It began with the death of a child, a 15-year-old schoolboy with a chubby face and long brown curls and a black punk-rock T-shirt–an ordinary teenager trying to be cool. Though he was privately educated in a wealthy Athens suburb, Alexis Grigoropoulos didn’t hang out at the mall. On Saturday night he was downtown in ungentrified Exarcheia, a neighborhood where the indie crowd collects in cafes–leftists and anarchists and music lovers, potheads and addicts and professors, dissenters and the young–and the object in recent years of an intensive cleanup operation. The police account of the events that led to Alexis’s death had the patrol car set upon by a crowd of stone-throwing youths and the boy himself wielding a petrol bomb. But eyewitness reports and videos shot on mobile phones tell a quite different story. Alexis and his friends were out to celebrate a name-day. Some unknown people passed and threw small objects at the car; the officers stopped, walked back to Alexis’s group and began to curse and threaten them. According to one of the boys, Alexis tossed an empty plastic bottle. The officer aimed and fired three shots, two in the air and one that pierced his chest.
Since then, the country has gone up in flames. There’s scarcely a town or city that hasn’t seen angry protests, many organized spontaneously by the very young. Four days after the killing of Alexis, Athens is still a war zone, with broken glass and upturned cars and flaming buildings everywhere; the New Democracy government, clinging to a one-seat majority, is utterly at a loss. Scandals, indifference and incompetence robbed it long ago of any moral authority; to declare a state of emergency would exacerbate the violence and bring dark echoes of the military dictatorship that fell in 1974, the last time Greece’s cities witnessed scenes like these. George Papandreou, the leader of the socialist opposition party, has demanded an election; even the conservative daily Kathimerini has hinted broadly that the prime minister should resign. But Kostas Karamanlis has given no acknowledgment of the deeper crisis; nor has he accepted his interior minister’s resignation or promised an inquiry into law enforcement, long infiltrated by extreme right-wing elements. The officer who fired the bullet has been charged with murder, but Alexis is not the first young man to die in recent years at the hands of the police. Other victims include immigrants and Roma.
The New Democracy government is no dictatorship. It is something far more ordinary, amorphous and insidious: a corrupt, incompetent administration with nothing left to offer its demoralized citizens. The summer before last it spectacularly failed to stop an inferno of forest fires; eighteen months later, little progress has been made with the rebuilding and reforestation. The government’s only vision for an economically viable future is to sell what’s left of the Greek landscape to developers. Ministers line their pockets with bribes and property deals–the latest involving major illegal land swaps for the Mount Athos Vatopedi Monastery.
The rioters’ first targets were banks and corporate headquarters. One in five Greeks already live below the poverty line; as the recession hits, the simmering resentment has taken on an edge of panic. Young people in low-wage, dead-end jobs–the “700 euros generation“–fear losing even those. Thirtysomethings live with their parents; parents work in shifts to earn enough to support their families. After four decades of rapid modernization, the social fabric has worn paper-thin. Discontent is policed with zero tolerance. Methods honed on the refugees who crowd Greek shores and have to be kept from seeking asylum in Europe’s wealthier north can also be applied to permanent residents.
Even Athenians are amazed at the intensity of this week’s violence. The riots began with bands of anarchists but were soon joined by many who had never taken to the streets. No one imagined there would be so many hooded men bent on destruction, high on the crackle of flames and the sound of shattering glass. But no one seems surprised at New Democracy’s failure to contain the rioting; and though they abhor the violence, everyone feels something of the protesters’ rage. It is the blind rage of people who feel betrayed by those who were meant to care for them, who can see no road ahead.