completely clear, but we have a vague idea…A few meters away from the meeting point, a bin and its trash is set on fire. After an hour or so, the group leaves in the direction of Egnatía. Once arrived there several bins are turned over and set on fire to block the street from traffic. Cars turn around without any protest and soon, the street is ours. We start to make our way to the ‘’shopping district’’ in which many targets can be found, soon windows are smashed and I hear the sound of breaking glass. I’m excited, adrenaline rushes through my body and a smile appears on my face. On these moments I feel as if I’m a part of something beautiful, I’m surrounded with people who are prepared to destroy the symbols and foundations of power and oppression to make way for something else; freedom, equality, constructive chaos, love, a city where there are no corporate stores, a country where there is no State…To be surrounded with people who fight for something more beautiful than the mess we live in today, makes me feel alive. If I had to describe how it feels to be free, this feeling comes close…
The joy lasts for around half an hour, then the penetrating smell of teargas invades our nostrills, behind us riot police appear on the concrete horizon. We start to run (faster!faster!), soon I have to conclude that I need to work out more(!) While running, I lose my shoe and I’m forced to continue on one sock. This fairly simple ‘’intervention’’ by the cops caused our riot to end unfortunately. We quickly make our way to the theatre school to find a safe hide-out. The riot coppers disappear into the distance…
The phenomenon of ‘’the riot’’ seems widely accepted as a part of Greek society. Even the State and police seem to have a cautious attitude towards the rioters. This is proved by the fact that here in Thessaloniki nobody got imprisoned after or during the ‘’December uprising’’ and that the left radical movement is mostly left alone by the State. However, some people think State repression might increase since two riot cops were attacked and shot in Exarchia on january 5th
When I look into the newspaper one day later, I see a photo of two Palestinian kids throwing molotovs. For many people on this planet the (armed) struggle is a part of their daily reality and for them there is nothing romantic about throwing a rock or firebomb. I’m (again) confronted with my white privilege, caused by the coincidence that I was born in the Netherlands. I’m a child of a highly wealthy society, wealth which couldn’t have been gained without the colonization of other countries and the oppression and enslavement of people, not to speak of environmental destruction and exploitation of non-human animals. I am a child of a society which has chosen for ‘het poldermodel’ (a model in which- up to extreme levels- concessions are being made) to deal with our problems and conflicts and with that the feeling of the urge to fight for something was killed…Tefik: ‘’Go beyond being a radical tourist, which means that it is not enough to travel around and visit squats and smoke joints as a part of an anarchist myth. If we believe the things we say, a lot of work needs to be done. Real work that is not neccecarily sexy or exciting.’’

Li: ‘’Some like to speak of a mass popular rebellion… The important thing is that, as soon as the news broke out that a cop assassinated a 15-year-old in cold blood, for a few weeks people put aside their own problems and petty interests and joined in the demos and the conflicts in the streets. When people go beyond their own focused professional interests and start building something new, transforming themselves and the structures of life, then an uprising becomes revolutionary. It sounds contradictory but it is true: When you leave behind your fixed identity and very specific interests, then you are ready to take your own decisions… People on the streets were not there only as “students” or as “workers” or as “left-wing parties”, even though that is what the media likes to do: Compartmentalize people and give them fixed identities. People were out on the streets as something beyond what they were before. […] The uprising shows us that people are very willing to express their disgust and outrage against the injustice in Greek society, and their need for change. On the other hand, this change has to be directed towards social justice. When Konstanina was attacked by the bosses’ thugs, not much fuss was made…This type of violence against a person who is at the same time a fighter, a woman and an immigrant, did not move the crowds out into the streets (with the exception of certain small union groups outside the official trade-union system and anarchists and anti-authoritarians)… No mass riots any more… ‘’


Note from your editor: I might suggest here that the problems people face in Greece are typically ‘’Greek’’ problems. That there is no connection between the struggle of the Greek people and the struggle of people elsewhere in the world. Ofcourse, dear reader, this is not the message. Greece- like many other countries in the world- is an example of a country in serious trouble. The ‘’Greek example’’ shows a society that became sick as a result of the current capitalist world order, in which a minority of people gains extremely high amounts of wealth at the cost of the majority of the people, the environment and non-human animals. The ‘’December uprising’’ reveals a deeper social conflict that has reached its alarming phase, it shows people saying ‘’enough!’’ to their oppression and social insecurity, it shows people acting according to their desire for change. Uprisings draw attention and for a week or two Greece was highlighted in the mass media. In many cases the illusion was created that the flames in the streets and peoples hearts were a result of merely Greek problems and the uprising was portrayed as an isolated incident, instead of a logical response to today’s global mess.

Priscilla and friends: ‘’The murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos on December 6th was not the source of this conflict. In these unstable times, fearing the threat of a deeper, more global movement of insurrection, the authorities have shown their weaknesses in their protection of the dominant capitalist order. Through the enforcement of anti-terrorist measures, tightening of social control, crackdown of different areas of resistance, mass arrests, targeted assassinations, the illusion of democracy is falling and the veil of social peace is starting to burn.
The more the State is taking a defensive stance, the more it is time for us to stop fearing its retaliation and to go on the offensive. It is not the time to withdraw into fear, which would lead us further into a dangerous social peace, but the right time for multiplying the offensives
and intensifying the struggle against capitalism and its State, coordinated with the revolt that is happening here. The core of these events being that we are in a state of war, the only way to get through it is to assume it and to take the offensive even further.

After theory comes practice, see ya in the streets! We are everywhere.

(1)Please note that it is your editors opinion that shaking down busineses can be very fruitful, depending on who is doing the shaking and who is shaken down
(2)Konstantina Kuneva is a Bulgarian migrant worker in Athens. She is also the secretary of the Union of Housekeepres and Cleaners. On the 23rd of December ‘08, she was attacked with sulfuric acid in front of her home by two men. She was admitted to a hospital in a critical condition. She has burns on her face, head, hands and back and there is a possibility that she will lose her sight. The events before the attack and the testimonies of her fellow unionists and workers show clearly this is an act of punishing her for her involvement in the union. The Union is one of the most active workers’ unions within what euphemistically is called precarious labour: in other words, Konstantina is a migrant and a severely underpaid and unprotected worker in one of the most devalued sectors of labour; she decided to join a union in order to struggle against the inhuman conditions imposed to her and her fellow workers; her smart and clean bosses, possibly hiring mafia people or in any case with mafia methods, assaulted her. Behind the attack are them and their heavies, who have been threatening Konstantina and other women for their activity in the union.

Occupations in Thessaloniki
Blog from the ‘occupied theaterschool’ assembly in Thessaloniki, with some info in English+loads of links to other related blogs and websites.
Blog from the occupied labor centre. The labor centre was occupied as a solidarity action with Konstantina Kanuva and now functions as an information and gathering space in support of the ongoing struggle. Konstantina is a Bulgarian woman, immigrant and labor activist. She got brutally actacked by (almost certainly) the bosses’ thugs with sulfuric acid when she was on her way home on dec. 23rd.

Anarchists on the Greek uprising
Website of the anti-autoritarian movement in Greece



Lola Rent
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