Backstory: In Greece, the culture of protest
I was just a few blocks from home earlier this month when I saw the trouble, or rather smelled it: Ahead, black, acrid smoke spiraled into the air. As fire trucks raced to the scene, sirens blaring, a series of loud explosions shook surrounding buildings.Skip to next paragraph
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"A bomb," shrugged one young woman, who minutes before had been marching in a phalanx formation of thousands of university students and teachers. She pointed to several cars on fire a block away. The TV crews were already there, jostling for the best view of flames, while employees at a nearby sandwich stall watched, smoking cigarettes to blunt the smell of burning rubber.
"That's Greece for you," laughed the woman's friend as the march faded into the distance, and the group set off in search of a cafe.
I live in Athens, not Baghdad or Beirut, and the only casualties that day were a Volkswagen and three other cars. One had a petrol bomb thrown through the window and the others, parked nearby, exploded when gas tanks ignited.
Such pyrotechnics don't usually make international news. That is, unless some international target is hit, like the US Embassy was earlier this month. The attacks aren't conducted by Islamist terrorists, and their intent – these days – usually isn't to kill or injure. They're just an extreme form of what modern Greeks call democracy.
This ancient city, considered the birthplace of democracy, is also a hotbed of protest. On any given day, some group – doctors, students, peaceniks, garbage men, prostitutes, and even nuns – is walking off jobs or taking to the streets.
Rare, too, is the week when nothing is bombed, set alight, or otherwise destroyed. In a year here, I've accidentally wandered into more clouds of tear gas than during five years reporting on war and conflict in Africa. No wonder: Authorities report an average of two protests a day in the city – many of which turn destructive. And that's not including strikes, riots, or other forms of dissent.
The morning the cars were burned in my neighborhood, I'd made my way toward Syntagma Square – the heart of modern Athens – along normally busy streets now empty of cars. Outside the little deli where I shop nearly daily, helmeted riot police were clustered in full force, plastic shields resting at their feet, behind a blue armored car blocking the road.
Riot police are a sight I've gotten used to – and that Athenians accept with a shrug and some adjustments. They simply make shopping detours when the downtown is choked off and ship the kids off to grandmothers when schools are shuttered, as they were for months last year. I've even seen waiters scurrying along beside marchers carrying coffee on brass trays to shop owners waiting out the protestors.
"Greeks have a very skeptical view of authority," says Brady Kiesling, a former US diplomat who is researching a book on the Greek Marxist group "November 17." "They think it's in society's best interest that there are little groups out there that are constantly challenging the state."
Greece has a long history of leftist political violence; the notorious November 17 killed 23 people, including US and British diplomats, between 1975 and its capture in 2002. By the time I arrived, though, November 17 had been dismantled. At first, it seemed somehow quaint to me that there were people who still called themselves "anarchists" – after an 18th-century philosophy that imagines an ideal stateless society – who threw petrol bombs at the relatively safe midnight hour at banks and the occasional Starbucks, charring buildings but rarely causing death or injury. Most Greek radical groups have only a handful of members and serve a largely social function, Mr. Kiesling says, comparing them more to football hooligans than to Al Qaeda.
But why so much anarchy in Greece, a developed and stable member of the European Union?
"I think it's easier to be an anarchist in a good climate," Kiesling suggests.