The gloomy shadows of the December revolt of 2008 — triggered by the police murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos — still loom large over the Greek capital.
There must be at least twenty or thirty of them, hooded and clad in black, jumping from roof to roof and clambering down balconies and up elevator shafts. Armed with flares, hammers and molotov cocktails, their crouching shadows dance smoothly across the white walls behind them, their unknown presence looming ominously over the square down below. They would have been invisible to us, were it not for the strategic position we ourselves had taken up on top of an opposing building, the waxing moon casting its thin strip of light down upon the city’s rooftops, and the dark dress of the troupe contrasting sharply against the spectacularly lit Lycabettus Hill in the background.
Down below, an army of riot cops has taken control of the square. They just came storming in from four different access routes in a blaze of teargas and stun grenades. The feared DELTA hit squad are patrolling the streets on their motorcycles. We hear stories of dozens of people hauled up inside the hallways and staircases of random apartment buildings, fleeing the indiscriminate violence of the police, trapped between charging squads coming from all directions and left with nowhere else to go — but up. A few stones, bottles and taunts are lobbed down from above. The shadows duck and dive as police search lights scan the walls overhead. They remain invisible to anyone below.
Like ninjas of the night, the shadows have commandeered the higher levels of the urban landscape to wage a multidimensional non-lethal guerrilla war against the forces of the state. For hours now, the residents of Exarcheia have been trying to fend off a violent police intrusion into the neighborhood — an anarchist stronghold and hotbed of anti-authoritarian activism ever since the Polytechnic uprising of ’73 — during the annual commemoration for Alexis Grigoropoulos. Exactly five years ago, two Special Guards drove into Exarcheia and became embroiled in a verbal argument with a bunch of teenagers. One of the cops drew his gun and fired three shots, killing 15-year-old Alexis and setting off the worst bout of rioting Greece had seen since the fall of the military junta in 1974.
For nearly a full month, thousands of students, anarchists and ordinary citizens engaged in explosive street battles with police. Students occupied schools and universities across the country, dozens of buildings in the city center were laid to waste in raging fires, a large number of public properties were squatted, and Exarcheia effectively became a cop-free zone, the local police station repeatedly torched with petrol bombs and policemen anxious to even approach the neighborhood. Solidarity protests and copycat riots quickly spread to 70 different cities across the world. (For some excellent reflections on the December uprising, check out the edited volume, Revolt and Crisis in Greece, by our friends Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou of Occupied London.)
This year, the riots do not seem as big and powerful as they used to be in previous years. “Somebody has been teaching these guys something,” Antonis told us earlier that night, as the cops effectively drove a wedge in the crowd by storming the square early and splitting the neighborhood in two, leaving the protesters trapped between opposing lines of riot police. “They’re pursuing a zero-tolerance policy. They are just preventing the protest from even taking place properly.” As we go for a stroll, we realize the entire neighborhood has been cordoned off with police lines. No one looking even moderately suspicious is allowed to enter or leave the neighborhood. Somewhere nearby, DELTA forces make a violent arrest. A lone tourist, visibly unsettled, shouts at them: “is this what your democracy looks like?!”
After clearing the square, the cops retreat, and the shadows on the rooftops quickly disappear back into the elevator shafts, only to re-appear on the street some minutes later, quietly regrouping in the dead of night. The atmosphere is surreal. The street lights in the square have been turned off; all the bars and restaurants shut down — the umbrella of one of the fancier corner cafés burns in the middle of the street. A friendly dude fiddles around with a gas mask and some minor explosives next to a kiosk. Some others are setting up a makeshift barricade on the corner of the square. Bin fires rage everywhere. A few blocks away, a smoldering car lies tipped on its side. A curtain of teargas has descended upon the streets and chemicals pervade the air, burning the skin and making it next to impossible to breathe. The smoke and fire give off an eerie red glow. It all feels like a dystopian dream. Is this some kind of gloomy echo from the future?
It’s a Friday night. Normally the square would be filled with young Athenians reveling in the neighborhood’s vibrant nightlife. Now only the most hardcore anarchists remain, along with the indifferent kiosk vendors, some taxi drivers and a bunch of random drunkards. But, bizarrely, all you have to do is walk one block away from the square and the cafés are bristling with people seemingly oblivious to the clashes unfolding around them. It’s an absurd split reality: lines of riot police and clouds of teargas pass by the café windows, but the people inside carry on, fully absorbed in their conversations, as if nothing ever happened. Occasionally, the doorman opens up for a small group of hooded kids who quickly pass through towards the bathrooms in the back, where they hide for five minutes before emerging onto the streets again.
Just moments after the riot police have left the square, the same ritual unfolds itself all over again: dozens gather at a street corner, armed with stones and molotovs, and ambush a line of riot police. As the cops come charging forward, the protesters hurl their petrol bombs at them and quickly diffuse and disappear. Minutes later, the roofs are once again filled with black shadows. Ordinary residents come out onto their balconies and shout abuse at the cops down below. It’s 4am. As the ninjas tirelessly dance across the rooftops, we decide it may be time to go home. The overwhelming sensation is one of defeat. In Athens, it certainly doesn’t feel like another major revolt is coming anytime soon. Nevertheless, the shadows of the last one still loom large.
Ninjas of the night… when and where will you re-emerge next?