Making Sense of the Greek Uprising

The Greek Uprising

In the evening of Saturday December 6th, 2008, a police officer shoots and kills Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 16-year old in Athens, Greece.  In the days that followed this incident large numbers of people, in cities across Greece, have taken to the streets, participating in numerous demonstrations and actions against police brutality and the policies of Greece’s conservative government.   

The great protagonists of these demonstrations have been young people, including high school and university students, but other participants have included parents, labor unionists, immigrant workers, Greece’s political Left, and Greeks from all walks of life.  Especially in the first days after the murder, a small minority of the protesters expressed their rage through extensive property destruction, especially targeting banks and upscale stores both in downtown Athens and in cities across the country. More than two weeks after Grigoropoulos’ murder protests are continuing.  There has been a wave of occupations, including occupations of hundreds of high schools and university campuses, a number of municipal halls, the chamber of commerce of the northern city of Serres, and the headquarters of Greece’s General Confederation of Labor.  Meanwhile, dozens of Greece’s leading musicians and songwriters have participated in concerts protesting state repression and expressing their solidarity with the movement.  Although the holidays may slow down some of this activity, there are already plans to resume protests in January.

All in all, this has been a diverse movement that has raised a number of different issues [1].  Some demands have focused on policing practices, asking that Greek police officers not bear weapons, that they go through regular psychological evaluations, and that special police units, such as the riot police unit and the ‘special guards’ unit to which the cop who shot Grigoropoulos belonged, be dismantled.  Other movement participants have demanded the repeal of recent ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation that undermines civil liberties.  Others have asked a change in the government’s educational and economic policies, while some, including some of the opposition parties, have demanded that the government resign.  Some of the more radical voices within the movement, including the participants in occupations, such as that of the Greek Confederation of Labor, have articulated critiques of capitalism and called for a general strike and workers’ self-management.  Last but not least, many participants in the movement demand that everybody arrested while participating in the recent events be released.

The impact of the Greek movement has been felt across Europe and the rest of the world.  The Athens Indymedia website has posted information on dozens of solidarity actions around the world, ranging from various European countries and Turkey to North America, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand [2].   The movement has also created anxiety among political and economic elites.  As Andrew Hay of Reuters recently reported, Dominique Strauss Kahn, the Director of the International Monetary Fund, has warned that the deepening global economic crisis could lead to ‘more civil unrest like that seen in Greece’[3].   Similarly, a recent piece by Robert Marquand of The Christian Science Monitor suggests that fears of ‘backlashes similar to the ones now rocking Greece’ may have contributed to the decision by the French minister of education to pull back unpopular education reform proposals and call for ‘further negotiations’[4].

Making Sense of the Greek Uprising

The events of the last two week represent the most major social explosion in Greece since the 1973 student revolt that was brutally repressed by the US-backed military regime ruling Greece at that time.  The magnitude and lasting nature of this explosion suggests that Grigoropoulos’ murder was merely the trigger that released the rage building up within Greeks as they see inequalities increasing and their country slipping deeper into crisis.

Conservative politicians and Greek pundits have tried to delegitimize the adoption of forms of direct action, such as occupations, by arguing that, unlike the student revolt in 1973, today’s government is a democratically elected one.  This fails to convince many of the protesters who feel that, rather than a genuine democracy, Greece’s political system may best be described as a two-party rule by corrupt political elites that have consistently over the years failed to address the problems affecting Greek people, in general, and young people, in particular.

Police brutality is one of such long-standing problems.  Even before Grigoropoulos’ murder, the conservative government had presided over incidents of police brutality and even torture of political protesters, Roma people, and immigrant workers.  Even the murder of a teenager by the police is not unprecedented.  When the socialists were in power in the 1980s, a teenager was shot in the back by a police officer, who went on to be acquitted after he appealed his original conviction.

As far as education is concerned, the conservative government, with the original support of the Socialist Party’s leadership, attempted to amend the provision of the Greek constitution that bans private universities.  It was only after massive protests by a movement that included students, teachers, unionists, the political Left, and many of the rank and file supporters of the Socialist Party itself that the Socialist leadership backed down from its support of private higher education institutions.  The amendment did not pass, but the conservative government is attempting to implement its rejected policy anyway.

Underlying the rage of the protestors is also a feeling that today’s Greek youth will be the first generation not to live better than their parents.  Fueling this feeling are high unemployment rates, low salaries that do not keep up with the rising cost of living, high levels of poverty (one out of 5 Greeks is poor), growing household indebtedness, and ‘flexible’ labor relations that consign many young people to insecure, temporary positions.  This situation is partly the result of the commitment of conservatives and Socialists alike to European Union and its insistence that inflation and deficits be kept low even at the cost of chronically high unemployment rates.

In this sense it is not surprising that some European journalists recognize that ‘Athens is not as far away as we think’[5].   One could perhaps go further and point out that, here in the United States too, the deep crisis we are in the midst of has been brought on by the unfettered pursuit of profit, on the part of economic elites, and by the historic willingness of the political elites of both parties to do Wall Street’s bidding. 

President-elect Obama’s claim to represent change may have generated hope for many ordinary Americans, but the first signs are not encouraging.  As others have pointed out in the pages of the Indypendent, Obama’s economic team is made up of neoliberals partly responsible for the present economic crisis, while his national security team is filled with ‘hawks’ who hardly represent a clean break with the past[6].   Faced with political elites unwilling to represent their interests, Greeks took to the streets.  Should Obama disappoint his claim to be an agent of change, Americans may find themselves doing the same.

Footnotes

[1]  The Athens Indymedia website (http://athens.indymedia.org) has posted the statements issued by some of the groups occupying university campuses and other public buildings, and these statements often include specific demands.  This site includes material both in Greek and in English but not all the material in Greek is translated into English.  For good coverage in English, see the blog of the Center for Strategic Anarchy at http://anarchiststrategy.blogspot.com/2008/12/major-rioting-in-greece.html.

[2] There have also been a number of solidarity actions in New York City, including, most recently, a rally outside the Greek consulate, which was held on Saturday, December 20, 2008, and which, despite the freezing cold, was attended by at least 35 people.     

[3] Andrew Hay, ‘IMF Sees Risks of Prolonged Global Crisis and Unrest’, Tuesday, December 16, 2008, http://uk.reuters.com/article/businessNews/idUKTRE4BE3VS20081216.

  [4] Robert Marquand, ‘Grievances Rise Among Young Europeans: Job Prospects and Dreams Fade with Crisis’, Christian Science Monitor, December 23, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/1223/p10s01-wogn.html.

[5] Marquand, ‘Grievances Rise’.

[6]  See Arun Gupta, ‘Obamanomics: Why the stimulus plan will not revive the economy’, and Jeremy Scahill, ‘Zeroing in on Obama’s hawks’.  Both these articles can be found in the December 12, 2008 issue of The Indypendent.