The Uprising in Greece, December 2008

Squat in Greece with banners outside

December 6th, 2008, 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was fatally shot by the police officer Epaminondas Korkoneas. Remarkably, just a couple of hours later, the news had traveled all over Greece. In all major cities, and also smaller ones, people started immediately gathering in the streets to protest against the murder and police brutality.

The murder took place in Athens around 9pm while I was in a tavern in Thessaloniki with some friends, 700km away. By 9:30 our cell phones started ringing. People were informed about what happened mainly by Athens Indymedia, and gradually from mainstream media, and were spreading the news in a delirious speed.

At 11 o’clock we left the tavern. It was hard to move around because the police and tear gas were already covering the centre of the city. The protests were rapidly transforming into violent conflicts with the police and fire attacks against banks, luxurious shops and fancy cars.

Demonstrations and conflicts

In all major Greek cities the events were developing in a surprising similar way. After the events reactionaries of various kinds, from extreme-right racists to the Stalinist Communist party (KKE), were to maintain that foreign and Greek secret services had organized the riots. For these hypocrites, it seems that society is incapable to react on its own, unless guided by a conspiracy or, preferably, when it supports their ideas.

The very next morning, thousands of young people were demonstrating all over Greece, some were attacking police stations. One even bigger demonstration took place in the afternoon, followed by serious riots.

These huge conflicts and protests all over Greece culminated in Monday’s afternoon riots in all major cities, and especially in Athens and Thessaloniki. It is a strong impression of many Greeks that, until Tuesday, there was no actual government in the country. The massive outburst of sudden anger expressed what the vast majority of the population was feeling. The mainstream media were unable to start their usual condemnation of the demonstrations, because they could not oppose public opinion. The politicians kept a low-profile because the anger was also directed against them. After the start of the riots, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the Minister of the Interior, could find nothing better to say than that he was sorry for the “unfortunate event.”

Only after Monday’s afternoon aggressive riots, massive damages and cops’ injuries, the media felt free to initiate their traditional role making pleas to the state to intervene and stop the demonstrations. From Tuesday, the police started reacting more violently against the protesters. Until the 13th of December (one week after the murder) 258 people were brought into the police departments, 176 were arrested (100 of them were immigrants), 24 were put in prison and 32 had been convicted. Gradually order was about to return after many days of persisting demonstrations and riots.

A paralyzed State

It was amazing that State’s gradual hard reaction could not stop the demonstrations and the protests that continued all over Greece, together with the growing suppression. The pupils and students were demonstrating every morning, leaving their schools to protest, whereas in the afternoons big demonstrations of various social strata were forming.

The government used all means possible to react drastically against the uprising. The police violence was unprecedented. To intimidate the protesters, police officers were shooting in the air, while all the tear gas of the police had been exhausted before the government had to urgently order new. Furthermore fascists were attacking the protesters and the police tolerated them or even supported them. The media presented these fascists as regular alleged “indignant citizens.”

But the uprising persisted. These events are indeed evidence of how strong people can be against state mechanisms of oppression.

The government was so completely taken by surprise that it made some awkward moves. One striking example was prime minister’s appeal to the official trade union leadership in Greece to cancel its demonstration of December 10th, a demonstration that had been announced and prepared well before the murder occurred. Of course, the Prime Minister, Konstantinos Karamanlis, knew that the trade unionists, supported by oppositional parties, would disagree. But the government was in such a dire position that they had to try everything for the demonstrations to stop happening. There were also many other things proving the government’s panic: the uncommon use of special anti-terrorist oppressive forces (EKAM) against the protesters as well as the limited, but indicative orders to the army for preparations for possible intervention. Equally telling were also government’s calls for help through its euro-parliament representatives to foreign governments.

I cannot but emphasize again the fact that for a few days, state was almost paralyzed. In a country like Greece, with a relatively strong economy (especially before the outbreak of the recent economic crisis) conditions have suddenly emerged following the killing of Alexandros Grigoropoulos that a democratic revolutionary movement could have used for its development. It is of worth noting that this uprising occurred before the recent outbreak of the crisis, when Greek economy was still able to increase the salaries and pensions every year.

The radical movement

Unfortunately, the radical movement was not prepared to use the opportunity. A revolutionary democratic political organization that could foster a democratic and more creative escalation of the protests was missing.

The strong Stalinist Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was absolutely isolated from the uprising because the struggle was independent and not under its control. While most of society seemed to turn against some bourgeois institutions, KKE preferred to use the opportunity only to attack its political enemies, from the anarchists to the broad Left. Its practice was focused only in the organisation of isolated demonstrations away from the events. There were no suggestions from KKE’s side to escalate the struggle, just ruminations of its classic demands, as if nothing extraordinary was taking place.

All other leftist organisations, even those who were defending the rebellion and were talking about its rightful causes, were just spectators to the events. Not a single one of the established tendencies presented a credible radical solution.

The anarchists helped in many respects the rebellion to unfold and they played an important role in all major events. But their contribution always reaches a limit and they cannot provide any practical alternatives for the uprising to evolve.

The various groups that foster syndicalism in Greece also were unable to offer alternatives for the emerging social movement. As usually, they simply demanded better conditions for the workers without challenging the existing social order, the nation-state and capitalism.

Communalism could be a credible proposal and a radical solution in these circumstances as my other article, “Sparks of democracy,” indicates. The protests themselves, the continuing presence of people in the streets trying to reclaim their cities and their life, were indirectly highlighting a strong democratic tendency that found some important forms to express itself, their ultimate failing notwithstanding.