22 May 2011

Tension in Athens

  Athens has been especially tense for the last ten days.  Social and political conflict is escalating.  Ten days ago at the general strike, riot police beat an anarchist demonstrator into a coma and hospitalized dozens more.  When repressive governments feel that they are losing control, when they fear the spread of an idea, they resort to brutal repression.  One only needs to look to Syria right now to see this at its extreme.  As the ruling class clings to power in times of crisis, intimidation becomes the weapon of choice to assert dominance.

  After the unprovoked attack by the police on the tail end of the general strike demonstration, protesters responded to the police onslaught with a barrage of rocks, powerful fireworks, and molotov cocktails.  Running street battles flared throughout downtown Athens, migrating towards the friendly streets of Exarchia.  Dumpsters again burned in the streets to block the movement of riot police.  Dozens of young anarchists carried out hit and run attacks on riot police from the Polytechnic University, a place police are forbidden to enter.  Hundreds more occupied Exarchia square and the streets surrounding it.  Firefighters arrived when police could clear an area long enough for them to extinguish the burning dumpsters and barricades.  The march started at 11 am, and the street fighting didn't end that night until 8 pm.

  That night an assembly was called to figure out an appropriate response.  The plan was to have it at the usual venue for anarchist assemblies, the Architectural campus of the Polytechnic.  Unfortunately the school was surrounded by riot cops, and the meeting had to be moved to the nearby Economics campus.  Despite the change, about a hundred people showed up.  One person introduced the topic and demonstrators discussed it for the next three hours. The meeting had neither a facilitator nor a formal process.  When one person was finished talking, someone else on the other side of the room would pick up and offer up their opinion.  The meeting was full of people who were constantly rubbing their eyes and sneezing as the smell of tear gas saturated into peoples clothes wafted out.  By midnight, they had decided that the next morning at 8:00 AM they would occupy the campus that was closest to downtown. There was going to be a demonstration against the police later that day, and holding that space was key to having a base to fight from.

  The next morning, the best in 90s Greek punk blared out onto the morning rush hour crowd from the steps of the newly occupied university.  A huge black banner reading "Dolofonoi" (Murderers) was draped down the front of the building.  The Greek flag on the top of the roof had been replaced by a red and black one, while slogans and circle-As were spray painted across the front walls.  Dozens of pissed off anarchists sat back and relaxed as confused passersby gawked on their way to work.  Throughout the day hundreds of people gathered on the steps and in the halls.  A communiqué was written and posted to the internet in both Greek and English.  Thousands of flyers about the previous day's police beatings, the occupation, and the 5pm anti-police demonstration were handed out to everyone on the busy street.

  By the time of the march, over 5,000 people had assembled.  Hundreds of participants wore or carried motorcycle helmets and wielded wooden rods mounted with black and red flags.  The only police presence was a small squad of riot cops a few blocks away and about five more intelligence officers standing on the top of a building attempting to photograph demonstrators’ faces.  Throughout the night the police maintained a considerable distance  from the march, which was quite different than at the general strike, which was heavily policed.  The assumption was that this distance was for their own safety.  When the cops did get within throwing range, they were pelted with the usual projectiles (rocks, molotovs, and fireworks), as well as small propane canisters which were detonated by the (Greek equivalent to) M80s that were taped to them.

  Experienced street fighters came prepared with hammers in order to break off chunks of marble from walls, steps, and planters, providing endless munitions for attacking the cops.  Throughout the evening, most of the militant demonstrators ended up back on the steps of the university.  Again, whenever the police were close enough, they were met with a rain of stones.  Another assembly was taking place within the safety of the campus.  After a few hours of discussion, they decided to leave the university in order to fight against another enemy -- fascists.

  A few days earlier, a man was mugged for a camera near Victoria Square as he left his home in the early morning to go with his pregnant wife to the hospital.  He resisted the mugging and was stabbed three times by his attackers, who fled and left him to die.  This area is home to scores of migrants, and Greek fascists capitalized on this fact to incite brutal pogroms against anyone who didn't look Greek. Over a hundred people were attacked the following week, almost 50 were stabbed, one was killed, a number of businesses were ransacked, and countless more individuals were chased away.  A far-right group called Golden Dawn (of which hundreds of police officers from Athens belong to) headed the campaign of violence, as the Nazi concept of collective punishment was implemented by these crazed nationalists.  As expected, the police let it happen.  Several videos have been posted to the internet of the police standing by idly as mobs of fascists beat immigrants.  Another video filmed from an apartment balcony shows the police letting two fascists out of the back of a police car and replacing them with two migrants, presumably to keep the number of arrests from a fascist demonstration in line with what they had reported to their higher ups.

   Anarchists and Antifascists geared up and organized a massive resistance to these racist attacks.  The squat of Villa Amalias is situated only a block from Victoria Square, an area that fascists are attempting to 'cleanse' of migrants.  Inside the gates to the courtyard of the squat sits a neatly organized arsenal of rocks, sticks, and bottles as well as dozens of helmets.  The anarchists would be attacked by riot police if they were to occupy the square, which would probably scare off anybody using the space, migrant or otherwise, and thereby defeat the purpose of making the space safe for immigrants.  The strategy then was to wait at the squat for the fascists to come to the square, then to ambush them.  The fascists have been occupying an intersection about 6 blocks from the park, and after a few failed attempts to attack migrants and the squat itself, they seemed to have learned that their stupidity will get them hurt.

  A day after the fascists and riot police mounted a failed attack against Skaramanga, another nearby squat, the media began reporting on the rampant violence in the city. The police PR machine ensured the 'objective' journalists of the corporate press that they were doing everything in their power to curb the attacks against migrants, and that they were working hard to preserve order.   Subsequently, the mainstream media depicts police as the saviors in this chaos.  These events were a convenient distraction from the economic crisis that plagues Greece, and the police are quick to ensure people that they are the only ones who can 'bring order' to this tense situation.   Antifascist demonstrations, attacks on fascists themselves, and self-defense by migrants are the only things actually keeping immigrants here safe.

  Athens is a city where the ordinary citizen has very little faith in the police.  They are generally untrusted and seen as brutal right-wing gangs.  If you call the police in need of help, they are unlikely to even show up.  However, they occupy street corners in full riot gear, always at the ready to administer justice as they see fit.  One week ago from today, a group of about 50 anarchists attacked the police station in Exarchia with stones and fire.  Several police cruisers and motorcycles were burned, as well as a few personal motorcycles owned by cops.  As the group left it was perused by a motorcycle cop.  The anarchists nailed his vehicle with a molotov and the officer fled. The motorcycle exploded and injured three people who were at a nearby market, including a flower seller who was seriously hurt.  A few days later, members of the group wrote a statement clarifying the intentions of the attack and expressing deep regrets for the injuries.

  Many anarchists here are drawing comparisons between this event and the burning of the Marfin Bank one year ago that left three bank workers dead, an event that has been paralyzing to militants, who are now calling their tactics at demonstrations into question.  Both events have been labeled as reckless attacks carried out in total disregard for human life.  But there is a huge difference between recklessness and accidents.  Police vehicles, in the collective experience of the people here who burn them regularly, do not typically explode.  The injuries caused by this event are terrible reminders that yes, injuries to innocent people will happen.  Every possible precaution could be taken in preparation for an action, but there is no guarantee that nothing will go wrong.  Yes, this event is regretful and tragic, but does it actually devalue the message that was sent to the police?  The brutality that was carried out against protesters on May 11th will not be tolerated.

  Between the brutal general strike beatings, anti-police demonstrations, fascist pogroms against migrants, anti-fascist demonstrations, attacks on the squats, regular street battles with police, injuries from the exploding motorcycle, and a failing economy, the anarchists in Athens have felt an abrupt escalation of the intensity in social struggle.  Only a few weeks ago people were talking about life here being in a slump.  Anarchist activity was in a lull and they weren't sure how exciting the prospects were.  But today they are struggling to find time to rest as they go from meeting to demonstration to assembly to their job (if they managed to land a job) or to school.  As the outlook for the economy worsens, the prospect of more intense conflict rises. 

  Economic instability and a widespread growing distrust for capitalism equals more people looking towards radical solutions to find a better world to live in.  While a few are distracted or even enticed by the anti-foreigner message of the fascists, an expanding section of society is looking farther towards the left for solutions, and a growing number of those people look even further, towards anarchism.  The politicians here and the police that protect them and the capitalist agenda fear this.  They fear the example set by anarchists, and are doing everything in their power to both demonize them and to show others the kind of repression they will direct towards people who stand up against them.  But the Greeks have a long history of standing up against state repression.  In many ways the whole world is watching Greece.  As governments are challenged and toppled in Northern Africa, people are watching from afar wondering if the economic crisis will be enough to tip the scale and send Greece on its way to becoming be the first European country, the first democracy, to collapse under the weight of massive social upheaval.

  In less than one week, Athens will host one of the largest anarchist gatherings in the world, which will bring somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 radicals together for a five day event featuring speakers, workshops, movie premiers, and live music. Anarchists from across the globe will congregate in a city that is famous for being a center for radical militancy against the state.  It is unlikely that anything historical will happen, but with so many anarchists in one place at a time with so much social tension, things have the potential to get very interesting.

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11 May 2011

May 11 General Strike Photos

For now, here is a link to the photos I took at the general strike today. Check the Occupied London Blog for the most up-to-date information.  It is 10:30pm right and there are emergency assemblies and demonstrations in progress in response to a demonstrator being put into a coma by riot police earlier today.

10 May 2011

Hit And Run Mayday, Prospects For The Strike

    I'm sitting in a third story apartment in Exarchia, looking out over the neighborhood and wondering what the coming week will bring.  It's sunny, but nowhere near as warm as it usually is this time of year.  A cool breeze carries clouds through the sky, which periodically block the sun.  The weather report says it will be the same on Wednesday, the day of the general strike, but it has been wrong almost every day so far.

    Last week it rained.  Everyone thought it was going to rain on Mayday.  It didn't.  People wore long pants and jackets to the march, hoping to stay warm and dry, only to be greeted with the warmest day of the week.  There were about 5,000 people who met in front of the Museum, and about a third were anarchists.  The last time I saw that many anarchists in one place in the US was in 2008 in St. Paul for the RNC, which resulted in a series of riots, over eight hundred arrests, and national corporate media coverage about the failure of law enforcement and the 'danger' posed by anarchists.  Friends and comrades were caught up in court for years, and many were sent to sit behind bars for months or years to regret what they had done.  I  suspect most just regretted being caught.  I also suspect the city of St. Paul might not be so eager to host another major convention any time soon.

    In Athens though, this was clearly not enough anarchists to do anything.  A lot of people who live here share a collective experience in street-fighting with police and attacking capitalist and nationalist property.  It was pretty clear to them that with so few at the march it could not be done safely.  To see this many anarchists in one place decide to avoid confrontation was somewhat sobering to experience, causing me to think back at all the protests I've attended that had far fewer militants, got crazy fast, and ended with at least a few arrests.  Despite the unspoken decision towards non-confrontation there was still a fair amount of taunting directed at the police, which was in some ways, much more confrontational than protests back home.  This played out in the form of yelling, throwing trash and full water bottles, and setting off the Greek equivalent of M80s between riot cops.  Despite being provoked, it seemed that police were equally cautious about starting a fight.  They've seen things spiral out of their control more than a few times in recent memory.

     The march slowly made its way down a main boulevard towards Parliament, flanked on both sides by lines of riot cops, and then tensely changed course and worked its way towards Exarchia, where most of the demonstrators dispersed.  A contingent of about two hundred anarchists casually gathered at Exarchia Square.  After milling about, drinking water, and relaxing, people started gearing up to go back out.  A group of people a decade younger than me started gathering near the statue to prepare for battles with the police.  They gathered stones and molotov cocktails without any fear of police intervention.  The square is safe.  Cops don't come here.  They know that to enter the park means war.  In any case they were blocks away and nobody who frequents this park would ever call them… or be upset to see them in flames.

    With a burst of energy, everyone left the park.  The youngest people were at the front.  At every intersection, 10-20 people stayed behind and took up defensive positions, to provide a safe avenue back to the Square and to keep an eye out for police ambushes.  These groups were in constant communication with each other, letting others know when it was safe and when it wasn't.  Everyone had stones; if only enough to keep the police from being overconfident.  In Exarchia, especially on the day of a big demonstration, there are groups of riot police in various intersections and in front of common targets (like the PASOK headquarters or the police station).  One of these unlucky contingents was attacked.  Rocks and molotovs flew.  The police answered with tear gas.  After a few exchanges and an unsuccessful police charge, the crowd slipped down its pre-existing safety corridor back to the Square.

     After a half hour the group geared back up and went out again. This time building barricades in the streets along the escape route with burning dumpsters.  A computer store that was looted and burned in December of 2008 had just re-opened about two weeks earlier.  It had already been robbed of a few laptops a few days earlier.  After another group of police was attacked with more rocks and molotovs, the crowd refocused its energy onto attacking the computer shop, doing a fair amount of damage considering the security gates were down.  After about ten minutes the police attacked, only to be met by a hailstorm of rocks.  There was some commotion coming from one of the groups at the intersection two blocks away near the park.  The cops were flanking!  Everyone bolted back to the square, and as most there had already fled, continued up into the nearby streets, with the police in close pursuit.   After giving chance for a few blocks and not catching anyone, the police left the area and life returned to normal.  People in cafes went back to their conversations, businesses opened their gates back up, and dumpsters burned in the streets.

    Back in the square people talked.  Some were happy about the excitement, while others thought such attacks were pointless and only invited the police into the square.  Things were back to normal.  The prospect of altering the government's idea of what the future should look like was dead for the day. There's always next week. The general strike is next Wednesday, when everyone will be back in town from their long easter vacations.  Everyone knows that their future has been stolen away.  Some people are ready to take it back.

   There is talk here that the unions want the general strike to last until Friday.  The situation is complicated for the unions.  On one hand they know that their members aren't content with the way things have been going, but on the other hand, the union leadership is so comfortable with the socialist ruling party of the government that they would never seek to actually threaten it.  Their job then, is to diffuse people's anger without letting it get out of their control.  To maintain this balance they call a general strike every few months.  On these occasions downtown Athens is filled with smoke and tear gas as a battle rages between the more enraged demonstrators who attempt to escalate the conflict into something more than a symbolic march through the streets.

     Is this rumor merely hopeful gossip by anarchists who wish it was true? Is it a hint that the unions aren't content with the government who's pocket in which they comfortably rest? Perhaps the unions are simply not afraid that it will spark a conflict that they won't be able to manage.  Over the next few days we'll see how this plays out, but for now all anyone can do is speculate.  Some people here are painfully optimistic.  "The next December '08!"  Others are less hopeful.  "Nothing will happen," they say.  But regular people in this city are angry.  There is a lot of potential for things to explode.  But anarchists here are apprehensive.  The events of last year's May 5th demonstration that led to the death of three bank workers has paralyzed many who were extremely active, and the police and media are doing everything they can to demonize anarchists.  Is this open wound too debilitation to overcome? This, coupled with state repression, is taking its toll, but can people break out of this slump and work again toward reclaiming their futures?

    Here in Greece, people do battle in the streets one day, and build community gardens the next.  Militancy and social projects are not mutually exclusive, and in fact they thrive off of each other.  There are between 40 and 50 anarchists spaces in this town, from squats to social centers to gardens to free stores.  Anarchists here know that to create the world they want to see they must remove the barriers that prevent them from doing so.  The police are in the way. Capitalism is in the way.  Even mainstream social standards are in the way.  What will it take to remove these obstacles?

Nobody here pretends to know The Answer to that question.  What they do know is that it wont be easy.  As their comrades are hauled off to prison and the corporate media run articles that read like police press releases, they feel the heat of repression breathing down their necks.  Will it derail this powerful movement?  Perhaps the general strike will provide a glimpse into what is to come. Perhaps it wont.  In this struggle to transform society, there are no answers. There is only transition.

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