Amy Goodman interviews Greek activist
by Amy Goodman / Democracy Now / December 11, 2008
AMY GOODMAN: Protests, riots and clashes with police have overtaken Greece for the sixth straight day since the fatal police shooting of a teenage boy in Athens Saturday night. One day after Wednesday’s massive general strike over pension reform and privatization shut down the country, more than a hundred schools and at least fifteen university campuses remain occupied by student demonstrators. A major rally is expected Friday, and as solidarity protests spread to neighboring Turkey, as well as Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Denmark and the Netherlands, dozens of arrests have been made across the continent. We speak to a student activist and writer from Athens. We speak to a student activist and writer from Athens.
On Wednesday, two police officers involved in Saturday’s shooting were arrested, and one was charged with murder. But anger remains high over the officers’ failure to express remorse at the student’s death. The police officers claim the bullet that killed Alexandros Grigoropoulos was fired in self-defense, and the death was an accident caused by a ricochet.
The unrest this week has been described as the worst since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 and could cost the already weakened Greek economy an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s also shaken the country’s conservative government that has a narrow one-person majority in Parliament. The socialist opposition has increased calls for the prime minister to quit and call new elections, ignoring his appeals for national unity.
I’m joined now on the telephone by a student activist and writer from Athens. He’s with the Greek Socialist Workers Party. He’s a graduate student in political philosophy at Panteion University in Athens.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you lay out for us exactly when this all began and how the protests have escalated and what they’re about right now, Nikos Lountos?
NIKOS LOUNTOS: Yes, Amy. I’m very glad to talk with you.
So, we are in the middle of an unprecedented wave of actions now and protests and riots. It all started on Saturday evening at around 9:00 p.m., when a policeman patrolling the Exarcheia neighborhood in Athens shot and murdered in cold blood the fifteen-year-old schoolboy Alexis.
The first response was an attempt to cover up the killing. The police claimed that they had been attacked. But the witnesses all around were too many for this cover-up to happen. So, all the witnesses say that it was a direct shot. So even the government, in just a few hours, had to claim that it will move against the police, trying to calm the anger.
But the anger exploded in the streets. In three, four hours, all the streets around Athens were filled with young people demonstrating against the police brutality. The anti-capitalist left occupied the law school in the center of Athens and turned it into headquarters for action. And on Sunday, there was the first mass demonstration. Thousands of people of every age marched towards the police headquarters and to the parliament. And the next day, on Monday, all this had turned into a real mass movement all around Greece.
What was the most striking was that in literally every neighborhood in every city and town, school students walked out of their school on Monday morning. So you could see kids from eleven to seventeen years old marching in the streets wherever you could be in Greece, tens of thousands of school students, maybe hundreds of thousands, if you add all the cities. So, all around Athens and around Greece, there were colorful demonstration of schoolboys and schoolgirls. Some of them marched to the local police stations and clashed with the police, throwing stones and bottles. And the anger was so really thick that policemen and police officers had to be locked inside their offices, surrounded by thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys and girls.
The picture was so striking that it produced a domino effect. The trade unions of teachers decided an all-out strike for Tuesday. The union of university lecturers decided a three-day strike. And so, there was the already arranged, you know, the strike you mentioned for Wednesday against the government’s economic policies, so the process was generalizing and still generalizes.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikos Lountos, when you have this kind of mass protest, even with the beginning being something so significant as the killing of a student, it sounds like it’s taken place in like a dry forest when a match is thrown, a lit match, that it has caught on fire something that has been simmering for quite some time. What is that?
NIKOS LOUNTOS: Yeah, that’s true. Everybody acknowledges that even the riots, the big riots—you may have seen the videos—they are a social phenomenon, not just the result of some political incident. There were thousands of angry young people that came out in the streets to clash with the police and smash windows of banks, of five-star hotels and expensive stores. So, that’s true. It was something that waited to happen.
I think it’s a mixture of things. We have a government that’s—a government of the ruling party called New Democracy, a very right-wing government. It has tried to make many attacks on working people and students, especially students. The students were some form of guinea pigs for the government. When it was elected after 2004, they tried—the government tried to privatize universities, which are public in Greece, and put more obstacles for school students to get into university. The financial burden on the poor families if they want their children to be educated is really big in Greece. And the worst is that even if you have a university degree, even if you are a doctor or lawyer, in most cases, young people get a salary below the level of poverty in Greece. So the majority of young people in Greece stay with their families ’til their late twenties, many ’til their thirties, in order to cope with this uncertainty. And so, this mixture, along with the economic crisis and their unstable, weak government, was what was behind all this explosion.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikos Lountos is a Greek activist and writer. Nikos, the protests have been picked up not only in Greece, but around the world. We’re talking about the Netherlands, talking also about Russia and Italy and Spain and Denmark and Germany. What does it mean to the workers and the students in Greece now? How significant is that? Has that changed the nature of the protests back in Greece?
NIKOS LOUNTOS: It’s very good news for us to know that many people around the world are trying to show their solidarity to us. And I think it’s not only solidarity, but I think it’s the same struggle against police brutality, for democracy, against war, against poverty. It’s the same struggle. So it’s really good news for us to hear about that.
I think you should know that the next Thursday will be the next day of action, of general action. Every day will have action, but next Thursday will be a day of general action. The students will be all out. And we’re trying to force the leaders of the trade unions to have a new general strike. So I could propose to people hearing me now that next Thursday would be a good day for solidarity action all around the world, to surround the Greek embassies, the consulates, so generally to get out in the streets and express your solidarity to our fight. And I think workers and students in Greece will really appreciate it.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue of civil liberties overall in Greece? Has this been a matter of controversy over time?
NIKOS LOUNTOS: Yeah. This government has a really awful record on civil liberties. It all began during the Olympics of 2004, aided also by the so-called anti-terrorist campaign started by George Bush after 9/11. During the Olympic Games, we had the first cameras in the streets of Athens. And there are now proofs that many phones were tapped illegally at that period, among them the phones of the leaders of the antiwar movement here in Greece, such as the coordinators of the Stop the War Coalition.
And then came the biggest scandal of all. In 2005, tens of Pakistani immigrants were abducted from their homes by unknown men. They were hooded and interrogated and then thrown away after some days in the streets of Athens. The Greek police, along with the British MI5, had organized these illegal abductions in coordination with the then-Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf.
During the student movements and the workers’ strikes all these years, hundreds of beatings and more police brutality have covered up. Just one month ago, a Pakistani immigrant called Mohammed Ashraf was murdered by riot police in Athens when the police dispersed the crowd of immigrants waiting to apply for a green card. And the immigrants in Greece in general are mainly from regions hit by war—Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan. And they are treated in awful conditions by the Greek state and police. Many people have died by shells in the borders or in the Aegean Sea, trying to get into Greece and then Europe. So it’s really an awful record for the government on civil liberties.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikos Lountos, finally, as we travel from Sweden to Germany, one of the things we’re looking at is the effect of the US election on the rest of the world. In a moment, we’ll be joined by the editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, the largest magazine in Europe. When President-elect Obama was elected, their headline was “President of the World.” What is the effect of the election of Barack Obama on people you know in Greece? What has been the reaction?
NIKOS LOUNTOS: Well, you know, all these years we had a slogan here in the antiwar movement and the student movement that George Bush is the number-one terrorist. So, many people were happy when they learned that these will be the final days of George Bush and his Republican hawkish friends like John McCain. But, of course, people in Greece have experienced that having a different government doesn’t always mean that things will be better. If the movement doesn’t put its stamp on the changes, changing only persons will have no meaning. But people have appreciated the change in the US administration as a message of change all over the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikos Lountos, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Greek activist and writer. He’s with the Socialist Workers Party in Greece and a graduate student in political philosophy at Panteion University in Athens.