Backstory: In Greece, the culture of protest
ATHENS — 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.
"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.
But there's a brutal side to these groups, and living amid the constant protest tests the mildest temper. The same week as the student march in my neighborhood, for example, there were also protests by Pakistani immigrants and phone company operators. The city's doctors were on strike. A tax office and three banks were bombed. Anarchists clashed with police, exploding at least 60 Molotov cocktails. And someone sent a rocket-propelled grenade through a window at the US Embassy at 6 a.m., blowing up the ambassador's private bathroom. The group claiming responsibility said the attack was a response to US involvement in Iraq. (Greece ranks no travel warning on the US State Department website, which says "violent civil disorder is rare" here.)
Nicholas Giannetos, a silver-haired tailor who dresses Athens' elite, works out of a shop on Stadiou street, a main protest route. He's philosophical about his countrymen's penchant for taking to the streets. While his neighbors – mostly shops selling diamonds and other luxury goods – quickly shutter their windows when the first chants of a protest can be heard in the distance, he keeps his doors open. Sure, he admits, they drive away business. But so does rain.
"We think it's important for this country to remain democratic," he says, dismissing with a flick of his hand the small number of protests that turn violent. "They're just doing it to make a show."
Mr. Giannetos has been running his shop in central Athens for more than two decades. After only a year here, I'm still green. But I've learned to recognize the sound of a tear-gas canister exploding. I know that marchers wearing gas masks and carrying red flags are looking for trouble. And when the garbage men go on strike in the heat of summer, I know it's best to dump rubbish in a bin as far from your own house as possible.
One day earlier this month, I went into the belly of the beast to ask protestors what drove them to the streets.
"This is a culture of protest," explained Petros Constantinou, a man I met up with at another recent student march. In the aftermath of the country's oppressive 1967-74 military dictatorship, he said, Greeks won't accept any limits on the right to protest. "We will defend it very seriously, with our blood."
Mr. Constantinou wasn't a student; he was, in fact, something of a professional agitator. Officially, he was a spokesman for the Stop War Coalition, but he joined the protests of groups allied with his.
Over the loud speaker, which had been blasting local bands performing bad Greek rap and heavy metal, a man announced that some protestors had been arrested in a scuffle with police. Nearby, the clean white walls of a Hermès store were decorated with giant anarchy symbols, and the ground was littered with fliers pontificating about everything from the death of Saddam Hussein to animal rights.
I asked why so many protests turned violent.
"Most of the time it's not the anarchists that are the problem, it's the police," Constantinou insisted. I wasn't entirely convinced. I'd seen the marchers spoiling for a fight, masked and clutching nasty-looking clubs. In TV footage later, these militant protestors could be seen charging rows of police, who sprayed tear gas and held their ground, seeming remarkably restrained.
Most protestors, like 16-year-old Polydefkis Kyriakakis, a pony-tailed high school student who'd ditched school with friends, had no desire to tussle with the police. They were only there to show solidarity with university students. Her parents, she said, approved. In their day, they'd protested too.
"It's our right to protest," she said, lounging with friends on banners with revolutionary slogans laid out like blankets. The march was over, but no one seemed inclined to move and unblock the street. "The fact that we can close the city center each time there is a protest like this, it makes it so that people have to listen."
Constantinou agreed. Each protest, he said, gives strength to "the movement" – a vague coalition of groups with left-wing causes.
How many protests has he gone to in the past year? He laughed.
"These days I only go to the ones that we're organizing," he said.
And how many times had he been tear gassed? He chuckled.