At the time of going to press (late December 2008), the mass-scale political unrest in Greece shows little sign of slowing down. This series of demonstrations, occupations and strikes erupted when, on 6 December, a 15-year-old student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, was murdered in the streets of central Athens by police guards. Although the police have implied that Alexandros was engaged in “deviant behaviour” (not that this would warrant being shot through the heart), all eyewitness reports stated that the police officers involved were not attacked by Alex and his friends and were not in physical danger at any time. The shooting represents an increasingly authoritarian and repressive approach being taken by the Greek state, in particular towards young people.
Within a few minutes of Alex being pronounced dead, young people, students and workers came out onto the streets of Athens in protest. Huge demonstrations took place, spreading quickly from Athens to many other cities, including Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Komotini, Kastoria, Petras, Tripoli and more. Over the following days, thousands of high school students marched against local police stations, students occupied university campuses, pupils occupied schools and workers went on strike. At the time of writing, dozens of universities are still being held under occupation by students and professors, including the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the National Technical University of Athens and the Athens University of Economics and Business. The teachers’ unions estimate that around 600 schools are under occupation by pupils. Some actions have been particularly daring: according to Kathimerini (an English-language newspaper in Greece), a “group of around 30 protesters forced their way into the headquarters of state broadcaster ERT and interrupted a news broadcast featuring Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. For about a minute, the protesters stood in front of the camera holding banners reading ‘Stop watching, get out into the streets’”.
A one-day general strike on 10 December, called before the shooting of Alexandros in response to the government’s handling of the economic crisis, gained momentum and brought the country’s economy to a standstill.
Solidarity actions have taken place in dozens of countries around the world, particularly in Europe. In Austria, thousands of demonstrators protested outside the Greek Embassy in Vienna; in France, some 3,000 demonstrators gathered outside the Greek Embassy in Paris; there were demonstrations in over 20 German cities; and hundreds protested in Dublin, Istanbul, Seville, Madrid, London, Copenhagen and many other cities in solidarity with the workers, students, youth and unemployed people of Greece. Clearly, the bourgeoisie worldwide is shaking in its shoes as a result of the uprising in Greece and its international significance. IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn warned there was a risk of social unrest spreading unless the global financial sector shared wealth more evenly (See ‘Greek police teargas youths in 2nd week of protests’, Reuters, 15 December).
Brutal response of the Greek state
Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis quickly vowed to put an end to the work of “the extremist elements who exploited the tragedy”. (‘New protests planned after looters rampage in Athens’, AFP, 8 December), and indeed police forces were deployed in huge numbers against every demonstration and occupation.
According to the Telegraph of 12 December, Greek police had in the preceding five days released 4,600 canisters of tear gas – so much that they were having to appeal to Israel and Germany to provide fresh supplies. (‘Greece “runs out of tear gas” during violent protests’). It should be noted that tear gas is not as innocuous as it might sound. It is a chemical compound that irritates the cornea and conjunctival membranes, resulting in a severe burning sensation in the eyes, streaming tears, severe skin irritation, irritation of the upper respiratory tract (leading to breathing difficulties) and panic. It can induce temporary blindness, nausea and, in the case of allergic reaction, anaphylaxis and death.
Arrested demonstrators have been tortured, and people around the world have been shocked to see the images of Greek police beating peaceful demonstrators. Even Amnesty International, hardly an agency of proletarian insurrection, have issued a statement saying that its members have witnessed “officers involved in policing the riots engaged in punitive violence against peaceful demonstrators, rather than targeting those who were inciting violence and destroying property … In this context, [Amnesty] is concerned about the ill-treatment of two of its members, who were beaten with batons by the police.” (‘Greek police use punitive violence against peaceful demonstrators’).
In an effort to justify the extraordinary brutality employed by the state forces, the government has been painting the protesters as “a small group of hardcore anarchists”; however, even the international imperialist press admits that the number of protesters runs into the hundreds of thousands. The government and the right-wing media have been trying to scare the Greek population with stories about ‘hooded youths’, condemning protesters for coming to demonstrations with masks. In our humble opinion, if state forces are likely to use tear gas, it is a sensible protester that wears a mask as this offers some protection from the state’s chemical assault.
It is almost certainly the case that there are agents-provocateurs involved at some level on the fringes of the Greek uprising, just as agents-provocateurs are involved at some level on the fringes of every important mass movement. However, it is crucial that we do not join with the bourgeois press in overstating the importance of such groups and individuals; they must not distract from the struggle that is taking place, and the state must not be allowed to use them as an excuse for its brutality. Take the example of Iraq: there are agents-provocateurs in Iraq who try to divide Iraqis by planting bombs in market places and the like. The imperialist press tries to paint the actions of these small organisations as reflecting the will of the Iraqi resistance as a whole. They try to accentuate their role and use them as an excuse for the most brutal acts of repression. We are not, and have never been, fooled by these games, and they certainly do not stop us from calling for victory to the Iraqi resistance. Similarly, such games must not detract from our support for the legitimate popular struggle that is taking shape in Greece.
Alienation of the workers and young people from capitalism and social democracy
The protests in Greece indicate very clearly that the masses of the Greek population are deeply at odds with the Greek state. On the economic front, there is increasing unemployment (especially among young people) and poverty pay. Social welfare is under attack, especially in the areas of education and healthcare. Minimum needs are not being met, but the government is set to inject 28 billion euros to ‘save’ the banking system.
Concurrent with the reduction in living standards has been a visible increase in political repression by the state. This year, dozens of demonstrators have been arrested and tortured by police, and Greek police are becoming notorious for their use of torture and excessive use of force, particularly towards workers and young people. The workers and youth have stopped believing in the benevolence of the state, and are starting to understand – albeit at a relatively primitive level – that capitalism is the cause of their problems.
At the same time, there is growing alienation of the Greek masses from social democracy. It is telling that one of the buildings occupied in recent weeks was the central office of the country’s main labour union, the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE). This would appear to indicate a certain antipathy between the disaffected Greek workers and the trade union bureaucracy, whose role in recent decades has been to consistently undermine workers’ struggle and to support the perpetuation of capitalism (not unlike the main elements of the trade union bureaucracy in Britain).
Workers in Britain and elsewhere must support the uprising in Greece. Whatever its immediate results, its long-term significance will be the re-awakening of the Greek workers, students and peasants. Huge swathes of the population are increasingly falling outside the sphere of influence both of the state and its agent in the working class movement, namely social democracy.
The developments in Greece are making the capitalists and social democrats in all countries tremble. For too long have the European working masses been passive victims, or active co-conspirators, as the imperialists have ruthlessly grabbed and exploited the world’s land, mineral wealth, markets and labour. The current capitalist crisis of overproduction will not only expose the decadent, parasitic, moribund nature of the capitalist system, but will again reveal the means to effect a cure – not by “enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” but rather, through concerted mass action, “to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them”.
Alexandros Grigoropoulos and all the nameless, faceless victims of imperialism will then not have died in vain.