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.

More photos...

No comments:

Post a Comment