A December to Remember, a December to Forget

Pavlos Roufos

The Greek revolt of 2008 was an “an image of the future.” Is that future in the past, or still to come?

Guy Debord wrote that the appearance of events not of our making forces us to become aware of the passage of time. But what about the relationship between the passage of time and those events that we did, in fact, create? I am tempted to say this weighs more heavily upon us. How else to explain that succinct feeling of unease when I realize it’s already been ten years since the December 2008 revolt in Greece? A whole decade has gone by since the fateful Saturday afternoon when, enjoying some coffee and cognac with an old friend, I received that phone call: “a kid has just been shot in Mesologgiou.”

_____

Mesologgiou street, of all places. This small, pedestrianized back alley had recently been transformed from an indifferent urban space into a vibrant hangout for youth who, for reasons of necessity or lifestyle, could not afford or could not stand the pressure to move from the public streets into the privatized, commodified bars and cafes. Mesologgiou street was a testimony to the fact that public spaces, free from ritualized supply and demand, could still exist. One should not, of course, infer that its existence was automatically opposed to the merchant class of that area: wherever young people congregate, adjacent spaces also get a share of their passion, their vitality and, most importantly, their money. All things considered, not much had changed since some radicals in the late 1970s declared, in response to commodification of remote beaches around Greece, that “freaks lead the way and businessmen follow.” Working in a café on that very street, while also hanging out on its benches in my free time, I could see the spillover between the two. Counterculture nourishes business culture.

Still, Mesologgiou street had become, for a short period, the beating heart of an area—Exarchia— quite unique in Greece. This particularity had less to do with the students, radicals, alcoholics, bohemians, artists, and junkies who lived and met there. There are numerous spaces all around the world that attract such unproductive characters. The key difference was that Exarchia was a place where the police were not allowed. To be more precise, as soon as they set foot in Exarchia, they were attacked. The cops knew it, the locals knew it, and thanks to the fear-mongering stories in the media about that part of Athens, so did everyone else in Greece. What a lot of people did not know, however, was that Exarchia had the lowest crime rates in all of Greece. This was admitted, unwittingly and with subsequent embarrassment, by the head of police during a TV talk show during those troubled days of December. Though frequently portrayed in the media as the locus point of criminality, the actual crimes committed there were confined to two very specific categories: attacks against property (mostly the burning of expensive cars, as there were no banks or even ATMs in Exarchia) and attacks against the police. These events registered as anti-social crime only to those who placed repression and property above all social relations.

_____

Was it a long-accumulated disgust at this state of affairs that led the cop, Epaminondas Korkoneas, to shoot Alexis Grigoropoulos that night? Or was it more simply perhaps the arrogance that cops have everywhere, safe in the knowledge that they can, literally and legally, get away with murder? We will probably never know, as that would require that the murderer himself pinpoint which ingrown misanthropy led him to pull the trigger. What we do know is that Korkoneas and his partner were driving down one of Exarchia’s streets in their patrol car—a provocative gesture in itself—and that Alexis and his friends reacted to their sight in a way that most people in Exarchia would react: by screaming at them to get the fuck out of the area. For some reason, on December 6, 2008, this almost ritualized behaviour did not sit well with the two cops, who decided to teach these kids—and they were kids, let’s remember –a lesson. So, they parked their car, got out, walked towards them and, in the blink of an eye, Korkoneas took out his gun and shot Alexis twice. The last thing that people heard before the shots was a youthful and defiant voice: “What are you going to do? Shoot us?”

Though directly at the centre of Athens, and just a stone’s throw away from Kolonaki, one of the richest neighbourhoods, Exarchia was not only symbolically but materially a separated space. As cops were never welcome inside, they made sure to be visible at its borders. They thus parked their forces at its edges, creating a veritable state of siege in the process. In the early 1990s, getting there meant going through police blockades and the concomitant harassment that all such blockades involve. Whether they understood it or not, their thuggish manners were instrumental in radicalizing a fair number of people, who understood well and quite early on the role of the police in modern society.

“For days the barricades around Exarchia were defended by people who did not speak the same language but nonetheless understood each other perfectly.”

The same cannot be said, however, about that “heavier artillery,” the commodity. Especially in the years after the inclusion of Greece in the Eurozone’s monetary union and the subsequent flooding of cheap credit orchestrated, above all, by French and German banks, the besieged area of Exarchia was overrun by something other than riot cops: new cafes and bars, tavernas and chic restaurants, music shops, and other similar establishments that transform a living quarter into a series of entertainment options. But here again there was an interesting difference. Greece was always a country with a very low concentration of capital, or, in other words, it has always been primarily petty bourgeois, with more shopkeepers than industrialists. Combined with the anarchist rejection of bosses, the result was that many of these new shops in Exarchia were opened up by the same radicals who participated in creating the anti-authoritarian ambiance of the area. Raoul Vaneigem did claim, rightly, that “everything that makes you into an owner adapts you to the order of things” but the specific circumstances of this makeshift gentrification did not seriously alter the anti-police character of the neighbourhood. My boss at the café, an exiled Turkish anarchist, never objected when we offered shelter to those chased by riot police.

_____

Arriving at Exarchia that night, shortly after Alexis’s death had been confirmed, I was immediately met with an unusual situation. As expected, the locals and neighbours were there, speaking endlessly about what they had seen or heard. Also as expected, the infuriated anarchists, breaking down in tears and promising revenge. What was new, however, was a steadily growing crowd, one that consisted of neither locals nor radicals. Large, determined, this crowd did not speak, as if it already knew there was nothing left to say. This silent, determined, and yet indeterminate crowd would embed itself in the December revolt of the following weeks, infusing it with some of its most long-standing traits.

A few weeks. “How can we go back to work after all this?” someone wrote in the streets of Athens, in a devastating encapsulation of the moment. And yet return we did – to work, to normality. In those words, what was captured was not only the relentless return of normal time after a revolt but the rupture that had been achieved. Inside a revolt one notices only the absence of time: the first four days went by without sleep, and yet no one was tired.

In Greece, two or three days of demonstrations and riots might not have been a particularly common occurrence but neither was it rare. But during those weeks, whenever one had the feeling it was over, a new eruption would break out. After the first forty-eight hours of intense rioting all around Exarchia and the center of Athens, for example, we woke up to the news that school pupils had taken the streets and stormed police stations across the country. Around the same time, the teachers’ unions called for a three-day strike and organized the first official demonstration. There was, to be honest, nothing official about it. From its onset, as horrified journalists described, the gathered crowd smelled of petrol. For the first time, however, that deterred no one. When the cops chased the demonstrators back to Exarchia, residents threw flower pots and water at them from their balconies. When a few days later the mayor of Athens urged people to stop protesting and resume their Christmas shopping, demonstrators responded by burning down the Christmas tree that stood in front of parliament. During Alexis’ funeral, fierce riots broke out right outside of the cemetery, to which cops responded by shooting in the air. The intensity was not, however, confined to the violence. Public space was reconfigured too, in an attempt to match deeds with words. After the first universities around Exarchia were occupied to act as safe spaces from police attacks (more of an instinctive initial decision since the rioters actually controlled whole blocks for days), the message spread. And though the Ministry of Education was quick to announce the closing of schools in a state-sanctioned day of mourning, unruly squatters were much quicker: most schools and universities in Athens were already under occupation. Within one week, more than 600 schools and 150 universities would join the list. Demonstrations, occupations and riots did not stop until the first week of January 2009.


Memory plays tricks and random coincidence makes it even harder to separate events that seem related. The fact, for example, that the December 2008 uprising happened only two months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers led many to see the revolt as yet another consequence of the global crisis that had kicked off a year earlier. But Greece was not, at the time, affected by the global crisis. Greek banks were an insignificant part of the global financial system, sharing minimal (if any) exposure to the collapse of credit. They were, to be sure, firmly attached to the European banking system, something that would, a year and a half later, lead Greece to become ground zero for the so-called Eurozone crisis. But none of that was present in 2008.

Burning Christmas tree, Greece 2008

Maybe this explains why so many found it fitting to describe the revolt as “an image of the future,” seeing as it did in fact prefigure a series of similar revolts that would shake the world for at least half a decade – in Egypt, in London, in Greece itself. The composition of the crowd would be an obvious starting point for such an argument. For this was a crowd that was neither compatible with the official left and its trade unions or parties, nor accordant with the neoliberal fantasy of isolated individual consumers whose only collective experience concerns their tuning in to the price mechanism of the market. You had workers who knew that the thin line dividing “secure” from “precarious’ employment was essentially meaningless; unemployed who appeared fully aware of the permanent character of their temporary predicament; professionals who may (or may not) have been in debt; parents who rejected the predicament of familial seclusion; school kids who immediately identified with Alexis and the responses to his death; and a whole range of others, united simply by the growing dissatisfaction with a world that was already too aggravating to allow the murder of a 15-year-old to pass unanswered. Even more compelling, perhaps, was the extremely significant participation of migrants, not isolated in their neighborhoods but smack in the middle of the events. Though this aspect of the revolt has been ignored in most accounts, for days the barricades around Exarchia were defended by people who did not speak the same language but nonetheless understood each other perfectly.

The size of that crowd, which forced domestic and international observers to hold their breath in awe or disgust, was rather small in comparative terms. The largest demonstration did not exceed 35-40,000 people, whereas the social movements that fought austerity a few years later repeatedly saw more than 200,000 people take the streets. But if a quantitative comparison falls short, one could not say the same about its qualitative aspects. This crowd, for example, had no particular demands. Here was another element that one meets everywhere today, causing political managers to shudder with fear. But what type of “demand” can one articulate in response to an event understood by everyone as a feature rather than a bug of the contemporary system of governance?

The Right was forced to admit that a tragedy had taken place, quickly emphasizing that the incident was an isolated case, while wondering aloud what a 15-year-old was doing in Exarchia in the first place. Their main concern, as always, was to restore order. Seeing the situation get increasingly out of control, some members of the right-wing New Democracy party did not hesitate to suggest that the military should intervene. But the Left found itself in an equally awkward position: their outlook on the world (and their role in it) prevented them from uttering anything more than the embarrassing promise to “democratize the police force.”

_____

This quite modern form of political bankruptcy left open a space for the intervention of less reputable subjects. This led to a particular reading of the December revolt which saw it as a verification of the anarchist cause. There is no denying that the anarchists’ unambiguous relationship to anti-police violence, their capacity for strategic street fighting, and their experience in squatting and convening assemblies were crucial. Not only did they express the mood of those days, but they assisted in creating structures and events (occupied spaces, daily assemblies, riots) that widened the time and space of the revolt. For the first time really, the Greek anarchist scene found itself in the spotlight.

____

This sudden exposure, however, also illuminated the milieu’s limitations. Habituated to marginality, an important number of anarchist militants showed themselves to be quite hostile toward people that did not frequent the same circles. When some workers, who ignored police warnings and mass media descriptions of total warfare, and went to Exarchia to participate in the assembly of the occupied building of the General Confederation of Trade Unions, they were treated with off-putting suspicion. In the first two assemblies of the occupied building, one heard comments such as “Who are you? I have never seen you before,” an attitude that one saw echoed even during the 2010-2012 social movements against austerity, with many anarchists proclaiming their refusal to join mass protests with the excuse that those who participated in them were “nowhere to be seen” during other upheavals or events that anarchists deemed important. Even worse was the incredible and inexplicable decision of the “occupation committee” of the Polytechnic University to forbid entry—sometimes violently—to rioters who carried stolen goods from looted shops, a choice that alienated a significant number of people, especially migrants. The official excuse for this decision, that one could read in some anarchist publications in the following months, was that looters were taking advantage of the riots for personal gain. This was, of course, nonsense, especially as it appears to deny the fact that many anarchists participated in the looting of shops too. What seems like a more likely (but unadmitted) explanation probably relates to a shift that took place in the mass media and their broadcasting of events: feigning understanding for the reactions directed against the police, the media drew a line when it came to looting shops, claiming that such activities were unrelated to the justified anger of the population. It thus appears that many anarchists internalized this approach and decided to act accordingly, thus protecting the “dignity” of the movement. There is no doubt that these attitudes played a significant role in preventing the coming together of different segments in revolt, long before the paths opened by the December barricades had receded.

Anniversaries are counter-intuitive. Instead of their official aim of commemorating a past event, they serve as reminders of the passage of time or, what could be worse, they evoke a sense of nostalgia that necessarily obscures the contradictions and failings that are part and parcel of any outburst of social antagonism. For that reason, they tend towards abstract glorification, an approach particularly visible when nothing much since has shaken the social environment from its habitual complacency. But December 2008 did not have the fortune or misfortune of such a standstill. Not long after, Greece entered what is without a doubt the most intense period of its modern history, a predicament that mobilized far larger crowds for far lengthier periods of time. And since no leap into the “open air of history” happens out of the blue, many of the characteristics of the December revolt were carried through to this next phase of antagonism, more often than not by subjects who had not even participated during those days. If nothing else, this serves as a constant reminder that the material that forges social antagonism creates a history and a memory of its own, like a fallen rock that gets picked up by the next round of struggles. And in doing so, it laughs in the face of all those who see themselves as rightful representatives and gatekeepers of a revolt, arrogant enough to organize its anniversaries.