Thursday, December 11, 2008

Greek protests swell and go international

Street scene in Athens

The disorders in Greece sparked by the police fatally shooting 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos are spreading: Protestas violentas en Madrid y Barcelona por la muerte del menor griego El Mundo 11.12.2008.

In Madrid, activists from a group of around 200 protesters attacked a police station and injured several officers. Nine people were arrested. Two were also arrested in Barcelona after an unruly confrontation between 800 demonstrators protesting over the Girgoropoulos shooting and police, according to El Mundo.

Related protests have also taken place in Copenhagen, Rome and Bologna. (Randale nicht zu stoppen Frankfurter Rundschau 11.12.2008)

Spiegel TV reports that 15,000 people demonstrated peacefully in Athens today. Many of those demonstrators were participants in a one-day nationwide general strike that had been scheduled by unions prior to this past weekend's shooting.

But the "autonomists" dominated the streets by clashes with police. So far, actual injuries to people appear to have been limited. And the police have focused on dispersing demonstrators with tear gas. Which, though its typically reported as though its not much more than annoying smoke, can be very painful if someone gets a dose right in the face. And has been known to provoke deadlier reactions, like heart attacks. So heavy use of tear gas is not a minor thing. Spiegel reporter comments on the clashes between police and the autonomists, "It's as though testosterone-driven men in their early 20s are playing chase."

As he describes a typical encounter in the streets this week, a group of activists will toss stone toward a group of police, most of whom seem to be helmeted and with shields. When the police begin to move in, the demonstrators quickly disperse, i.e., they run away. That's not to make light of any of this. Demonstrators can be seen on the news footage throwing not only stones but Molotov cocktails. A number of shops and buildings in downtown Athens have been burned. People are going to start getting really hurt if this goes on much longer.

The disruptions have developed into a crisis of state. Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis of conservative New Democracy (ND) has only a one-vote majority for his government in Parliament. And the shooting of young Girgoropoulos and the subsequent disruptive protests have combined with other political frustrations to create a real political crisis. (Welle der Gewalt: Krawalle stürzen Griechenland in tiefe Demokratie-Krise von Jörg Diehl Der Spiegel Online 10.12.2008) And there appears to be no immediate prospect for an end to violent protests in Athens.

The "autonomist" protesters, who are more-or-less anarchists in their politics, don't have some concrete goal in this round of protests on the order of "let's have a no-confidence vote in the government". They are protesting against the police over the Girgoropoulos movement and out of general frustrations with the government. One of the more popular chants against the police is "Bulls! Pigs! Murderers!"

The policeman who was arrested, Epaminondas Korkoneas, was nicknamed "Rambo" by his colleagues, claims he fired warning shots in self-defense. His attorney is claiming that Alexis Girgoropoulos was killed by a bullet that richocheted off a hard surface and that "Rambo" was firing in self-defense. Witnesses from the neighborhood have reported that a group of demonstrators of which Girgoropoulos was one were throwing stones at a police car but that there were no shots fired at the police, and that "Rambo" shot directly at the 15-year-old.

Scandals, nepotism and corruption have taken a toll on the confidence of the Greek public in the government. The demonstrations by unionists on Wednesday was a simultaneous action by the two principal labor federations in Greece, SGEE and ADEDY. The Greek Communist Party (KKE), which received 8% of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections, also held a demonstration in support of the unions. The point of the protests was to demand more worker-friendly social policies than the current conservative government has been pursuing with increased taxes, reduced pensions, privatization and the promotion of private schools at the expense of public.

The nationwide general strike in Athens was apparently quite successful with widespread participation. In Athens, The organizers of the union protests tried to discourage any kind of violence and were not cooperating with the autonomists. But violence broke out anyway.

All this takes place against a background in which university graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to get decent jobs, or any kind of jobs. This has boosted resentment against the widely perceived nepotism in hiring. The shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulos was one of those events that struck like fire to a powder keg. Even among the violent demonstrations are reportedly many young people who were not particularly identified with the radical scene prior to this last week.

An editorial in El País from Tuesday (Grecia, desbordada 09.12.2008) observes, "Greece has a tradition of violent protests, but the furor of unrestrained vandalism since Saturday is the most serious in decades."

See also:

Greece hit by 5th day of violence by Dina Kyriakidou and Michele Kambas, Reuters 12/10/08

Did he fire into the air – or shoot to kill? by Peter Popham and Nikolas Zirganos in Athens The Independent 12/11/08

General strike brings Greece to a halt as riots rage on by Helena SmithThe Guardian 12/11/08

Generalstreik erhöht Druck auf Regierung von Gerd Höhler Frankfurter Rundschau 11.12.2008


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