September to December is a time of holidays in the West, but in Greece, it is also a time of “insurgent holidays”: three specific dates on which leftists mobilize for large marches in the streets, youth clash with police, and the post-left anarchist underground organizes campaigns of arson and bombings against targets of capitalism and the state. Greece is of course no stranger to mass demonstrations, and it is a point of pride among many Greeks that they enjoy such a high level of political engagement, from frequent protests to an impressive number of publications and media outlets—all signs of a robust democracy. Despite their frequency, most protests and marches in Greece are peaceful, with newsworthy clashes occasionally occurring on small scales. On these three specific dates, however, there is guaranteed to be violence. This article hopes to give a little background on each of these dates, how they came about, and how they are observed annually.(The specific dates covered here are the 18th of September, the 17th of November, and the 6th of December. For reasons of historical context, they will be discussed in chronological order of their origin-events, rather than in the calendar order in which they occur.)
In 1973 Greece was ruled by a dictatorial government, sometimes called the “junta” or the “Regime of the Colonels,” which had taken power in a coup of right-wing army officers in1967. Less than a year before the country’s return to democracy in 1974, student occupations of university buildings and increasing protest activity turned into a larger anti-junta movement as the leadership was making small moves towards reforms. This led to the events of November 1973, when on the morning of the 14th students of Athens Polytechnic went on strike in protest against the regime. They were joined on the subsequent day by thousands of Greeks that flocked to downtown Athens in support, but on the evening of the 16th government snipers and security forces started shooting at demonstrators, and in the early hours of the 17th an AMX 30 main battle tank crashed through the university gates as students sat atop of them. The number of Greeks killed in the crackdown is disputed, but it is likely around two dozen, with many more injured.
When democracy and the constitution were restored in Greece many of the political parties that had been banned under the junta such as the communist KKE party were re-legitimized and allowed to participate in elections. Since then, the 17th of November has been observed every year by Greeks from a broad swath of political backgrounds (most of which are left-leaning), from teachers’ unions to left-wing political parties, and of course sizeable blocs of anarchists. The latter typically form up in the downtown Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia—home to the Polytechnic and a well-known haven for anarchists—and march towards Parliament in Syntagma Square, where they will clash with the ubiquitous riot police in green fatigues with white helmets, gas masks and shields reading ΑΣΤΥΝΟΜΙΑ, known as the Units for the Reinstatement of Order (MAT). Dozens if not hundreds of arrests are made at demonstrations in cities across Greece, with most of the action taking place in Athens and Thessaloniki. Then in the evening things tend to heat up, with anarchists lobbing volleys of bricks and Molotov cocktails at the MAT, and the MAT responding with incredible volumes of tear gas and crowd-control rounds.
Then there is the way in which the17th of November has historically been observed by Greece’s far- and post-left urban guerrillas. The most infamous of these groups (and one of the originals) takes its very name from the last day of the uprising, the “Revolutionary Organization–17 November,” popularly known as “17N”. 17N was a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization that existed from 1975 until their dismantling in 2002. Their first operation would be on the night of December 23rd, 1975, as three unmasked members followed the CIA’s new Athens Chief of Station, Richard Welch, home from a Christmas party and shot him dead in front of his wife and driver. Along with other students, who were dissatisfied with the return to democracy rather than a complete revolution against capitalism, 17N took their energy from the 1973 uprising and went underground to begin a militant campaign of bombings, robberies, assassinations and rocket attacks. After their capture and dismantling, a new generation of urban guerrillas followed in the footsteps of 17N. Though today’s generation of urban guerrillas tends to be comprised ideologically of left-libertarian and post-left anarchists, most of them still pay homage to 17N the group and refer to the Polytechnic uprising in their communications. The overwhelming historical significance of November 17th, as well as the guaranteed violence at the hands of the police during demonstrations that take place annually, are themselves recurring motivations for acts of terrorism in and around that date every year.
Casual observers of the country will recall that from 2009 through to 2013, Greece seemed to be ceaselessly smoldering with often violent protests that would go from morning into the early hours of the next day. Many will also remember that most of the anger fueling these protests came from the brutal effects of the economic crisis and the harsh austerity measures Greeks faced. However, before the contagion of the economic crisis even reached Greece, another event sparked a nation-wide “uprising,” the scale and intensity of which had not been seen since December 1944, as the country was on the brink of civil war (a war it would fight from 1946-1949, and a likely factor in some of today’s political violence). On the evening of December 6th, 2008, a group of teenagers got into a verbal altercation with two police officers from the Special Guards unit in the Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia, when one of the officers fired his service weapon three times in the teens’ direction, striking and killing 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos.
For the next three weeks there would be daily protests, fires, and clashes with police in which hundreds of thousands participated in cities all across Greece. Demonstrations and riots erupted in dozens of foreign cities as the Greek far- and post-left drew solidarity from all around the world. The destruction in Greece at the end of the three weeks was indescribable. Much of downtown Athens’ high-end shopping street, Ermou, had been burnt to a cinder. The rage was felt by people of all political persuasions. Fatal violence at the hands of the state remains an extremely sensitive issue among Greeks, following seven years under the junta.
Greek scholar, Andreas Kalyvas, notes in his piece, “An Anomaly? Some Reflections on the Greek December 2008,” the unprecedented immigrant participation in what he calls the “insurrection” over those three weeks:
Notwithstanding its limitations, contradictions, and failings, viewed from the perspective of the insurgent immigrant, the 2008 Greek insurrection contains a positive constituent moment: the illegal and extra-institutional reconstitution and expansion of citizenship, membership, and community. It is a radicalization of democracy.
(This author has personally witnessed angry Syrian refugees demonstrating alongside their Greek anarchist allies in Athens and Thessaloniki in 2016—though not on one of the dates discussed in this article.) The 6th of December was an outlier among the three dates covered here, in that its first iteration drew diverse crowds, acting on a diverse set of grievances against the Greek state and their lot in Greek society. Today, it is mostly observed by the far- and extra-parliamentary-left, as well as anarchist groups in Exarcheia.
Likely because of its direct relation to police brutality, December 6thoften (but not always) tends to be the most violent of Greece’s “insurgent holidays”. It is also within the recent memory of many Greeks that take to the streets today, and if they did not participate in the actions of 2008, there is a good chance that they were inspired by them. Police typically deploy in large numbers on the 6th, anticipating mass mobilization. Enraged Greeks will clash with phalanxes of MAT police on the main streets of Athens throughout the day, and in the evening the battle becomes localized to the neighborhood of Exarceia—where Grigoropoulos was murdered. The chirping of radios on MAT officers can be heard down the dimly lit streets, as cascades of Molotovs and other missiles fly at them from fluid groups of anarchists and are answered back by the smoking-trails of projectile gas canisters and blasts of crowd-control munitions.
Perhaps one of the most shocking outcomes of the 2009 economic crisis in Europe was the rise of Greece’s neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, and the seats it won in Parliament, along with the growth of its large street-level cadres—known for roaming about clad in black shirts and assaulting immigrants and leftists with melee weapons. The downfall of this frightening political movement would be the assassination of an anti-fascist rapper named Pavlos Fyssas, also known as “Killah P”. On the night of September 17th, 2013, as he sat watching a football match on the patio of a café in a suburb of Piraeus, a member of Golden Dawn, Giorgos Roupakias, approached him and viciously stabbed him. He died just after midnight on the 18th. The murder was considered a professional hit ordered by Golden Dawn’s leadership. The party founder and chief, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, was sentenced to prison along with some of his party’s most prominent deputies, Golden Dawn having been tried asa criminal organization by the Greek justice system. For the first time since their ascent to Greece’s third-largest political party, this year they failed to win a single seat in Parliament.
The Hellenic Police were said by some witnesses to have stood by and allow Pavlos to be murdered. Anti-fascists immediately took to the streets of Athens and clashed with the MAT throughout the night. The clashes went on into the next day, and a week after the murder up to 10,000 people took part in demonstrations in Athens and Thessaloniki against fascism, people in Athens marching on Golden Dawn’s headquarters. Police broke up the march before it reached its destination and tremendous violence ensued between the MAT and the crowd, with dozens of arrests being made. Anarchists carried out a retaliatory hit on November 1st, 2013, in which two members of Golden Dawn were shot and killed and another injured outside of the party’s office in Neo Iraklio (a suburb of Athens).
In subsequent years demonstrations in memory of Pavlos and against Golden Dawn have lasted as long as three days, with thousands of people participating in Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki. Much of the frustration up until this year, however, has been over the slow pace of the trial to convict key members of Golden Dawn for their role in its criminal activity, and particularly in ordering the hit on Pavlos. Whether the intensity of these annual demonstrations will abate now that the trial has concluded has yet to be seen. Given the tremendous solidarity capital that the left and anti-fascists still draw from this date every year, it is unlikely that demonstrations and some degree of violence between protesters and police will not continue to take place every year on and around September 18th.
As a part of a broader policy to crackdown on what the current ruling party, New Democracy, refers to as a culture of “lawlessness” in Athens and Thessaloniki, the Hellenic Police have been forcefully evicting many of the long-established anarchist squats throughout Greece, including one in Thessaloniki and another on Crete that had both been occupied for nearly twenty years. The government has also been cracking down on Greece’s “insurgent holidays”.
This year, ahead of November 17th, Minister for Citizen Protection, Michalis Chyrsochoidis, declared that the formal state wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the Polytechnic uprising would be canceled as well as any informal gatherings or demonstrations, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that three other major Greek national holidays had been canceled due to the virus as well, and added, “The virus is the enemy and large gatherings are its weapon.” The university rector of Athens Polytechnic declared ahead of the 17th that the campus would be closed and all of its facilities barred to students and the public. Nevertheless, on November 12th, anarchists managed to break into the campus and occupy its main buildings, before the MAT broke into the gates, clashed with them and arrested several people. The anarchists’ intent had been to occupy the campus several days through the 17th. A separate demonstration took place at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki that also led to several arrests. Outraged at the government’s suspension of Greeks’ constitutional right to assemble and protest, the communist KKE party rallied and marched on Parliament. At the end of the day, trucks with high-pressure water cannons were used to disperse average Greeks peacefully assembled in downtown Athens, and several arrests were made throughout the day in Greece’s major cities. There were violent clashes that night between police and anarchists, as there are every year, and a few days later an anarchist cell calling themselves the “Drops of November” claimed a Molotov attack on Sykeon police station in Thessaloniki that took place on the afternoon of the 17th.
Similarly, demonstrations ahead of the December 6th anniversary of Alexis Grigoropoulos’ murder have been banned by the Hellenic Police, and those gathering in violation of the ban could face a fine of between 3,000-5,000 euros. The Minister of Citizen Protection said that he too was prohibiting gatherings, again on the basis of stopping the spread of COVID-19. As of writing this article (December 5th), several people have already been arrested after emerging from the subway station and clashing with police in Syntagma Square. Anarchist groups are calling for action to keep the police from blocking the memorial in Exarcheia where Grigoropoulos was shot, and separate groups such as trade unions are calling for their own demonstrations in memory of the slain boy. If this year’s November 17th was any indication of what Greece’s “insurgent holidays” look like in the time of COVID-19, December 6th will likely be observed with as much intensity as it has been in past years.
Of all of these “insurgent holidays,” November 17th is the most established in national memory and tradition. December 6th is right behind it in terms of enduring significance and the extent to which it will be observed for years to come. Though it is unlikely that the 18th of September will stop being observed now that the Golden Dawn trial has concluded (for the most part), it is possible that the numbers of people drawn to and the intensity of rallies on this day will decline. There is also the likelihood of other such dates emerging in the future, as long as certain segments of Greek society continue to wage war on the government, and on one another.