November 17 marked the 36th anniversary of the night in 1973 when a colonels' junta violently suppressed an uprising at the Athens Polytechnic. The event is broadly credited with helping to restore parliamentary democracy the following year by dealing a fatal blow to the junta's authority.
Today's student generation still sees the Polytechnic as the iconic political event of postwar Greece, and longs to prove its ideals as indelibly. The slogans churned out this year spelled as much. For example:
Οι εξεγέρσεις δεν μπαίνουν στα μουσεία,
Εμπρός για της γενιάς μας τα Πολυτεχνεία.
(Uprisings don't belong in museums; onward to our generation's Polytechnics)
And the anarchically defiant:
Σ'αυτόν τον τόπο, σ'αυτήν την κοινωνία,
Οι εξεγέρσεις γίνονται, δεν είναι ουτοπία.
(In this place, in this society, uprisings are a fact, not a utopia).
The march does several things. First, it reminds Americans of their acquiescence to a seven-year dictatorship (1967-74) that sold itself as medicine against Red infiltration. Most of the slogans are still directed at the US. For example, there is the tried and tired:
Φωνιάδες των λαων, Αμερικάνοι
(Americans, murderers of the peoples)
And this year's more colourful:
Η μόνη γιάφκα των τρομοκρατών,
Είναι η πρεσβεία των Αμερικανών.
(The only terrorist hideout is the embassy of the Americans)
Or even the dismissive:
Δεν σας θέλει ο λαός,
Το μπουγέλο σας και μπρός.
(The people do not want you; take your hamper and be off).
The US embassy warden routinely warns Americans to stay off the streets on November 17, though to the best of my knowledge no harm has ever come to an American as a result of these demonstrations and public sentiments. In fact, a decade ago US embassy Athens failed to warn President Bill Clinton about the folly of announcing a November 17 overnight visit to Athens. (It was subsequently rescheduled for November 19 to little effect. Anarchists spent the two days stacking small arsenals of bricks and other missiles in Syntagma Square, unleashing mayhem as the president drove into town).
The sloganeering seems to fall on deaf ears. A four-metre high steel palisade separates the embassy grounds from Vasilissis Sofias Avenue where the action takes place. A double row of police buses and a double row of riot police put a further four traffic lanes between protesters and the grounds. Little debris has ever made it through. This year a single electric light emphasised the blackout across the rest of the embassy's facade. The message seemed to be the same as every other year – that nobody was listening.
Yet the anti-Americanism the November 17 march epitomises does cost money and sleep. The State Department spends more on security in Athens than in any other embassy in the world. It recently moved consular operations into a new building set deeper into the compound than the trademark 1961 Walter Gropius building; and many of the front offices of that were vacated earlier this year as being too dangerous to serve as office space. Little by little, US officials are retreating to an inner core.
But one cannot help feeling that what the march is really aimed at is the Greek right. This is the day when the left overtakes central Athens, much as it tried to do in its December 1944 bid to seize Greece, head-first, for Moscow. It was only through British and American assistance that non-communist forces won the 1946-49 Civil War that ensued. The allies were helping Greece remain democratic, and the putative threat to democracy from the left remained a staple of Greek conservative politics until the 1960s. It was the very excuse the colonels used to suspend parliamentary democracy in April 1967 – just days ahead of an election socialist leader Yiorgos Papandreou, grandfather of the present prime minister, was set to win. For the defeated, fractious and increasingly utopian-sounding left, the irony of democracy being lost to the right is too delicious to let slip into oblivion.
But it is not Pasok, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, which revels in the remembrance. Its youth was a token thousand in the 10,000-12,000-strong turnout this year, and a lukewarm thousand at that. The backbone of the march are the Hellenic Communist Youth (KNE) with their synchronised, thundering boot-step, trademark black-and-red regalia and suspiciously stout flags (a foot-square rag supported by one inch-thick, four foot-long dowel rod). Other stalwarts are Antarsya, the Anti-Capitalist Left Co-operation for Reversal (reversal of what, exactly?), Workers' Solidarity, Syriza - the Radical Left Coalition – and other rose-hued factions.
There is a staple set of demands – an end to capitalism and imperialism, which the left here sees as entirely interdependent; a homecoming of Greek troops in overseas engagements; public health and education (pointedly, in recent years this has taken the form of opposition to liberalisation of higher education). One has to recognise an admirable ideological consistency with Marxist doctrine in a call for blanket legalisation of all illegal immigant fellow-workers.
While the political groups that preserve the November 17 anniversary are decidedly far left and have historical axes to grind, their annual parade of cooperative values acts as a weather vane of mainstream public opinion. The years of unpopular US overseas engagements – the 1999 bombing of Serbia and the 2003 invasion of Iraq – saw the march swell through a broader participation of the urban middle class.
The trouble with the march is that it doesn't proceed far enough down the road to universalism. Its copyright holder, the Communist Party of Greece, is staunchly Stalinist and, since a brief flirtation with reality in 1990, opposed to re-invention or broadening to represent social, as opposed to economic, ideals. The historic failure of communism has sent it backwards, not forwards. This conservatism is evident in what could be Greece's prime political street theatre. The potential is there to parade universal values in civil rights, humanitarianism and even liberalism, broadening the event's authority. Instead we have the red theme park with only one ride - nostalgia for what could have been, and anger that capitalism prevails.
That anger and sense of failure have recently been upstaged, however. Τhe most frightening bunch of all this year was the Anti-Authoritarian Movement of the Western Suburbs (Αντιεξουσιαστική Κίνηση Δυτικών Προαστίων), an oxymoronic label if ever there was one. Their banner read, “Remember, Remember, the 6th of December,” a reference to the police killing of teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos last year, which triggered destructive, week-long riots.
These youngsters were angry and seedy looking, and were the only ones to give the impression of true anarchists rather than an organised political youth movement. They were the only group to try and conceal their faces with kerchiefs and balaklavas, and the only group to launch any missiles at police, mainly water bottles and stones. They spat out individual insults and gave every impression of wanting a fight.
The 2008 protests may have been based on pure anarchy, but their force has grafted the indefinable cause of Grigoropoulos onto other youth movements, who included in this year's slogans such couplets as:
Βαψατε τα χέρια σας με τ'αίμα του Αλέξη,
Ο λαός θα πεί την τελευταία λέξη.
(You tainted your hands with Alexi's blood; the people will have the last word).
Grigoropoulos also seemed to underpin this wordplay on the junta's catchphrase:
Ελλας Ελλήνων αστυνομικών,
Ρουφιάνων δολοφόνων και βασανιστών.
(Greece of Greek police, informers, murderers and torturers).
This December 6th may well siphon off vandalism that might have tagged itself onto the November 17 march. If a December 6th anniversary becomes a rival event, it will be the darker of the two. Now that communism is no threat to anyone, we can all applaud some of its values and wish someone expressed them more forcefully; but what have we to say to middle-class, suburban youths whom capitalism has taught to believe in nothing?