Making Sense of the Greek Uprising

On the evening of Saturday, December 6, 2008, a police officer shot and killed Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old, in Athens, Greece. In the weeks that followed, large numbers of people in cities across Greece took to the streets, participating in numerous demonstrations and actions against police brutality and the policies of Greece’s conservative government.

The primary protagonists of these demonstrations have been young people, including high school and university students, but other participants have included parents, labor unionists, immigrant workers, Greece’s political left, and Greeks from all walks of life. In the first days after the murder, a small minority of the protesters expressed their rage through extensive property destruction, especially targeting banks and upscale stores both in downtown Athens and in cities across the country. More than two weeks after Grigoropoulos’s murder protests continued. There was a wave of occupations of hundreds of high schools and university campuses, a number of municipal halls, the chamber of commerce of the northern city of Serres, and the headquarters of Greece’s General Confederation of Labor. Meanwhile, dozens of Greece’s leading musicians and songwriters participated in concerts protesting state repression and expressing their solidarity with the movement. Although the holidays slowed down some of this activity, the protests resumed in January.

All in all, this has been a diverse movement that has raised a number of different issues. Some demands focused on policing practices, asking that Greek police officers not bear weapons, that they go through regular psychological evaluations, and that special police units—such as the riot police unit and the "special guards" unit to which the cop who shot Grigoropoulos belonged—be dismantled. Other movement participants have demanded the repeal of recent anti-terrorist legislation that undermines civil liberties. Others have asked a change in the government’s educational and economic policies, while some, including opposition parties, have demanded that the government resign. Some of the more radical voices within the movement, including the participants in occupations, such as at the Greek Confederation of Labor, have voiced critiques of capitalism and called for a general strike and workers’ self-management. Last, many participants in the movement demand that everybody arrested while participating in the recent events be released.

The impact of the Greek movement has been felt across Europe and the rest of the world. The Athens Indymedia website posted information on dozens of solidarity actions around the world, ranging from various European countries and Turkey to North America, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand. The movement also created anxiety among political and economic elites. Andrew Hay of Reuters reported that Dominique Strauss Kahn, the director of the International Monetary Fund, has warned that the deepening global economic crisis could lead to "more civil unrest like that seen in Greece." Similarly, a piece by Robert Marquand of the Christian Science Monitor suggests that fears of "backlashes similar to the ones now rocking Greece" may have contributed to the decision by the French minister of education to pull back unpopular education reform proposals and call for "further negotiations."

The events of the last two months represent the largest social explosion in Greece since the 1973 student revolt that was brutally repressed by the U.S.-backed military regime ruling Greece at that time. The magnitude and lasting nature of this explosion suggests that Grigoropoulos’s murder triggered the release of the rage building up as citizens saw inequalities increasing and their country slipping deeper into crisis.

Conservative politicians and Greek pundits have tried to delegitimize the adoption of forms of direct action, such as occupations, by arguing that, unlike the student revolt in 1973, today’s government was democratically elected. This failed to convince many of the protesters who feel that, rather than a genuine democracy, Greece’s political system may best be described as a two-party rule by corrupt political elites that have consistently failed to address the problems affecting Greek people, in general, and young people, in particular.

Police brutality is one of the longstanding problems. Even before Grigoropoulos’s murder, the conservative government had presided over incidents of police brutality and torture of political protesters, Roma people, and immigrant workers. Even the murder of a teenager by the police is not unprecedented. When the socialists were in power in the 1980s, a teenager was shot in the back by a police officer, who went on to be acquitted after he appealed his original conviction.

As far as education is concerned, the conservative government, with the original support of the Socialist Party’s leadership, attempted to amend the provision of the Greek constitution banning private universities. It was only after massive protests by a movement of students, teachers, unionists, the political left, and many of the rank and file supporters of the Socialist Party itself that the Socialist leadership backed down from its support of private higher education. The amendment did not pass, but the conservative government is attempting to implement its rejected policy anyway.

Underlying the rage of the protestors is also a feeling that today’s Greek youth will be the first generation not to live better than their parents. Fueling this feeling are high unemployment rates, low salaries that do not keep up with the rising cost of living, high levels of poverty (one out of five Greeks is poor), growing household indebtedness, and "flexible" labor relations that consign many young people to insecure, temporary positions. This situation is partly the result of the commitment of conservatives and Socialists alike to the European Union and its insistence that inflation and deficits be kept low, even at the cost of chronically high unemployment rates.

In this sense it is not surprising that some European journalists recognize that "Athens is not as far away as we think." One could perhaps go further and point out that in the United States, too, the deep crisis has been brought on by the unfettered pursuit of profit by economic elites and by the historic willingness of the political elites of both parties to do Wall Street’s bidding.

Faced with political elites unwilling to represent their interests, Greeks took to the streets. Should Obama disappoint his claim to be an agent of change, Americans may find themselves doing the same.


Costas Panayotakis is assistant professor of social sciences at NYC College of Technology. This article appeared on the Indypendent website and on ZNet.