Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Days of Rage

by 'Anticapitalista' reporting from Thessaloniki for the Vineyard

The murder of 15 year old schoolboy, Alexis Grigoropoulos by a police special guard on the evening of Saturday, 6 December saw a huge explosion of rage across the whole of Greece leading to 8 days of riots, looting, attacks on police stations, mass demonstrations, student occupations and strikes all over the country with at least 400 people being detained (the vast majority school students) and 70 injured.

This cold-blooded murder of a schoolboy has provoked rage among workers and students already angry at the government's neoliberal economic policies.

Immediate protests broke out as news spread. The police attacked the demonstrators and people smashed up the centre of Athens late on Saturday night.

While much of the international media has focussed on the riots, they have virtually ignored the mass movement sweeping Greece's streets and workplaces. This has successfully targeted anger against the government.

Large demonstrations took place across the country on Sunday calling for the resignation of the interior minister and punishment for the police involved.

There was a mass walkout by school students all over the country on Monday morning. They then protested outside local police stations.

The atmosphere was very similar to that of March 2003 when tens of thousands of young people spontaneously walked out of schools to demonstrate against war in Iraq.

The anger has spread throughout the population. Over 40,000 people joined a demonstration in Athens on Monday evening against the killing, and a similar number in Thessaloniki.

The government had a clear strategy – to use the police to break up demonstrations, leaving people to riot. It shut down colleges and schools in an attempt to stop people coming together to organise.

The police attacked Monday night's demonstration with teargas, and smoke and percussion grenades, forcing people to disperse.

Large groups of young people then engaged in a running battle with the authorities.

The government was hoping that public opinion would harden against the rioters and the situation would calm down. But workers and students have taken the lead in turning up the heat on the government.

There were stoppages in local authorities on Monday as workers attended mass meetings, which voted for resolutions supporting the young people against the police.

The teachers' unions in primary and high schools struck on Tuesday of this week, the day of Alexandros's funeral, so that students could attend the funeral. The lecturers' union called a three-day strike.

Wednesday saw a 24 hour General Strike that linked the issue of workers grievances with that of the murder. More clashes with the police followed.

From Thursday onwards, the 'riots' quietened down and more organised forms of protest came to the fore. Students have occupied University departments and High Schools. There are demonstrations every day, often twice a day.

The anger hasn't subsided. It is simply finding a more organised expression.

Clearly, youth and students are the main force in these protests, and nobody is surprised by this.

Youth unemployment is very high, and the average pay for young workers without qualifications is less than 500 euros a month. Jobs are mundane, with long hours and very insecure and in many cases the bosses don't pay insurance contributions to the state.

University graduates don't fare much better with high unemployment and poor pay and working conditions. University students are under great pressure to 'collect pieces of paper' (qualifications) ranging from at least one foreign language, computer skills etc. This is not free.

For the last 2 years, University students have been at the forefront of the struggle against the government's plans to privatise higher education.

Workers are also angry with the government. The average salary is about 800 euros a month at a time when prices have rocketed. Workers are feeling very insecure, factory closures are commonplace.

This is a very explosive mix for the unpopular government. It has been rocked by a series of scandals – two ministers were forced to resign earlier this year over their roles in land deals between the state and a wealthy monastery.

A year ago the government called a snap election as it faced a wave of student occupations against its education plans. It won a small majority and thought this would get it out of its mess.

But now the government is in even worse trouble than before. The police officers responsible for Alexandros's killing have been arrested and the government has said that they will be punished. But their first response was an attempt to cover up the killing.

The police claimed they had been attacked and then fired a warning shot that ricocheted, hitting Alexandros. But there were too many witnesses who have said it was a direct shot. The government had to move against the police in an attempt to calm the anger.

Things are collapsing at the top of society, while people on the ground are in fighting mood.

One thing is certain. This government is finished. The question is when and how will it fall?