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The revenge of life

As protesters continue to fill the squares of Athens, the two ministers targeted by the demonstrators have gone - but the young people who took to the streets after the police had killed one of them had a lot more in mind than a cabinet reshuffle. Two participant observers, Ilias Ziogas and Akis Gavrilidis, sent us interim interpretations of the intense resistance that is shaking Greek political institutions

February 1, 2009
13 min read

The events that followed the shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos marked the fiercest social explosion Greece has experienced since 1990-91, when the great student movement and assassination of teacher Nikos Temponeras by right-wingers shook the country. A new generation is defining its own starting point, adding another link to the historic chain: the student movements of the 1960s, the Polytechnic uprising against the dictatorship in 1973, the 1990-91 movement, and now this. Without underestimating the youth uprisings of the past, it seems that this one has the intensity to act as a real catalyst for wider social change.

How is this explosion being understood by different parts of Greek society? The Greek Communist Party, which is still influential among workers in Greece, has distanced itself from the uprising. Communist Party MP Spyros Halvatzis declared: ‘Pupils do not smash banks. Pupils, youth, students do not smash, do not destroy things.’ So who does? The middle-aged, public servants, pensioners?

See nothing, hear nothing, know nothing.

The ‘hooded ones’

In the face of the unexpected, parts of society (at the top as well as the bottom) resort to pure denial. They remove the cause of the events to the realm of the near mythical, discovering again the exotic creatures that are koukouloforoi – the ‘hooded ones’. They don’t care why these people wear hoods on the demonstrations (a wild guess: because they don’t want to be identified by the cameras and later receive a not-so-polite visit from the police). It doesn’t matter who is under the hood, what his or her story is.

The koukouloforoi are not entitled to any social or human attributes. Neither young, nor old. Neither a pupil, nor a student, nor a worker or simply unemployed. Hardly a person at all. It’s simply the koukouloforoi, who live on another planet (the planet of the ‘enemies of democracy’) far away from us, and land every now and then in the centre of Athens to destroy things.

Another section of society, fortunately much larger, understands that the events are of great importance, that they constitute an expression of social feelings that have grown to explosive dimensions. They are trying to locate the ‘why’ of this uprising, to create linear relationships between cause and effect, in an effort to give meaning to the unexpected. The global media also fall in this category, attributing the uprising to the economic crisis, unemployment and government scandals. This logic is telling us that the youth are revolting because they fear they won’t be able to find work, support a family, afford a house and a car. They rise up because they feel they are denied the chance to live like the ‘grown-ups’ live now.

See everything, hear nothing and explain the ‘other’ with your own values.

What the youth are really saying

If you really want to understand what other people are telling you, you have to listen. Clear your mind for a moment, open some space for new thoughts. The youth are revolting because they want to live, with a full meaning of the word ‘life’. They want to live freely, they want space to create, to emancipate themselves, to play. They don’t want to spend their adolescence in 12-hour days of school and the extra courses they have to take to get into university; they don’t want lose their first adult years in the pointless chase for a university degree, the passport to a glorious 48-hours-a-week job in a boring office.

They don’t want to be dependent on their families in order to start a family of their own. And honestly, they don’t even care about starting a family. They are bored of ‘having fun’ in video game cafes, clubs, stadiums, shopping malls and commercial concerts. They are not jealous of ‘normality’ and do not seek it. On the contrary, they see this ‘promise’ of normality getting even worse: the school even more exhausting, the hideous job getting even more hideous, the university starting to resemble the school, and marriage looking like a prison sentence.

This is not a ‘no future’ generation, it’s simply a generation that does not accept the present as its future, that simply can’t stand the idea that this present will freeze and reproduce forever. At 32, still ‘unsettled’ in every sense of the word, I feel part of this youth. We do not share the cynicism, the dysthymia of a society that keeps on repeating ‘What can you do? That’s the way things will always be.’ We crave to construct our own, autonomous future.

There are a lot of things standing in our way. That’s the point of unity between pupils, students and young working/unemployed/precarious adults. When you really want to live, a spark is enough to make you instinctively attack anything that you think stands in your way. Today the youth feel that police stations, riot police and banks are blocking their way, so they’re just trying to push them aside.

Still, the intensity of this particular uprising also comes from its own starting point. When one feels that his or her life is in danger, even in the strict biological sense, reacting is also a matter of pure survival. Alexandros Grigoropoulos was just 16 years old, and if you listen to what the pupils are saying, it’s clear that they totally identify with him. No obstacle, no fear can stand in the way of the instinct to survive. They can hit me, arrest me, expel me from school, but if I don’t do something I could be next. The cop’s bullet has awakened life’s deepest reflexes in Greek kids, and now – well, good luck to the orderly trying to get them back to the herd.

Ilias Ziogas


Greek riots: The multitude in action and in the making

Greek politics will never be the same again. A new actor has appeared on the scene, but not in a recognisable political form. It did not submit any specific ‘demands’ for somebody else to approve or not; it made politics through its action in a ‘performative’ way, changing politics directly as it declared the need for change. The movement was not an instrument used by a pre-existing political organisation to draw the attention of ‘the authorities’ to its problems. Rather it was the self-creation of a new political actor as the only means of forcing a public reaction to the death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos at the hands of the police.

Without this movement, such a death would have been ignored, like so many other cases of ‘ricocheting police guns’ killing Albanian or Pakistani migrants or Roma. Such killings are classified as ‘unhappy incidents’, deemed unworthy of any further public attention.

On the other hand, this new political actor is a not a political subject in the sense of a sovereign entity with a unitary will and conscience. Instead it is unstable, variable, multiple. It is the multitude.

The multitude is not – and will never become – a political party in the parliamentary system; it is not even a spontaneous movement of the ‘masses’ waiting for a ‘vanguard’ to represent it or ‘give it consciousness of itself’. It is not a new social class or set of people, but a relationship between struggles.

The politics of life itself

The unifying object, and at the same time the tool, is life itself. This was a revolt of bare life against the exception of the police from criminal law.

The state effectively declared, in its response to the killing of Alexandros Grigoropoulos , its right to kill any of its citizens, at any time, with no reason, and without accounting to anybody for its actions. The citizens declared that they find this unacceptable.

They did so not by approving a resolution demanding that the state or some other actor impose sanctions, but by imposing these sanctions themselves. The riots were an alternative way of fighting criminality, a way for civil society to demand the accountability of the police denied to them by the state. In this sense, the rioters were performing a highly responsible democratic function: they were safeguarding the rule of law.

A new politics of language

An impressive characteristic of this movement was its creative forms of communication, at every level. In those first few days in December, the demonstrators produced an infinite number of rhymes, slogans, puns, graffiti, paintings on walls, stickers, newspapers, practical and theoretical texts, as well as methods of storming and occupying public buildings, TV and radio stations, theatres, and bureaucratic trade union offices. Most importantly, they displayed a remarkable capacity to subvert the attempts of the state and the establishment parties, including the Greek Communist Party, to marginalise them.

When the traditional insult was thrown at them of being koukouloforoi (‘hoodwearers’ or ‘hooded ones’) with the establishment referring to their demonstrations almost ritualistically as ‘not more than ten hoodwearers’, the demonstrators playfully reclaimed this term, by chanting ‘Eimaste oi deka koukouloforoi’ – ‘We are the ten hoodwearers’. In this way they inverted and obliterated the meaning of the accusation, and indeed went further in making it an image of their own. As the Network for Social and Civil Rights said: ‘When one thousand people put on a hood, then they do have a face.’ Or, as the most famous hoodwearer in the world, Subcomandante Marcos, has remarked, sometimes one has to hide one’s face in order to be seen.

Won in translation

Much of the activity of this movement could usefully be described also as a work of translation, consisting of (but not limited to) the literal translation of leaflets and brochures into Albanian, Bulgarian, and other languages spoken by migrants in Greece. This was a new element too, because until now we had rallies or events in favour of migrants or against racism, but this was the first time migrants participated on the same terms as ‘native’ Greeks in a shared movement.

The translatability of this movement, its ability to communicate with other experiences in several different countries, is striking. In the past, nothing that happened in Greece has had such an international appeal. A regular protest ritual here used to be marches towards the US embassy in Athens, but this was the first time we had marches towards Greek embassies in New York, Washington and other cities in the US and the rest of the world. It has caused a nervousness among ruling elites elsewhere in Europe – something that French president Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have understood when he recently withdrew a draft law to ‘reform’ high school education.

Innovative forms of organisation

The movement in Greece uses communication technologies as a tool in ways that have outwitted the state’s repressive mechanisms. The coordination of high school students, when they simultaneously attacked about 45 police stations in almost all major Greek cities without any central leading body, was a masterful display of organisational skills desperately lacking in most state agencies.

But the question is not just technical. This movement drew on innovative methods of struggle (actions based on ad hoc assembly rather than on permanent organisations, for example) in a political landscape that until recently was dominated by a very traditional version of the left. Most of these methods come from the anarchist tradition, but arguably some could be attributed to an indirect influence of the Social Forum movement – the fourth European Social Forum took place in Athens four years ago.

Sometimes the new arises where the old is weakest; sometimes where it is strongest. Greece could illustrate this. Greece is the country with one of the strongest Communist Parties in Europe – a party whose theory is Stalinist, and whose practice is socially and culturally extremely conservative, nationalist, traditionalist and homophobic. There is a second, equally large left party, Synaspismos (‘coalition of the left’), roughly corresponding to the Eurocommunist current, as well as a whole constellation of Trotskyists, Maoists and other groupings with Bolshevik traditions.

Many people, myself included, assumed that this already heavily occupied political terrain would leave hardly any space for other flowers to blossom. Fortunately, I was proven wrong. The movement has strongly influenced Synaspismos, who sincerely tried to understand and be inspired by it. It is not yet clear whether this will be translated into electoral gains (the elections would normally take place in three years, but many people think they will now come much sooner).

But what is certain is that Synaspismos, regardless of its electoral size, has become an important player on the political scene. It received many attacks from conservatives for ‘caressing the ears of the koukouloforoi’. This is very different from the past when they bothered nobody and were considered a sympathetic but harmless party.

Where do we go from here?

This revolt was fuelled by a conjuncture particular to Greece. Admittedly, the Greek police constitute a strange combination of modernity and archaism, comprising former (or not-so-former) fascists, pimps and drug dealers, alongside a semi-feudal, clientelistic organisation, expensive equipment and a de facto recognition of impunity. Indeed, this corruption goes even deeper within the Greek state apparatus. This gave the movement an invincible feeling of indignation, contempt and ethical superiority. The cops were legally and technically able to arrest, teargas or beat people, but this can inspire at best fear, not respect.

In northern Europe, police forces are organised in a more ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ way, but there are similarities. This was highlighted by the fact that the Greek minister of justice, trying to find excuses for the killing, referred to the case of Jean Charles de Menezes where the killers are now reinstated in service.

In any case, these few days were a lesson of broader importance: inspired, original, non-centralised action by thousands of self-confident, intelligent, networked individuals, is able to challenge and de-legitimise institutions that just one day before seemed unshakeable, established, obvious, almost natural.

Let me close with an anecdote. Some days ago, in Thessaloniki, I met a friend of mine, not at all a youngster, a 60-year-old filmmaker. I asked him, ‘George, what do you make of these events?’ He said: ‘Look, on the evening of 8 December, if we had another 5,000 people on the streets, we could have occupied the ministries.’ Then, after some seconds of silence, he added: ‘The question is, would there be any point in doing so?’

This is, of course, a much discussed question in the tradition of anti-capitalist movements. I will certainly not try to provide the ‘definitive answer’ here. But it is refreshing to think that it has become a question on the political agenda again, rather than an object of historical or theoretical speculation.

Akis Gavrilidis

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