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A Hot Winter in Greece

category greece / turkey / cyprus | community struggles | opinion / analysis author Wednesday April 08, 2009 18:58author by Steffi - Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Frontauthor email zacf at zabalaza dot net Report this post to the editors

Weeks of violent riots, clashes between ordinary people and the police, the burning of police cars and attacks on police stations, the looting of expensive shops, a burning Xmas tree amidst anti-consumerist slogans, street fights every day and night, calls for revolution, occupations of thousands of universities, schools, town halls etc. This past December was a hot winter month in Greece and an event that needs to be understood in more detail than was reported by the mainstream media. It is an unprecedented event in recent history in Europe, a new 1968, a new highlight in the struggle against neo-liberalism, cutbacks in the education system and police violence.

A Hot Winter in Greece

by Steffi

Weeks of violent riots, clashes between ordinary people and the police, the burning of police cars and attacks on police stations, the looting of expensive shops, a burning Xmas tree amidst anti-consumerist slogans, street fights every day and night, calls for revolution, occupations of thousands of universities, schools, town halls etc. This past December was a hot winter month in Greece and an event that needs to be understood in more detail than was reported by the mainstream media. It is an unprecedented event in recent history in Europe, a new 1968, a new highlight in the struggle against neo-liberalism, cutbacks in the education system and police violence.

There were important differences between these demonstrations and earlier ones in Greece. The crowds were much larger and the protests were not just in Athens but in many towns across the whole of Greece and they went on for weeks. The police as representatives of the state, in itself a violent institution, responded in the usual way, with violence. But the people on the streets resisted and stood united. Attempts to rupture the convergence of the oppressed by attempting to utilise existing divisions such as by praising peaceful Greek protests as compared with the foreign looters failed in the face of the emergence of practical solidarity and internationalism forged through common struggle. All the barriers that usually keep the working class divided, between for example blue or white collar workers, young and old, citizens and immigrants, disappeared when everyone was marching alongside each other. Among the broader working class there was sympathy towards the (what we prefer to call) popular uprising, not riot, which gradually gave way to less violent, more imaginative and more political acts.

Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear

Neo-liberal capitalism showed its most ugly face at the end of last year when several banks in the US collapsed because of capitalist structures that are based on and reinforce greed. And it has been shown one more time, but this time extremely openly and visibly, that the state protects capitalism and wastes billions of tax money to save the banks and the big corporations, such as the automobile industry, instead of helping the people. The Greek uprising can be seen as a first reaction to this crisis and has therefore been called "the first credit-crunch riot". Since the uprising in Greece it has spread to other place, for example Iceland, Bulgaria, Latvia and Russia.

It is because of the economic crisis and the uncertain future that teenagers in Greece face today, that the protesters, mostly youth, adopted the slogan “Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear’ (the fear of the economic situation worsening in the New Year).

The riots were very anti-consumerist. Expensive shops were looted, the municipal Xmas tree was burned etc. But there has been no vandalism against small, privately-owned businesses as the media made it look.

Reasons for the uprising

There were many reasons for the Greek uprising: decades of police brutality culminating in hundreds of activists and ordinary people being killed by the police [1] (which immediately sparked the uprising as an unarmed 15 year old boy was killed by a policeman); the onslaught of neo-liberalism and privatisations that led to thousands of people being fired or outsourced, worsening in the last months due to the international economic crisis; and cutbacks in and the failure of the education system, just as in the May 1968 uprising in Paris. Additional reasons for the riots are government corruption, the overexploitation of immigrants and the fact that this society is torn apart by deepening class divisions. There is a general feeling of hostility towards cops in the Greek population because of high levels of police brutality and there are widespread anti-state and anti-capitalist feelings. Especially young people, one quarter of which already are unemployed, are facing unemployment. For the first time since the end of the Greek “Colonels’ Dictatorship” of 1967-1974, young people have no hope for a better life than their parents.[2] An important part of this society knows that it has nothing to lose apart from the illusion that things might get better.

In Greece, as elsewhere, reformist trade unions, socialist and communist parties induce paralysis in the proletariat by promoting the illusion that the national economy constitutes the common property of all and that economic growth will lead to increasing levels of shared well being. These proponents of the welfare state recognise that capitalist society is divided into classes but view the state as embodying the general national interest. The class struggle is thus constrained by workers’ and employers’ organisations without endangering the supposed guarantor of gradual progress: economic expansion. The logic on which the power of the ruling class is based and for which the lives of the working class are sacrificed in endless toil, the generating of money with more money, becomes in this upside down ideology the universal good to be defended by the state.

The most important aspect of the uprising in Greece in December 2008 is that sections of the working class broke out of the social-democratic straight jacket constraining the modes and aims of struggle of this class. They showed that there is another way, not of class collaboration within corporatist institutions but one of direct action to confront the existing system. The current economic crisis together with decades of neo-liberal policies has in Greece, as elsewhere, undermined the illusion that capitalist growth will lead to increasing prosperity for all, through wealth trickling down from the rich to the poor, a classic liberal argument so dominant in South Africa. The uprising constitutes a concrete rejection of this myth and illustrates that the prospect of a social revolution, which would simultaneously abolish capital and the state, is a possibility and not a distant utopian dream. It can be achieved by ordinary people, breaking free from party politics and repudiating the lie currently spouted by politicians that we need to cut back now so that the future will be better. The so-called “rioters” also rejected the lie that politicians are the ones who decide about what is going on in world politics because they are the experts. The uprising has shown how we can take back the power that politicians have stolen from us and how we can take things into our own hands.

The sacrifice of the objectives of the class for decent lives on the altar of the national economy is often focused upon particular vulnerable strata of the class which are effectively excluded even from the social-democratic compact, such as migrants or the youth. Since these strata cannot be lulled into a stupor through integration they must be forced into passivity through outright repression. Rather than succumbing to the terror of the authorities those marginalised in Greek society today took to the streets and attacked the centres of the murderous violence of the Greek state – police stations. All those condemned to rot ‘in the national interest’ constituted a combative community of struggle united not around the lowest common denominator achieved by mediating the particular interests of different groups through representation but by fighting for class objectives through direct action.

The uprising in practice: occupations, the role of workers

The recognition of a shared experience of repression led to the occupation of universities and public buildings such as city halls or libraries which were transformed into sites of mobilisation against the state and areas in which counter information to fan the flames of the uprising could be spread.

The National Technical University, which is the nearest one to Exarchia square (where the killing happened) was one of the first occupations and the main place for organising clashes with the police. Its occupants were young workers (including immigrants), students and others – and many of them anarchists. The Faculty of Economics was occupied mostly by anarchist groups and antiauthoritarians who wanted to use the building for counter-information purposes. A lot of emphasis was put on the organisation of everyday activities. They took over the restaurant of the university and workshops were formed in order to run the occupation and to organise actions outside.

After the first five days of rioting, the Town Hall of Agios Dimitrios (a suburb of Athens) was occupied, organised by local anarchist groups and some of the workers who work there. The occupants organised meetings with local people, called ‘popular assemblies’, trying to broaden the revolt organising local actions, always connected to the revolt.

At a later stage in the uprising, the National Opera House was occupied by dancers renaming the historic Athens building "Insurgent People's Opera". Since then the Opera has been functioning as a free space for revolutionary workshops and fora in solidarity with Konstantina Kouneva (see below) and everyone arrested in December, as well as against the police state.

All occupations served as bases of the movement from which subversive actions were organised and where rebels could seek refuge, if necessary. In all these activities, the common new characteristic was an attempt to ‘open up’ the rebellion towards the neighbourhoods.[3]

The dominant and reformist trade unions were partially successful in constraining the process of the convergence of the class by preventing manual wage workers engaged in a ritualistic one day national strike from joining the insurgents. This isolation of the manual workers from the stream of struggle which limited the potential for the intensification of the uprising was unfortunately only transcended in rare instances. The base union of workers participating in the assembly occupying Agios Dimitrios town hall decided to perform municipal services for free, bypassing the municipal authorities which employed them. Unfortunately this decision was not put into effect due to intimidation by the city bosses. The role of union bureaucrats of constraining struggles through mediation was rejected in two instances through the occupation of the offices of union federations.

The occupation of the building of the General Confederation of Labour of Greece (GSEE) was initially started by members of the base union of couriers, an independent union – many of whom are anarchists and other anti-authoritarians. The problem was that the other base unions didn't join the occupation, something that if it had occurred would have given an enormous power to this project.

If there was a real potential to further this struggle it was in the occupations of municipal buildings (such as town halls, municipal buildings, cultural centres etc) which were managed by direct assemblies by locals discussing their common issues and taking decisions in a directly democratic manner. And in those occupations local anarchists participated [4].

Repression and solidarity

More than 270 people have been arrested in connection to actions, since the beginning of the insurrection in 15 cities. 67 of them have been detained, while 50 immigrants that were arrested during the first 3 days were rapidly condemned to 18 months of imprisonment and are being deported. 19 arrestees in Larissa face charges under the anti-terrorist law.

Konstantina Kuneva, a militant union organiser, is one among the hundreds of female immigrant workers who have been working for years as cleaners at OIKEMET. She is well known for her stance against various bosses. She was attacked by unknown people, probably hired by her boss, with sulphuric acid to burn her face with the intention to kill her while returning home from work late at night. As a consequence she lost sight in one of her eyes. The target was not coincidental: female, immigrant, militant union organiser, she was the most vulnerable for the bosses. The time chosen was also not coincidental: the media, the political parties, the Church, businessmen and union bosses have been trying to ridicule the social uprising. In this pretext, the attack on Konstantina is lost in the everyday news. The workers of ISAP, however, showed solidarity with her and occupied their workplace which hires Kuneva’s cleaning company to clean its building and which is therefore, according to the workers, complicit in the attack.

While the uprising was still going on, another event happened that drew solidarity from all around the world: the war in Gaza (read more about this on Page 24). Besides demonstrations against the war, Greek activists also called for the boycott of a US arms shipment to Israel which on its way there was supposed to dock in the port of Astakos. The shipment contained three hundred and twenty-five 20-foot containers, over 3,000 tons, of ammunition. It was an emergency shipment of arms to aid the occupation in its ongoing war crimes against the Palestinian people in Gaza, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed in a statement to the Greek workers. The next day, the Greek Anti-Authoritarian Movement (AK), issued a call for protesters to flood the port on Jan. 15.[5] The US had to re-route the arms shipment because the Greek government feared even more protests. This was an important form of international solidarity and can be compared to the ones in South Africa where Durban dock workers first refused to offload a Chinese arms shipment for the dictatorship in Zimbabwe and recently an Israeli arms and goods shipment in Durban harbour.

Within Greece, two months after her kiosk was torched in local riots in November (and therefore not connected to the uprising) 74-year-old Harikleia Ananiadou from Thessaloniki received a cash gift from a small group of anarchists calling itself Anarchist Initiative, critical of violent aspects in the uprising, to rebuild her life. "As anarchists, we felt we should support a fellow human victimised by blind violence," the organisation said in a statement. The reason for this was that other shop owners were helped by the government, but only the ones attacked in December received such help.

The role of anarchism in the uprising

The Greek anarchist movement is among the largest in the world in proportion to its country's population. Anarchists and anti-authoritarians played a central role in the uprising. It was anarchists who started the riots and who proved that we are not as far away from a revolution as we think we are, and that revolutions can take place even within the European Union. Anarchist flags were hung from the many occupied buildings in Greece and even from occupied embassies and consulates around the world, including Berlin, in global solidarity with the uprising.

Since the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999 anarchism has been central to the global movement against capitalism, pushing for a social revolution in which there is a need not only to get rid of global capitalism but also the state. Instead of the sectarianism of the authoritarian left, over who gets to rule once a “worker’s state” is established, the anti-authoritarians worked on the ground together with workers, students and non-political people and saw themselves not as the vanguard but as among the many ordinary people who rose up and showed that they can do it themselves. Anarchist ideas of self-determination, mutual aid (see Page 11), community power, freedom and equality have spread across the struggling populace in the form of strong anti-authoritarian sentiment, manifested in hundreds of calls for assemblies and strikes, and scrawled on thousands of banners and building-sides.[6]

Lessons from the uprising

In the light of the global economic crisis, events like those in Greece will happen all around the world. It is important for us to organise so that we can take over the factories and the land and not only show our anger in demonstrations. A new world can only be created by ourselves, but it cannot be created by protests alone. The Greek uprising also shows the importance of international solidarity.

It is only a matter of time until the economic crisis will hit South Africa hard and will add to the already existing unbearable conditions for the majority of the population. Will the revolutionary left be prepared to take this further than demonstrations or left sectarianism? Will we see that no political party can lead the people but that the people have to make the revolution themselves? Will we try to push for everything in a situation that threatens us with nothing?

The Greek anarchists are known for their insurrectionary and anti-organisational tendencies. It is because of this that anarchists are often seen as chaotic looters with no concrete goal. We have seen that this can lead to an important uprising, but after a while it will die down. This situation brings anarchists in Greece in front of a new reality, to sit down and examine ways of forming a serious, militant and coherent organisation, an anarchist organisation of the class struggle – linked to rank-and-file workers – and not only engage in spontaneous actions, so that the uprising and occupations can spread.

Many acts in the Greek uprising are reminiscent of 1968 in Paris, blending humour and mischief. Many activists focused only on the spectacle of various events, like interrupting TV shows with banners reading that people should rather turn off the TV and start rioting, or theatre performances with banners that were funny but don’t necessarily lead to the overthrow of capitalism and/or the state. The problem is that they see the uprising as well as such spectacles as an end in itself.

The riot, in general, was not felt in any significant way in the workplaces, in the sense that no strikes were called to support it. The only exceptions were the teachers’ strike on the day of Alexis’ funeral and the big participation in the strike against the state budget on the 10th of December. Apart from these, the rebellion left workplaces untouched.[7] Any revolution, however, has to link workers with other oppressed people, to be successful. The general strike, brought about only by workers, is still one of the most important elements to bring about a social revolution. The people involved in the uprising should have made links with workers to spread the insurrection and take over the factories.

Although this uprising has not brought about a Greek revolution, it has brought tens of thousands into the anti-authoritarian movement and taught them how to fight in the streets, created thousands of popular assemblies as well as strengthened existing groups, and shown both the insurrectionary populace and the government and capitalists that the power truly does lie with the people.[8]

Even though the immediate riots have died down, this is not the end of the uprising. Some occupations are still going on. As soon as there is renewed police brutality or more cut-backs in the public sector, people will take to the streets again. Let’s hope that next time the workers will join the insurgents.


* This article uses data and analyses of our comrades abroad, all of whom would be too many to name – except those that are explicitly quoted – and includes first hand accounts of the events in Greece. It should be noted, however, that much of this analysis and especially the chronology are based on articles by the left communists Blaumachen and TGTP. The article is also based on many discussions with our comrade Komnas Poriazis, who wrote parts of this article and whom I wish to thank. Special thanks also go to our comrade Dimitri who read and commented on this article before publishing.
1. The Greek police has a long history of killing ordinary youth, about 100 have been killed in recent decades. Not a single policeman was ever convicted. Nikos Raptis (2008) Greek Teenagers:
2. Kaimaki, Valia (2009) Bailouts for the banks, bullets for the people: Mass uprising of Greece’s Youth:
3. Blaumachen (2009) Like a winter... with a thousand Decembers:
4. Correspondence with our comrade Dimitri, a Greek anarchist
5. ibid
6. Carman, Jake (2009) A Close Look at the Greek Insurrection. In: The Nor Easter #4 Winter 2009
7. Blaumachen (2009) Like a winter...
8. Carman, Jake (2009) A Close Look at the Greek Insurrection

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