By Eric Ribellarsi
I arrived twelve hours ago in Athens, and rushed to find the crowds of streetfighters. The police tear gas has already hit around me about twenty times.
Athens’ Syntagma Square has for weeks been the site of the People’s Assemblies, huge rallies that challenge the government’s plans. Tonight this Square, the very heart of Greece, is a battleground where the police and resistors have been fighting face to face, line against line.
And all the while, people are singing and dancing and debating about revolution.
Welcome to the General Strike
The moment I stepped off the plane, any grogginess from two days’ travel disappeared.
I’m ready to join the action and start sending you my reports, but there is one problem. No buses. No way to get out of the airport.
Working people have shut down the entire country with a general strike. Their workstoppage is a determined rejection of the massive budget cuts and austerity measures being forced onto Greece by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU). These measures come in the midst of a 1-in-6 unemployment rate and a widespread hatred of capitalism.
A general strike like this is not routine, or symbolic, or passive or pre-orchestrated – this is a real fight by one class of people against another class. It is part of a serious power struggle and a real uprising: Which way will Greece go? What will the people’s future be like? Who will decide?
This is a place where an amazingly large number of people are wearing Che Guevara or circle-A on their t-shirts, and know what such symbols mean. In the midst of these strikes and street fights, a new generation of young “indignados” is emerging. They feel they have no future under this system, and have drawn great inspiration from the Arab Spring and the similar events unfolding in Spain.
Since there is no public transportation, the only available option is to take a taxi into Athens. The wait for a cab ended up being nearly three hours. The cost was over 90 U.S. dollars. But meeting my cab driver makes up for both the wait and price gouging – because we are quickly into some serious political conversation:
“The thing about Greece is there had better be a revolution soon. We need to reset everything and get rid of the EU.”
He tells me that about the coming evening’s major demonstrations in front of parliament. Jokingly, he says he isn’t going because he is still paying his hospital bills from last week.
Along the ride, the driver explains to me some of the posters and graffiti of the various groups. Hammers and sickles, circle-a’s, and assault rifles line the walls.
The most common posters we see are for KKE (which stands for the Communist Party of Greece, a large Soviet-style party that is hated by many for its open opposition to people’s uprisings and its defense of the government). I ask my driver what he thinks of KKE. He makes a face like I just handed him some excrement.
“KKE hates the poor and unemployed people, and the other parties have no solution for them.”
I ask what he thinks of other communist formations, like the Maoist KOE and the groups in the SYRIZA coalition. He isn’t sure yet. I ask what his politics are.
Revolution. Real revolution, meaning: overthrowing the government…. that is a popular sentiment here. Many I have talked to so far seem to have just recently come into political life. Their concerns and thinking don’t neatly fit into any ideological demarcations you might be familiar with. But there is among them a cohering, smoldering, broad revolutionary sentiment – which is starting to deserve the name “revolutionary movement.”
After parting ways with my cab driver, I step into the subway to find the location of the strike rallies. These won’t be just any rallies. Apparently, the rallying point for strikers will be at the site of the People’s Assembly, a mass encampment of radical forces outside parliament. The People’s Assembly has been operating as a sort of parallel regime with radical democratic demands. Those demands include the exit of Greece from the EU and International Monetary Fund and the institutionalization of new people’s democratic forms of government.
In other words: This is now openly about breaking the grip of capitalism’s powerful international banks and creating new forms of peoples power.
Underground Maalox medics
The doors to the subway car open at my stop, and instantly a cloud of tear gas pours into the train. My eyes are burning. I’m coughing. In the subway station I’m surrounded by a crowd thousands of radicals. They’ve occupied the place. The turnstiles have been ripped out, making the subway free. A huge maintenance room has been cleared out and turned into a medical ward for treating people’s injuries in the street fighting up above ground.
I stumble into the medical ward, and ask if masks are available. The medic apologizes:
“I’m sorry, we’re out, but we still have Maalox.”
She pulls out a spray bottle mixed with water and Maalox (a numbing treatment for stomach irritation). She covers my face, mouth and nostrils in it. It burns badly at first, but then soothes everything. These Maalox medics seem to be everywhere. Dozens of them are positioned throughout the crowd to treat people as soon as tear gas canisters are fired. And since apparently tear gas has been fired directly into the underground subway itself, they’ve become even more important. This points to an emerging discipline and high levels of coordination among the demonstrators.
A government under siege
Up on the surface, the scene is surreal.
The subway station is centered just in front of the parliament building. Young radicals are controlling the square in front of the building, and are engaged in street fighting on every single street leading into the square. Concussion grenades and tear gas are exploding everywhere.
Right about the time I emerge, a major building (which I later learned was actually the finance ministry) has been set on fire. Police charge the demonstrators, and fire dozens of concussion grenades and more tear gas.
The demonstrators retreat, only to push back the police with rocks a few minutes later.
On a nearby street corner, two young radicals heatedly debate the road ahead. At one point, one grabs the other,
“When are you going to see that we are on the same side?!”
Meanwhile, the scene in front of the parliament is a music and dance party. People are singing radical songs in Greek together, clapping and dancing in a circle, and even had a famous riot dog in their circle! The riot dogs are famous stray dogs that have been spotted fighting riot police at every major demonstration in the last few years. The riot dog is an icon and inspiration for the radicals, who feed and spoil it (and protect it from the police when the dog starts shit with them).
And even despite all of this, the word is that the austerity measures and budget cuts were passed anyway.
We’ve just arrived. Our eyes and ears are wide open. There is a lot to see and explain.
More to come.