A chronicle of deaths foretold.

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 regime required for 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 point 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 groups the strike 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) party-affiliated unions manned the perimeter of their columns with large tough men, since the columns include pensioners and families while unaffiliated 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 aid 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 larger 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 the Marfin Egnatia Bank a few blocks from the square. Located in a century old building lacking fire escapes, the bank branch was shuttered but its door left unlocked because its employees had been ordered to work in spite of the strike (leaves were apparently cancelled or not taken). 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 with this view 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 the 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 were made to face the much anticipated wrath of the disaffected children of the bourgeoisie, unemployed working class and assorted lumpenproletarians.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem of Greece. An utterly contemptuous corporate (often hereditary) elite that indulges the political classes and orchestrates 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 islands 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 ritualised 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 thugs who threw the firebombs into the bank knew that innocent, working people were being placed in the line of fire.  And in both cases, they simply did not care.  In their contempt for others, it turns out that  Greek elites and street cretins are alike.

That is why the deaths on May 5 were so quintessentially Hellenic: avoidable, unnecessary, preventable, pointless and yet palpable as well as inevitable.

PS: For those interested in English language news coverage of Greece, check out www.ekathimerini.com (but be aware that it has a right-centre orientation).

9 thoughts on “A chronicle of deaths foretold.

  1. It’s rather sad to see this. My wife and I enjoyed a holiday in Athens last summer, and I have fond memories of having a beer in one of the outdoor restaurants on Syntagma Square, which I saw was covered in tear gas in one of the videos.

    If you haven’t been to Delphi, Pablo, it is worth a day out. One of the world’s most profound places.

  2. Ag: It may be difficult to do the land travel as we only have a week left and wildcat transportation strikes are rampant.

    What is interesting is the mainland/island divide, akin to the urban/rural dichotomy mentioned by developmental economists. The island parts of Greece keep to their own rhythm relatively (or at least seemingly) unaffected by the turmoil on the mainland (and quite proud of that fact, judging from conversations with locals). Tourism and a fair bit of agricultural self-sufficiency and inter-island trade (as well as trade with Turkey in places like Samos) appear to cushion the islands from mainland problems.

    This may or may not say something about the Greek national character. I am as of yet too ignorant of all things Greek to pinpoint what the implications of the mainland/island dichotomy really are, but it does help explain why at least some Athenians return to their ancestral villages in times of duress as well as for pleasure/second residence.

  3. Thanks Steve. If only my former employer shared your views. Great to hear from you in any event–I reckon that your students are probably not as feisty as their Greek counterparts!

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  5. Both the Marfin Egnatia Bank bosses and the hooded street thugs who threw the firebombs into the bank knew that innocent, working people were being placed in the line of fire.  And in both cases, they simply did not care.  In their contempt for others, it turns out that  Greek elites and street cretins are alike.

    Tragically true of everywhere really.

  6. That, in a nutshell, is the problem of New Zealand. An utterly contemptuous corporate (often hereditary) elite that indulges the political classes and orchestrates oligopolistic control of the national economy from the comfort and safety of the Auckland north shore and eastern suburbs. An elite that weekends at the bach 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.

    In the light of this – http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10646234&pnum=2

    And now the 2010 budget, I thought I’d edit your quote for truth.

  7. Mr. G.:

    Thanks for the link. I do not agree with much of the anarchist approach but they certainly have reason to see the Greek state as oppressive. Several of the people we spoke to during our stay mentioned that the deaths of the bank workers played neatly into the state narrative and diverted attention from the real story about the Greek commons paying the price for elite profligacy.

    It was also very interesting to note in the updates on the link that the Greek riot police have changed their strategy in dealing with the demos during the May 20 general strike to something more proactive and suppressive. Clearly they have decided to draw the line and brook no further disturbances beyond the already permissive rules of the Greek demonstration “game.” The Thai example is instructive in this regard and I would not be surprised if the Greek authorities were using it as a model of what not to do (waiting to late to intervene forcefully at a lower level of conflict while trying to broker an impossible deal and thereby allowing things to escalate into an all-out military confrontation).

    TM: I am quite conflicted on the situation and hence my vacillation. Greek democracy is deeply corrupt and flawed in too many ways to list here. On the other hand, given the alternatives, its collapse would not necessarily bring about something better, anarchist dreams not withstanding. Greek society also has its myriad ills, many of which are the subject of directly counterposed “solutions.” Although the military has not and likely will not get involved under current conditions, there have already been calls by ultra-nationalists for it to “show some leadership.” Should street violence escalate to the point of attacks on the military itself, it will have to respond out of corporate-institutional necessity, and that will not be on the side of the popular classes absent a major shift in military ideology and social composition.

    That is why I disagree with the anarchist position. An escalation into all-out armed insurrection or civil war may well expose the contradictions of the Greek state, but it will not end with the restoration of a people’s republic or anything close to it. To the contrary, for the Hellenic demos, it would be a disaster, both short and long term.

    For an interesting look at anarchist culture in Athens, check out this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/20/world/europe/20iht-greece.html?scp=2&sq=greece&st=cse

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