The struggle in the squares

June 22, 2011

Greece's Prime Minister George Papandreou and his PASOK party government survived a June 21 confidence vote in parliament, but he will face continued mass protests as he pushes for yet more devastating austerity measures.

Greece is in the grips of a desperate economic crisis. The government has needed massive bailouts engineered by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, but they have come with the demand that the government slash spending, cut the wages and benefits of workers, and privatize public enterprises.

But a new mass movement has arisen to give voice to the anger of the mass of the population. Following the example of youth and workers in Spain--and before that, the Egyptian revolutionaries of Tahrir Square--the Greek "aganaktismenoi" ("indignants") have occupied public squares. On June 27 and 28, the so-called "movement of the squares" will demonstrate alongside the labor movement during a 48-hour general strike called as parliament is set to vote on yet more cutbacks.

Panos Petrou, a member of the socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) and a participant in the occupation in Athens' Syntagma Square, explains how this powerful new movement developed.

ON MAY 25, tens of thousands of people responded to a call on Facebook to join a demonstration in Syntagma Square, a central square in Athens outside the parliament building. It was a rather spontaneous demonstration, inspired by the Spanish movement of the "Indignados" (the "Indignants") who were occupying Plaza del Sol in Madrid.

Weeks later, Syntagma Square remains occupied by thousands of people, and similar "camps" are functioning in many squares in many cities and towns all around Greece. A new protest movement--known as "the aganaktismenoi" (the Greek translation for the "Indignados") or the "movement of the squares"--has emerged, and it is now a social force that is further destabilizing the already shaken political system in Greece.

On the days before May 25 and immediately after, the mass media tried to flatter the people who came into the streets, simply to contain their actions. The press highlighted the weaknesses of the movement, praising them as its "gifts." The same political commentators who viciously attacked all kinds of social protest in the past, whether strikes or occupations or whatever, now glorified this "non-political movement of all Greeks against all parties."

Protesters in Thessaloniki fill a public square in protest against austerity measures
Protesters in Thessaloniki fill a public square in protest against austerity measures (Tom Tziros)

They portrayed the movement in the way they wanted it to develop--as a "silent" expression of indignation against "politics," which would be harmless for the capitalist class.

Unfortunately for them, this is far from the truth. While there is a widespread anger against "politicians" in Greece, the true reasons for this popular anger are the anti-worker policies of the government. These policies are the product of the harsh austerity measures and anti-social agenda of the "Memorandum" signed by the government and the so-called "troika" of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are devastating the lives of working people, youth, the poor, seniors and the unemployed.

These are the people who occupy the squares--the ordinary people of Greek society. And far from being "non-political," these people are discovering politics in the streets.

From day one of the movement, one of the most exciting things about the occupied squares has been the fever of political debate among ordinary people. All sorts of people, meeting each other for the first time in their lives, are gathering to debate about the political system, the crisis, the public debt and how to deal with it--even the way the economy is run in capitalist society.

This is mostly a youth movement--a movement of what the OECD calls "Generation X": unemployed graduates, workers in precarious employment situations, people usually left out of the unions, because the trade union bureaucracy won't lift a finger to organize them.

But it is not only a youth movement. The squares have become a symbol of resistance for hundreds of thousands of workers, seniors and so on. According to a survey, more than 2.5 million people around Greece--with a population of 10 million--have taken part in the demonstrations during these past weeks. According to the same survey, an astonishing 87 percent of people support the demonstrations, 81 percent believe that they will continue and 52 percent believe they will "achieve something."

DOWN IN Syntagma Square, you can see live in front of your eyes how people change as a result of the movement--how mass action can change the people's minds and ideas.

Most people in the demonstrations are participating in mass action for the first time in their lives. There are people who had been voting for the two mainstream parties for years now say, "Finally, we woke up!" There is also a whole generation of young people that had no "ties" with politics, the ideas of the left or the social struggle that is now exploding in the streets.

In the first days, you could see these contradictions in the street: The chant of "Thieves, thieves" against members of parliament and insulting gestures against the parliament building were the only forms of expression. As the movement evolved, more political slogans have emerged, with the chant "Hey, hey, ho, ho. Take the Memorandum and go!" dominating.

What's more, the occupation of Syntagma Square has taken a life of its own. Every night, there is a "People's Assembly," where thousands gather around, discuss and vote for demands and the next steps of the movement. It is a form of democracy that is far more democratic than the one inside the halls of parliament.

In addition to the main Assembly, there are all kinds of working groups focused on specific issues: a Politics Group, an Economy Group, a Workers and Unemployed Assembly.

One of the most successful initiatives was the "Day of Popular Discussion About the Debt." Economists who had taken a stand against the Memorandum were invited to speak about the alternatives, and more than 4,000 people attended the discussion, where they asked questions about the future of the Eurozone, the possibility of a default, the role of the banks and so on.

Syntagma Square has turned into a center of resistance. Most trade union demonstrations end up at the square. On June 9, workers from the Dodoni dairy company, which unites a number of agricultural cooperatives in northwestern Greece, came to the square to protest the planned sell-off of the company by the Agricultural Bank of Greece. The workers distributed tons of milk to the demonstrators. On June 4, LGBT demonstrators from the Athens Pride celebration defied the police warnings and right-wing thugs claiming that they weren't welcome in Syntagma, and marched to the square.

The Sunday demonstrations at the square give the opportunity for the huge mass of sympathizers to protest--in this way, they are like the "Fridays of Anger" in the Arab world.

Tens of thousands of people paralyze the downtown of Athens every Sunday. On June 5, more than 200.000 people took part in one of the largest demonstrations since the fall of the military junta in 1974--it was almost impossible to take a single step inside the square.

The most exciting moment was when a group of Egyptians living in Greece appeared, waving Egyptian flags and carrying a placard saying, "From Tahrir Square to Syntagma Square." The applause and the cheers were electrifying.

Egyptian, Tunisian and Spanish flags are a common sight at the demonstrations in a display of internationalism--along with the Argentinian flag and people banging pots, as protesters did during the "Argentinazo" of 2001, which is a very popular example among demonstrators. There is a slogan inspired by the rebellion in Argentina that forced President Fernando de la Rúa to abandon the presidential palace in a helicopter: "One magic night, like the one in Argentina, we'll see who will manage to get in the helicopter first!"

INSIDE THE movement of the squares, there is an ongoing political struggle.

Many demonstrators exhibit hostility to the left, with statements like "politicians are all the same, " and the trade unions. This is a left-wing criticism--the "realism" of the big parties of the traditional left and their emphasis on parliamentary and electoral politics has led many people to see them as "part of the system," and there is widespread anger against the betrayals of the trade union bureaucracy.

But right-wing and even far-right elements, disguised as "non-political patriots," are consciously cultivating these ideas. They are trying to give the demonstrations a conservative direction, in order to exclude the left and the working class movement from the squares.

It is crucially important that the organized left be present at the demonstrations to explain that bureaucrats are one thing, but the unions and their rank and file are another; that we need a radical left which is not part of the system, but a force against it; and that the real enemy is not some "corrupt politicians," but the bankers, the industrialists and the whole capitalist class.

This kind of engagement has helped. The decisions and announcements of the People's Assembly in Syntagma Square are clearly going in a left-wing direction, with calls for strikes, declarations that all workers on strike are "welcome at the square," and demands that have been traditionally expressed by the left. The slogan of the radical left, "We don't owe anything, we won't sell anything, we won't pay anything," which was raised as a battle cry against debt and privatization, is one of the most popular at the squares.

The movement reached its peak on June 15, when a 24-hour general strike took place in addition to the mobilization at the square. Masses of striking workers joined the thousands of "indignants" who were surrounding the parliament building.

You could see the government's fear from early in the morning. Fences were set up to protect the parliament building. Thousands of cops were mobilized to enable MPs to enter--though most chose to stay home that day.

Later in the day, the riot police attacked the demonstration. Tons of tear gas was used on the streets around Syntagma, while the riot police repeatedly tried to disperse the demonstrators, attempting even a direct raid on the camp in Syntagma. But in an impressive display of defiance, people held their ground, wearing headscarves, forming chains, some of them dancing in the middle of the "battleground" to show they were not afraid.

All day long, people were retreating for a few moments, only to come back to the square minutes later. The mood was clear--that "They shall not pass" and "We won't lose the square." Seniors, housewives, workers and young people all faced police brutality--many of them for the first time in their lives--but stayed on to occupy the square.

The solidarity shown by workers in hotels and cafeterias nearby Syntagma was amazing. They opened doors, gave shelter to the demonstrators and offered them water. The workers at the subway station at Syntagma Square kept the station open on their own initiative, offering a shelter to demonstrators, enabling the flow of people from and at the demonstration, and even setting up a makeshift clinic to take care of wounded demonstrators.

At the end of the day, when the battles around the square were over, the people managed to hold their camp. That same night, thousands of people returned to Syntagma to attend the Assembly, which was one of the biggest since the start of the movement. The attempt to scare people off had failed.

THAT SAME day, the government nearly collapsed. Prime Minister George Papandreou even considered resigning in order to form a new government, either in coalition with the main right-wing opposition party, or a government of "technocrats"--people directly from the capitalist class.

The failure of these negotiations resulted in a reshuffle of the current government, with Papandreou attempting to control the ongoing rebellion inside his own party. To control potential rebels who are considering a vote against a new package of even harsher austerity measures and privatization), Papandreou asked for a confidence vote on June 21.

The same day, the movement of the squares are organizing a "vote of no-confidence on the streets," with huge demonstrations set for every city. This comes after another massive mobilization on Sunday, June 19, which showed that neither police brutality, nor the maneuvers of the government, can stop the people from demonstrating.

The battle is far from over. And importantly, there is the potential of the workers movement joining the "indignants" in the squares. With the government is trying to privatize public enterprises, the powerful trade unions in this sector are beginning to go on war footing. Starting June 20, workers at the national electricity company began an open-ended series of roling strikes.

The country's two main union federations, ADEDY for the public sector and GSEE for the private sector, have been forced to escalate strike actions. After years of ceremonial 24-hour strikes, the two federations will hold a 48-hour general strike for June 27 and 28, when the new package of cuts is supposed to be voted on the parliament--the first joint action of its kind in more than 30 years.

The coming together of the enthusiasm and the militancy of the movement of the squares with the power of the working class movement is the best way forward. The squares must play a part in escalating to strike action, and the workplaces need the direct, mass action that is on display in the squares.

In the days to come, this will be the crucial task for the radical left, the activists in the squares and the rank-and-file militants in the trade unions. Members of DEA, who have been participating in the movement from the beginning, are agitating around this slogan: "Bring all the unions to the Square, bring the squares to every workplace!"

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