It has now been a year since the events of Greece captivated the world as students, workers, immigrants and the unemployed took to the streets of the country’s major cities. The Greek December saw widespread examples of working class direct action from strikes and sabotage to the occupation of schools, workplaces and municipal buildings. This article will reflect on key currents that emerged out of the uprising, what the events meant and what they mean for the future.
A 15-year old boy
The Greek uprising was a shock. While we had witnessed recent comparable examples of working class revolt across Europe in France and Italy, the scale and ferocity of the December events took many by surprise. It was the murder of a 15-year-old boy, Alexis Grigoropoulos, by Greek police that sparked the outrage that inflamed Greek society. Police brutality is a daily reality for many Greeks – especially in the inner cities against immigrants and anti-authoritarian youth. Corruption and embezzlement are rife among politicians and civic leaders, such as those in the church, and there is a real crisis of trust in politics amongst large sections of the population. The economic crisis had also meant widespread cuts in pay, job losses and greater insecurity for many. While the initial riots were largely confined to inner city youth, the raw injustice of the murder of an innocent 15-year-old stirred up deeper and more general frustrations with the social and political order. The uprising brought together different sections of Greek society in ways that had not been seen before.
We demand nothing
A central cause of the decline of the uprising was its failure to spread the struggle to other sections of the working class. The popular and neighbourhood assemblies attempted to popularise the struggle, and the occupation of the GSEE trade union offices (one of the most well attended assemblies) also took steps towards this. However, overall much of the activity in the streets, although it gained a great deal of popular support, failed to spread to workplaces. Workers in many key industries did, and continue to, engage in disruptive action (strike action by dockworkers in Piraeus is reported to have cost around 5 million Euros a day) against cuts and job losses, but this never seemed to fully connect with the occupations and riots on the streets.
A positive outcome of the uprising was that, thanks to its radical and totally anti-capitalist message, the best activity of December was never pushed in a reformist direction. Despite the fact that the is now attempting Socialist Party to label itself as “anti-authoritarians in power”, there were no new sets of “leaders” or political alliances emerging out of the events. Many of the popular initiatives eventually ran out of steam, but they still stand as positive and inspirational examples of contemporary working class self-organisation.
The rise of the far-right
In the recent European elections, there was growing support for organisations of the far-right (including in the UK) across the continent. Greece was no different, with LAOS (a right-wing populist party) securing two representatives with 7.14% of the vote. The Greek state has also been keen to pursue new anti-immigration policies. In May the Minister of Public Order pledged to "clean" the centre of Athens of immigrants, attempting to push plans to convert an old NATO base into a holding camp for these displaced people. Throughout December, collaboration between the police and paramilitary fascist groups (such as the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn”) was well documented. Fascists were photographed assisting in arrests, attacking protesters and even using police equipment against demonstrations. Since December, fascist groups have been targeting what they see as the key elements behind the uprising – largely immigrants and anarchists – including an attack with a hand grenade in February against a popular squat. Anti-fascist and anti-racist activity, however, has remained strong and in spite of the reports of escalating repression, anti-fascists were able to celebrate the world over in March as the news spread that the headquarters of “Golden Dawn” had been torched to the ground.
The traditional Left and the trade unions
The parties of the traditional Left and the trade unions were quick to show their true colours at the outbreak of the events. The Greek Communist Party swiftly denounced the riots as the work of “foreign dark forces” and called for its members to stay away from the riots. Members of its youth wing were also active in attempting to block occupations. The Socialist Party, now in power, has overseen widespread state repression against anarchists, including a mass raid of squats and social centres in the Exarchia district (the district where Alexis was shot). The trade union leadership were also keen to not let their members become infected by the spirit of revolt. During December they cancelled a key demonstration that would have coincided with the uprising, and since then the leadership have continued to restrain the activity of workers.
The fate of a tree
The image of the burning Christmas tree in Syntagma Square came to be a powerful symbol of the rebellion. So strong, in fact, that in later demonstrations the police showed a far greater interest in protecting the replacement tree than the surrounding banks and luxury shops! The holiday season, however, was not friendly to the uprising. Traditional celebrations like Christmas have a strong hold over communities and many initiatives failed to get back on their feet after the break. The frenzied consumerism that is the modern “Christmas spirit” also became a real barrier between the demands of the uprising and the experience of the general public.
The return of armed struggle?
Armed groups have always been a feature of the Greek left. The Marxist “17 November” group orchestrated a sustained assassination and bombing campaign against Greek police and public officials for 29 years before disbanding in 2002. The December events saw 17 November's successors, “Revolutionary Struggle”, claim responsibility for the shooting of a police guard at the Culture ministry. However the 17 November group never really had any mass appeal. The December events prompted the emergence of other groups that appear to be gathering some sympathy. These include “Popular Action” and the “Nuclei of Fire Conspiracy” (NFC) which have both claimed responsibility for detonating small-scale explosive devices and are yet to cause a fatality. The NFC communiqué, which has been widely reported in the mainstream media, has become particularly popular amongst the new wave of high school occupations. Of course, all of this has served as a pretext for the authorities to seize and detain anarchists and other activists who have been involved in the uprising. Heavy raids in the Exarchia district are justified by referring to the guerillas' activity, while three 20-year-old men were jailed under anti-terrorist laws for their alleged involvement in the NFC (this was despite the fact that the prosecution’s case quickly collapsed and they had to be held “in expectation” of evidence against them). The mainstream media has also been keen to highlight the guerilla groups' activity as a way to discredit the uprising in general.
One, two, many Decembers
While December 2008 may have been the high point, the struggle very much continues throughout Greece. There is still widespread unrest throughout major industries and 2009 has already seen some highly militant expressions of workplace action. Many activists also continue to struggle against the backlash to the events, whether that is the state’s turn to racist social policies, increasing repression against activists, or even targeted state violence. As this article is written, it is a week before the official start of the “unrest season”, the 30 days between the anniversary of the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising (November 17), the anniversary of the assassination of Alexandros Grigoropoulos and the start of the 2008 December Uprising (December 6) and the trial of Grigoropoulos murderers (December 15), and things are looking tense. Workers of the Social Security Organisation of Self-Employed (AOEE) have occupied the two buildings of the organisation to demand the renewal of temporary contracts. Even the union of basketball players has announced a two day strike demanding a series of labour conditions reforms! At the moment, it's not clear whether we’ll see an eruption of the kind of scenes we saw a year ago. One thing is for sure: that we can continue to look to the Greek working class as an inspiration for the ongoing struggle of our class, even in the toughest of social and economic climates.
Originally published in Resistance, Anarchist Federation paper, issue 118, December 2009 - Jan 2010