The Irregularities of Violence in Athens

From the Series: Beyond the "Greek Crisis": Histories, Rhetorics, Politics

Photo by Georgios Giannopoulos, licensed under CC BY SA.

The so called 'Greek crisis' is linked with enormous structural violence, exercised by the state apparatuses and international institutions (IMF, EU, ECB), against the entire social body. Besides the violence of poverty and marginalization, the Greek crisis has already been associated with a profound increase in the rate of suicide and violent crimes; recent research has also revealed a dramatic impact on the general health of the population. In this piece I will not focus on structural violence so much as on acts of physical violence performed publicly in Athens during recent political events. This kind of violence is a social event and often even a means of communication. It is a form of social interaction bearing meanings and reifying certain cultural rules. Publicly performed political violence often has organizational principles—a grammar—comprised of enforced practices, achieved via repetition and fragile political and practical dynamics. This explains why, for instance, in certain cities (e.g. Seoul or Athens) the use of petrol bombs by demonstrators is accepted/expected while elsewhere it is out of the question. This grammar sets certain limits in the public expression of violence. For example, in Greece where every officer has a handgun, this carries enormous symbolic significance as the demonstrators are unarmed. But it is well-known that the policemen are not supposed to use their guns during a protest. Another example is Molotov cocktails. The rules of conflict are again known: these semi-empty (or semi-full) bottles usually are thrown on the ground, preventing police offensives but rarely reaching actual human bodies. The ultimate limits of public political violence in Greece nowadays are determined by the fact that the authorities have a monopoly on legal violence and the military and logistical organization to enforce this monopoly systemically and pervasively, in contrast to the demonstrators—up to now at least. Obviously this difference relates to the principle systemic inequality between the two main collective agents involved in this violence. Before reaching this ultimate stage though there is space for a certain poetical/political improvisation in the acts of violence, taking into account earlier limits. However, when these limits are crossed the deregulation is obvious and often leads to chaotic results, context permitted. This happened on December 2008 when the policeman Epameinondas Korkoneas shot dead the fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos after a pretty common encounter between youth and policemen in the politicized Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia. A couple of hours after the murder, the largest social uprising since the anti-dictatorship revolt of November 17, 1973 was storming the country.

Nevertheless, paraphrasing an Athenian slogan: the bat of the policeman can reach where the pen of the willing authors cannot.

Soon after the December revolt, counter-insurrection swept through the political landscape. It is worth first mentioning certain academics who rushed to “analyze” the revolt and stand next to the Greek elites who were scared by the revolt. Nevertheless, paraphrasing an Athenian slogan: the bat of the policeman can reach where the pen of the willing authors cannot. So for anyone who has not been discouraged to participate in the protests by the words of these particular academics or journalists, there is always a policeman to help with his bat.

Among the counter-insurrection apparatuses introduced in the wake of the December revolt are also new police units called Dias and Delta. These are a kind of motorcycle anti-protest units. The job description must be something like “speed through demonstrators in order to disperse them, injure them and then make random arrests.

Furthermore, after December new weapons were introduced, like the new water cannon that was first used in the Keratea anti-landfill struggle during the winter of 2010-2011. The inhabitants of Keratea town and the surrounding villages of Attica revolted against the government's plans to construct a new landfill in their area. This was one of the first major acts of resistance against the government since the loan agreement with IMF/EU/ECB and so the authorities demonstrated a profound commitment to enforcing the governmental decision and the interests of the corporation contracted to construct the landfill. This led to a four-month-long conflict carried out on the highways, fields and villages at the southern outskirts of Athens. This little civil war ended with the physical and political victory of the Keratea people, exposing the potentialities of long, persistent public violence against police and the state. Keratea was an extraordinary case, not only because of its long duration and its intensity but mostly given the timing. It also was a valuable experience for the authorities, as police got the chance to inaugurate a new type of repression that would expand the limits of public violence.

Besides new weapons, the post-December counter-insurrection involves new and extreme uses of older weapons against the enemy within, e.g. shock grenades are thrown every other minute during demonstrations, including indoor places sometimes, while (new) chemical gases are being used on an unprecedented scale.

These days if you are not wearing a solid tear gas mask and goggles or a proper chemical warfare mask—which are for sale at almost every hardware store in the center of Athens—you are done for. During the anti-austerity 48-hour general strike of June 28 and 29, 2011, police threw almost 3,000 canisters of the new chemical weapons in the center of Athens, opposed to the maximum couple of hundred that had been used in the past during similar events. These are called colloquially “tear”-gases (dakrygona), but irritation of the eyes is just their most minor consequence. In fact, they lead to severe irritation of the breathing system semi-suffocating you. People next to you cannot breathe either, nor can they open their eyes, and all of you panic collectively, but you cannot go away because poisonous gas is in the air. As your throat swells and chokes you, you cannot even shout properly: “Cops-Pigs-Murderers” […] On the evening of June 29, 2011 a visit to Gennimatas General Hospital of Athens would be enough to convince you that you were in a war zone. As far as one could see there were injured demonstrators. More than 500 injured protesters and 3,000 canisters of chemical weapons thrown in Athens represented the unprecedented level of police violence taking place that day, testifying to an even further expansion of the limits of publicly performed violence by the authorities.

Aside from the official versions of the violence coming from the police and ideological apparatuses (including mass media, government and police spokesmen, as well as some academics) there is also parastate-neonazi violence. In mid-May 2011, a few days before the start of the Syntagma Square movement, a man in his 40s was killed and robbed in Athens center, allegedly by people of foreign origin. The flourishing local extreme right-wing groups used this incident as an opportunity to organize the largest anti-migrant pogrom in the country ever, with the silent or explicit support of the police. During the Greek Crystal Night, several dozen foreigners were beaten up and some were even stabbed in the streets of the capital city. Along with migrants, anti-fascist and radical youth were targeted by the neonazi thugs during those days.

Since the official inauguration of the so-called Greek crisis on May 2010, already from the very day that the parliament decided on the loan agreement with the IMF/EU/ECB “troika,” it became apparent that this was going to be a period of radical dismantling/deregulation of the grammar of public political violence, a period of fierce challenge to its limits. That day we saw demonstrators, for the first time, not only breaking the police lines in front of the House of Parliament and crossing the imagined spatial boundary of pavement in front of it but also walking across the Unknown Soldier Monument and starting to climb the stairs towards the main building of the parliament, which is the ultimate symbol of political power in Greece.

This is an area which has not been crossed by any of the many hundreds of demonstrations taking place annually in Athens the last thirty or so years. The same day though we saw the first deaths due to Molotov cocktails, as three bank clerks were killed in a branch of central Athens that was set ablaze. It seems that there are people at this point who are ready to die or kill participating in these demonstrations. These are people, who comprise part of a newly emerging lumpen social tendency; they have nothing to lose anymore and as Athenian rumor suggests they have been infiltrated by police undercover agents, elevating to an unknown degree the limits of publicly performed violence. Since that day we have seen even more novel expressions of public political violence—some of it mentioned above—leading to the emergence of a new irregular and incomprehensible discourse. What is clear in Greece is that a lot of social boundaries have been extended and others have been transgressed since May 2010. The question is just how flexible the limits of publicly performed political violence are, and where these irregularities will lead.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Antonis Vradis, Klara Jaya Brekke and Christos Giovanopoulos who read and commented on this piece before publication.