On Wednesday May 5 there was a general strike in Greece. It was much publicised and anticipated, with posters hung throughout Athens in the week before calling for a day of “action” in protest against the IMF/European Central Bank austerity regimeÂ required forÂ the approval of US$141 billion in bridge loans to the financially beleaguered Greek government. The general strike was called for the day the Greek parliament, controlled by the ruling PASOK (nominally centre-left) party, would vote on the financial rescue package. Athens was therefore the epicenter and focal pointÂ of the day of ‘action.” In Greek political parlance a day of “action” means a day of ritualised and raw violence against the status quo. Everyone knows this and prepares accordingly. The transportation workers were kind enough to delay joining the strike until 11 AM (with a return to work at 5PM) so as to accommodate the needs of the demonstrators looking to head downtown (ticket monitors declined to enforce paid passage on the day).
For unions and other disgruntled groupsÂ the strikeÂ meant preparation of their cadres and organisation of their marching columns, to include stockpiling improvised weapons and going over marching discipline. On the day itself communist (KKE)Â party-affiliated unionsÂ manned the perimeter of their columns with large tough men, since the columns include pensioners and familiesÂ while unaffiliatedÂ provocateurs attempt to infiltrate the ranks (see below). The toughs move to the front of the column once the destination of the protest is reached (in this case, Parliament), where they provide a buffer between the security forces and the leadership while the support masses supply voice, placards, medical aidÂ and replacements for the front line stalwarts.
Other counter-hegemonic factions, particularly anarchist groups and Marxist-Leninist militants such as those in the “Revolutionary Uprising” group, organise more furtively. Unwelcome by the KKE unionists and virtually all other protest groups, these radical elements trail the larger union columns wearing hoods and tear gas masks while carrying pavement stones and petrol bombs. Comprised less of proletarians and more of disgruntled middle class and unemployed youth, they organise into small group cells so as to infiltrate the rear of the union columns where the KKE toughs are less visible, and they use the shelter of the largerÂ columns to stage hit and run attacks on symbols of government or capitalist authority. Their actions are not coordinated with the KKE or other groups, and are designed to inflame the situation so as to provoke a violent police response and wide spread chaos.
On the day of the general strike tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the Syntagma (Constitution) square outside of Parliament. The unions intended to disrupt the vote by storming parliament. The riot police understood this and protected the building. Other groups filled the square in support for the union vanguard, and by noon there were full-frontal clashes between demonstrators and riot police on the parliament steps. These clashes were remarkable for their restraint–the demonstrators threw small stones and an assortment of wooden objects, plastic water bottles and other light projectiles while grappling with the police over their riot shields. The police responded by episodically using hand-held tear gas dispersal units (rather than grenades) at close quarters when the mob threatened to overwhelm a point in the police line. In sum, there was much shouting, pushing and shoving but it was all rather stylised and everyone made their point (it is widely believed that the Police and unions have an understanding about how these demonstrations should proceed, particularly under PASOK governments).
All of that changed at 1:30PM when hooded youths firebombed a branch of theÂ Marfin EgnatiaÂ Bank a few blocks from the square.Â Located in a century old building lacking fire escapes, the bank branch was shuttered but its door left unlockedÂ because its employees had been ordered to work in spite of the strike (leaves were apparently cancelled or not taken).Â Of the twenty employees inside the branch when the firebombs came through the door, three died of smoke inhalation as they scrambled up a stairwell to escape the toxic fumes of the burning bank lobby. The others were rescued from second floor balconies as smoke billowed from the windows and doors behind them. The rioters on the street below prevented would-be rescuers from entering the front entrance and pelted arriving firefighting units with rocks and Molotov’s. Among the dead was a pregnant first time mother.
The deaths of three innocent Greeks cast a pall on the country. Everyone, politicians and unionists alike, agreed that storming parliament was fair game, but murder was not. The hunt is now on for the perpetrators, who escaped, and the blame game is in full swing.
The government blames the anarchists and other usual “agitators.” Most of the country appears to agree withÂ this viewÂ because the bank bombing was part of a larger orgy of violence in which private vehicles, storefronts, media vans and assorted other private property and government offices were stoned, torched or otherwise vandalised. The KKE and most of the union movement chose to blame government policies and its kowtowing to foreign financial interests for setting ther stage for the tragedy. Others blame the bank workers for not shuttering the front door once the mob on the street outside morphed from a well organised column into random groupings of armed youth. Others blame local government regulations that allow the use of old buildings for housing and commercial purposes without fire prevention or escape retrofits. But so far one culprit has remained unscathed by criticism–the bank itself.
Marfim Egnatia Bank is the largest majority Greek owned bank. It controls the Greek Investment Bank and has stakes in a number of commercial enterprises including the likes of Olympic Airways. It borrows heavily from foreign financial institutions in order to maintain and expand its commercial presence. Its Board of Directors is entirely Greek. And yet this bank ordered its workers in downtown Athens to report to work on a day when all of Greece knew that it would become a low intensity conflict zone. No banking business was (or could have been) done at that branch on May 5. But 20 workers, clerical staff and branch management alike, were told to effectively risk their lives and keep ther front door open as a sign that Marfin Egnatia supported the government decision to accept the terms of the bailout and as a symbol of rejection of theÂ general strike. But it was not the Board of Directors or upper management who were going to make that stand. Instead it t was the retail (mostly female) foot soldiers who wereÂ made to face theÂ much anticipatedÂ wrath of the disaffected children of the bourgeoisie, unemployed working classÂ and assorted lumpenproletarians.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem of Greece. An utterly contemptuousÂ corporate (often hereditary)Â elite that indulges the political classes and orchestratesÂ oligopolistic control of the national economy from the comfort and safety of the Athenian north and western far suburbs. An elite that weekends in the islandsÂ and watches the strikes on TV. An elite that will, by all measures, be singularly unaccountable or untroubled by the austerity regime now imposed on their fellow citizens.
Their disgrace is paralleled by that of the murderous hooded street thugs who enjoy violence for violence sake, and who take advantage of the Greek indulgence of ritualisedÂ confrontation to pursue their anti-social agendas, agendas that have zero political purpose other than to demonstrate contempt for the status quo. Both the Marfin Egnatia Bank bosses and the hooded street thugsÂ who threw the firebombs into the bank knew that innocent, working people were being placed in the line of fire.Â Â And in both cases, they simply did not care. Â In their contempt for others, it turns out that Â Greek elites and street cretins are alike.
That is whyÂ the deaths on May 5 were so quintessentially Hellenic: avoidable, unnecessary, preventable, pointlessÂ and yet palpable as well as inevitable.
PS: For those interested in English language newsÂ coverage ofÂ Greece, check out www.ekathimerini.com (but be aware that it has a right-centre orientation).