Letter from Thessaloniki

It has happened before and I have lived through it. I was there when violent clashes between police and thousands of young marchers broke out in West Berlin, 40 years ago. Stones and cans of paint were thrown as the police – some of them on horseback – moved against the columns of demonstrators on the Kurfurstendamm, the city’s main thoroughfare. At the time, US military authorities had advised Americans to avoid the area. Yesterday, a Warden Message from the US Embassy in Athens instructed its employees «to stay away from downtown Athens today, Sunday, December 7, due to large and violent demonstrations which started on Saturday night. More demonstrations are planned for today. We urge that Americans avoid not only downtown Athens today, but any other areas in which demonstrations may be encountered.» The same advice was given by the Consulate General in Thessaloniki. But, unlike in Athens, there was no teenager shot dead in Berlin. What had happened then was an assassination attempt on the life of Rudi Dutschke, a highly visible student leader, who as I remember asserted in an interview that «the extent of our counter-violence is determined by the amount of repressive violence employed by the ruling powers.» The riots, triggered in this country late Saturday by a small group of «anti-authoritarians» as the lingo goes, attacked the current «ruling powers.» That is, the police patrolling the unruly Exarchia district. Once again, violence ripped through the whole country and Thessaloniki erupted into a war zone. Leftist extremists collided anew with police. I recall the «brutal» German police in Berlin, 40 years ago. No, they did not carry guns in 1968, but they did charge with batons and used powerful jets from water cannons. «The real tragedy is that the Athens cops are criminally undertrained, if not outright unqualified,» said my friend Ellen, a Manhattan artist living temporarily in Greece. She voted for the Democrats. «I cannot comprehend what’s so anti-establishment about those leftist groups throwing petrol bombs, burning cars and smashing shop windows,» she wondered. «This is actual warfare. It is hot war!» she added. Well, personally I would rather go for «Cold War,» a term used to describe the relationship between America and the Soviet Union from 1945 to the 1990s. Neither side ever fought the other – the consequences would have been too appalling – but they did «battle» each other using client states who fought for their beliefs on their behalf. For example, anti-communist South Vietnam was supplied by America during the war, while pro-communist North Vietnam fought the south (and the Americans) using weapons from communist Russia or communist China. Now take Afghanistan, where the Americans supplied the rebel Afghans after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, while never themselves becoming physically involved, thus avoiding a direct clash with the Soviet Union. Could it be that somebody is behind our anti-authoritarians too? Vying to outdo one another, the world’s two superpowers, the USSR and the US, engaged in aggressive contests to build their own spheres of influence. Who gains from such a propaganda campaign? Paris and Prague There is currently a most interesting exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London showing the rival concepts of modern post-war life in the East and in the West. Forms of protest and rebellion, including the tumultuous events of 1968 in Paris and Prague, are considered through posters, films, photography and art. Riot police play the main role here as well. Sadly, Greece does not figure in this exhibition. All the same, during the Civil War in the mid-1950s the country had been a key area of confrontation in the Cold War due to its «enemy within.» Rejecting the militarism – yet hardly ever the consumerism – which characterized the Cold War, today’s Greek radicals still romanticize the exploits and ideals of revolutionaries in Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba as well as liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  No doubt us Greeks, inventors of politics as we know it, are among the most political people of the world. Once again yesterday, Thessaloniki was left with smashed storefronts, smoking garbage containers and destroyed cars because of idealism – some say. However, idealistic black-clad youth left their mark with very dark undertones of irony. Numerous anti-war and anti-police graffiti communicate political and social messages around Kamara and Syntrivani, neighborhoods popular with youth: «Bomb the world,» «Attacking Iraq is terrorism,» «You cannot win anything with prayers.» The idea of revolution has been revitalized. A new generation of activists argues that society can be dramatically reorganized by direct action.  «Should contemporary societies be organized as free-market democracies or should they be organized by strong governments for the benefit of ordinary people? No, I would hate to be in [Prime Minister Costas] Karamanlis’s shoes right now,» Ellen commented and I agreed.

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