"Demonstrating is like a sport here in Athens" said a member of one Greek socialist group. And he didn't mean in the Saturday-passtime type of way.
Forget having a leisurely stroll down the main roads with the family for a spot of anti-capitalist chanting: in Athens you need your running shoes, sensible clothing (ie, don't wear anything, like a keffiyeh, round your neck otherwise it could be used to strangle you) and your wits about you for inevitable clashes with any one of the branches of mad police (more on this later).
Attacked by paint balls, a new form of pepper spray invented by the Israeli Defence Force and both mad dogs and police, protesting here leaves you covered in bruises, paint and sweat and is certainly not for the faint hearted.
At least once a month the whole area of Exarcheia becomes barricaded with large garbage bins, cars and all sorts of other large items with the intention of keeping the police out.
And the variety of demonstrations is in itself quite illuminating.
Within three hours of arriving at the airport I came face to face with about fifty fully clad riot police in the previously autonomous zone of Exarcheia. An impromptu demonstration had been called by the supporters of one of the city's football team.
Affected by the recent IMF intervention the team were relegated to a lower division not because they are rubbish at scoring goals but because their financial situation became so bad they could no longer afford the due dues. And what a sight for sore eyes seeing football demonstrators chanting left-wing' anti-IMF slogans!
"Blame it on the IMF" has become a bit of a catch phrase in fact. The shop has closed down-blame it on the IMF; coffee is so expensive-blame it on the IMF, the looroll has run out, you guessed it, blame it on the IMF.
Not surprisingly the so-called bailout to the tune of ‚Ç¨125bn has not gone down well with a large swathe of Greeks. The National Minimum Wage has been slashed from ‚Ç¨700per month to ‚Ç¨540pm and pension schemes axed for a starters. A whole movement of resistance has begun; theatre performances, films, music events and, of course, lots of public meetings are being organized to discuss the way forward for the left.
On my second night here I went to a pay-as-much-you-like cinema to watch two in a series of six films shown over three days about the IMF. Life and Debt, a 2001 documentary about IMF fuck ups in Jamaica demonstrated perfectly how ludicrous the whole loan and repayment system is and also how nothing has changed about their attitude other than to escalate their ideology.
Now, onto the police. Two brand new branches of police were installed almost immediately after the killing of 15 year old Alexander. One on motorbikes, all kind of dashing men with rippling muscles and Starsky and Hutch-esque sunglasses; the other rather slovenly, scruffy riot cops (whose slogan on their shields does not, as I asked, mean 'autonomous', much to the amusement of the comrades!). I have been advised not to try to take photos of them, so here is some video courtesy of YouTube:
The slogan of a second type refers to the area in which they are largely deployed, as I alluded to, the previously autonomous zone of Exarcheia. An area the size of, say, from Piccadilly Circus to Holborn, it is home to a whole range of mainly left-wing organisations, restaurant, bar and cafe collectives, squats, cinemas and other such radical activities. The area generally had its own rules and governance.
This all changed on 6 December 2009 when the cops ruthlessly shot a young local boy, Alexandros, at close range for having the audacity to challenge their nonsense provocation. Weeks of riots ensued--a large amount of information on this has been documented elsewhere--but for the main point of this report, the area is now heavily policed, at all times.
Even now this autonomy has been stripped away, you can sense the feeling of solidarity amongst groups here (more on this during the week). A United Hatred of the Police.
At a time when you would imagine the police should rather keep a low profile not only do they not retreat, they face anger in the face and respond by employing another few thousand officers.
Sitting in a bar enjoying a few quiet beers I was treated to another show of the might of the 'autonomia'/riot police. "It's like your very own cop drama round here" said one of my companions.
They literally stormed down the street, formed a wall of shields and then stand there, staring out anyone who crosses their path for the only purpose of demonstrating their power. Piggy snorting noises can be heard from across the road in the newly-formed reclaimed/squated 'park collective' and the manager of the bar we were in responded by blarring out Turkish Maoist rebel music.
No one was under any illusion as to what this gesture meant apart from, that is, the dumb police. "They believe they are scaring us when we all just think how stupid they are".
Anyway, I'm off now to watch some comrades performing revolutionary folk music (Rebetiko me thinks).
I have taken to wearing my sensible shoes at night time, just in case...
Clare Solomon is President Elect of University of London Union and a member of the Counterfire editorial board
As President of the University of London Union 2010-2011, Clare was a key organiser of the 2010 student rebellion. ‘Springtime: The New Student Rebellions’, her book on the student and youth revolts worldwide, co-edited with Tania Palmieri, is published by Verso. She is a leading member of the People's Assembly and Counterfire.
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- Springtime: The New Student Rebellions
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