Both Nikos’ struggle and the response on the streets are laden with symbolic significance and historical resonance. In fact, the month of December has long brought out the best in the Greek resistance; and the worst in terms of the state’s reaction. Six years ago, on December 6, 2008, two special police officers rolled into the neighborhood of Exarchia — the well-known anarchist stronghold of Athens — and, following a brief altercation with a group of teenagers, murdered the 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos with a fatal shot through the heart. Fate has it that Nikos was there that night. Alexis was his best friend. He died in his arms.
The murder of Alexis sparked a month of intense rioting on the Greek streets. Schools, universities and empty buildings were occupied across the country as popular assemblies popped up in the most unexpected places. The establishment newspaper Kathimerini referred to the December 2008 riots as “the worst Greece has since since the restoration of democracy in 1974.” An ominous prophecy was scribbled onto an Athenian wall in those days, one that was to portend the intense social unrest and mass demonstrations that were to follow in the 2010-’12 debt crisis. It simply read: “we are an image from the future.”
That dystopian future is now. On December 6, it will be exactly six years since Alexis’ murder — and Alexis’ best friend Nikos Romanos, if he is lucky, will be spending it in hospital. Nikos stopped eating on November 10 in protest against the authorities’ refusal to grant him his legal right to educational furlough. His doctors warn that he is in critical condition and could succumb from heart or kidney failure anytime. The government has given hospital staff the order to force-feed him, but the doctors have rightly refused. As Nikos’ health steadily deteriorates, the streets are becoming ever more combustible — especially in anticipation of the annual commemoration march for Alexis, scheduled on Saturday.
On Tuesday night, fierce riots broke out in downtown Athens after more than 10.000 people marched through the city in solidarity with Nikos and four anarchist comrades who recently joined him on his hunger strike. The images of burning cars in Exarchia led many to wonder if a replay of 2008 might be in the cards if the state does not give in to Nikos’ demands soon. Riot police responded with the usual teargas and baton rounds, but what was truly worrisome were later reports that at least 10 detainees had been hospitalized with heavy injuries, including broken limbs and ribs. Two Syriza MPs who rushed to the police headquarters found the sixth floor of the building “covered in blood.”
In a further historical resonance, Tuesday’s clashes once again centered on the entrance gate to the Athens Polytechnic in Stournari street — the exact site of the 1973 student uprising that eventually led to the fall of the military junta. Back then, the dictatorship sent in a tank to ram down the university gates and positioned snipers on the rooftops who subsequently opened fire on the protesters down below, killing dozens. Many of today’s students and unemployed youth have parents who participated in the Polytechnic uprising, and there is a widespread sense that the new generation needs to “rise up to the challenge of our times” like their parents did in the 1970s.
But the historical origins of today’s state repression and creeping fascism can be traced back even further, to another fateful December — the Dekemvriana of 1944. This Wednesday, December 3, it was exactly 70 years ago that violence broke out in Athens following the orders of the British commander Lt Gen Ronald Scobie and provisional Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou (father of ex-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and grandfather of ex-Prime Minister George Papandreou) to disarm the partisans of the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), who had just liberated the country from the Nazi occupier.
Needless to say, the year 2014 is neither 2008 nor 1973 nor 1944. But the echoes of the past resound into the present to create, once again, an ominous image from the future. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the Greek state was never truly purged of Nazi sympathizers after the war. Following the defeat of the Germans, Papandreou and the British aligned themselves with elements from the Metaxas dictatorship, who had aided and abetted the occupying Nazi army, in order to prevent a Communist takeover. This set the stage for the bloody civil war that lasted until 1949 and that in turn laid the groundwork for the Dictatorship of the Colonels a generation later. The scars of the civil war and the junta still run through Greek society today, constituting the main fault line of political conflict along which the intense animosity between left and right plays out.
For the moment, all we know is that the month of December has long brought out the best in the Greek resistance; and the worst in the state’s reaction. If the former rises up to the challenge of the times, the latter certainly cannot stay behind. As a Greek activist put it in the wake of the police crackdown on Syntagma Square in June 2011, “it is obvious that the days of innocence are over.” All that remains is the struggle.