Why did Greek youth take to the streets? For the first time since the second world war young people have no hope of a better life than their parents. But there is also a failure of trust in politicians and all state institutions, particularly the police
The veteran Greek politician Leonidas Kyrkos, now in his eighties, is an iconic figure of the Greek left. He told me what he’d like to say to the young people out on the streets: “Welcome to social struggle, my friends. Now you must take care of yourself and your struggle.”
Following the killing of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos by a special police unit on 6 December, school and university students have risen up in an unprecedented outpouring of rage. Spontaneous demonstrations, mostly organised by email and SMS, have shaken towns and cities across the country: Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, Larissa, Heraklion and Chania in Crete, Ioannina, Volos, Kozani, Komotini.
This is an uprising with many origins; the most obvious is police brutality. Alexis is not the first victim of the Greek police, only the youngest. But its roots also lie in the economic crisis – a national one which struck hard even before the consequences of the global financial storm made themselves felt. On top of this, Greece is going through a profound political crisis, both systemic and moral; it comes from the duplicity of political parties and personalities, which has broken all trust in state institutions.
Alexis’s death wasn’t an exceptional case, or a blot on the otherwise pristine copybook of the Athens police. The list of student and immigrant victims of torture and murder by the police goes back a long way. In 1985, another 15-year-old, Michel Kaltezas, was murdered by a police officer – a crime whitewashed by a corrupt judicial system. The Greek police may be no worse than police forces in other parts of Europe, but the wounds left by Greece’s dictatorship, the military junta of 1967-74, are still open here; and the memory of those seven dark years is deeply ingrained in people’s minds. This society does not forgive as readily as some.
The 700 euro generation
This united front is led by a generation of the very young. There is a reason for this: daily life for most young Greeks is dominated by intensive schooling aimed at securing a university place. Selection is tough and children focus hard on it from the age of 12. But once the lucky ones get there, they soon discover the reality of life after university: at best, a job at €700 ($1,000) a month.
The Greeks know all about the “700 euro generation”. One group has now named a new association after it: Generation 700, or just G700. They try to give a voice to this generation, and give free legal advice too. Those who are lucky enough to get the €700 are freelancers or subcontractors. Even a short-term contract is seen as exceptional, because that would entitle you to some social security, redundancy pay and holidays, whereas a freelance agreement, now common even in the public services, gives you no legal rights or security.
Stratos Fanaras, a political analyst and director of the public opinion survey company Metron Analysis, outlines the situation in Greece: “The studies we have recently conducted show that all economic indices as well as people’s aspirations for the future have sunk to a record low. People feel let down and disillusioned, and cannot see the situation improving. This reaction is the same for men and women, and across all social classes and educational levels. And studies by the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research, which has been publishing monthly reports since 1981, also show that economic indices have never been so low.”
For the young, the political system and parties that represent it have no legitimacy. Three political families have reigned over the Greek political scene since the 1950s. The two main parties, New Democracy on the right and the socialists of Pasok, have shared power for more than 30 years.
The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), still Stalinist, is in no position to provide solutions. The Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) does at least know how to communicate with the young, and its leap in the opinion polls in the last months has been spectacular: after a modest 5.04% in the national elections of September 2007, it won almost 13% of voter preferences six months later. The election of Alexis Tsipras, 33, as leader of its biggest component, the Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology, Synapismos, has also contributed to this rise in support. The original positions it has taken on current issues have helped to gain support from some young people, as have some well-chosen media coups (Tsipras took a young woman immigrant from Sierra Leone as his partner to the Greek president’s annual reception to commemorate the restoration of democracy). Even after some levelling out, Syriza is still getting about 8%, well ahead of the KKE (which is finding its decline hard to swallow).
Need for a scapegoat
This struggle for primacy on the left may have led the KKE to ally itself with the New Democracy government and the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (Laos) when the government denounced Syriza as a “haven for rioters”. New Democracy needed a scapegoat to divert the public debate from the causes of the uprising. Pasok, meanwhile, is keeping its mouth shut, knowing that its turn to govern is coming sooner than it expected.
The government of Kostas Karamanlis has much responsibility for all this. Elected in 2004 on a promise of openness and honesty, it has become embroiled in scandals even worse than those of its predecessors. Bribery, corruption, nepotism – and more. The latest concerns the illegal trading of state land for less valuable land owned by the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos, for which those responsible have still not been brought to justice.
The young are right to believe that in such a corrupt country, no one gets punished. And this belief fuels the violence of their response. Their faces hidden by masks or balaclavas, the most radical demonstrators, mostly anarchists or autonomists, often gather in the main square of the Exarchia district in central Athens, the area where Alexis was killed. The police have a longstanding vendetta against the anarchists of Exarchia, particularly because the district is right next to the Athens Polytechnic, where students fought a decisive battle again the junta in 1973. Street-fighting between radicals and the police in Exarchia has a long history.
No lessons learned
TV coverage of the uprising across the world focused on stock images of burning buildings and petrol-bombers. But there are significant differences between these demonstrations and earlier ones. The crowds of violent protesters are much larger. And the protests are not just in Athens but in a host of towns across mainland Greece and the islands – and they have been going on for some time. That suggests that a great many young people have joined in the violence, and most had no previous contact with the anarchists. On the barricades that have sprung up everywhere you can find kids of 13 or 14.
The government of course used the masked petrol-bombers to inspire fear of a “threat to democracy”. “What democracy?” ask the protesters. It is true that schoolchildren and university students attacked police stations with rocks and that others damaged banks. But only a few days earlier the government, indifferent to the impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of Greeks, gave those banks a gift of €28bn ($39bn). And these are the banks which use private debt-collection agencies to insult and threaten anyone who owes them small sums of money, and to seize their property.
But young people’s anger hasn’t yet led to their politicisation, at least not in the traditional sense. This is not surprising since the political parties themselves, with the exception of those of the far left, are deaf to the demands of the movement. open discussion, not even any sign that they have got the message, no lessons learned,” said Fanaras. “It’s as if they’re just waiting for the young to get tired of smashing things up and believe that will be the end of the uprising.” Some, he thinks, may retreat into passivity and isolation. Others may be drawn into terrorist groups. “It was already like that after the murder of Michel Kaltezas,” said Alexandros Yiotis, a former journalist and “anarcho-syndicalist” who had been active in that movement in France, Spain and Greece. “In particular, they swelled the ranks of the [Greek] 17 November terrorist group.”
There are two striking things in the state propaganda relayed by the media, especially television. The first concerns the role of immigrants in the uprising. It is claimed that all the shops that were burned were targeted by hungry immigrants. And even that in Asia, for example, “it is standard practice: people demonstrate, break into shops and then loot them.” But the violent protesters were, for the most part, ordinary Greeks, in revolt against a corrupt political system. And when Roma took part in some of the violence, they were avenging their own people, forgotten victims of police repression.
Still, some of the looting was indeed the work of hungry crowds, Greek for the most part. “It’s a new phenomenon,” said one student. “In protests in the past you’d get students and trade unions at the front, then political parties with Syriza at the back. Behind them would be the anarchists and, when things kicked off, they would move among the ranks of Syriza… and everyone would get beaten up. But now, behind the anarchists there’s a new bloc – the hungry. Whether they are immigrants, drug addicts or down-and-outs, they know you can usually get something to eat on a protest.”
World turned upside down
A second invention of the government and media is the claim that “angry citizens” have taken the law into their own hands to chase off rioters. On the contrary: they have often tried to chase off the riot police. Small shopkeepers shout at them to get lost; passers-by wade in to try and rescue students they’ve arrested. Having understood they cannot keep their children at home, parents and grandparents join them on the streets in order to look after them. A world turned upside down.
Will the movement continue to grow? “There’s plenty of fuel for it,” said Dimitris Tsiodras, a journalist and political analyst. “For the global economic crisis will soon begin to bite here and a great many young people will remain marginalised; and the education system isn’t exactly going to improve tomorrow morning, and there isn’t any sign of an end to political corruption.”
It is not only a question for Greece. The movement has managed to export itself – or simply converge with others elsewhere. For one good reason: there is a whole generation, the first since the second world war, which has no hope for a better life than their parents. And that is not an exclusively Greek phenomenon.