“To all the armchair ‘fighters’, the professional humanists, the ‘sensitive’ intellectuals and spiritual personages: I say to you good riddance in advance.”
These are the words of Nikos Romanos, the 21 year old anarchist incarcerated for armed robbery, whose hunger strike threatens to spark mass unrest in Greece. He hasn’t eaten for over three weeks, in protest against the state’s decision not to allow him to pursue his higher education studies. He has lost 17 kilos, and doctors have warned that his heart may fail at any time. (As this is being published, it appears Romanos might die at any moment. – Ed.)
Romanos is not only standing up for his rights. His hunger strike is a call to action, part of the anarchist struggle to which he has long been committed. It’s hard to imagine that his timing is not strategic. Six years ago today, Romanos was with his friend Alexandros Grigoropoulos when he was shot by a police officer. The teenagers had been hanging out on a street corner. The officers say they had been attacked with stones and bottles, and had fired ‘warning shots’, one of which ricocheted. Eye-witnesses claim the youths were targeted. Either way, sixteen year-old Grigoropoulos was shot in the heart and died in front of Romanos’s eyes. The killing of an innocent teenager sparked mass riots for a fortnight in Athens and Greece at large.
Could another such wave of unrest hit Greece? This is the talk on the streets, as Romanos’s heart rate speeds up to 170 bpm. Already, there have been scores of solidarity demonstrations across Greece with thousands marching, and several occupations, including of a trade union building in downtown Athens. Violent run-ins with the riot police in Exarcheia look set to escalate- a district known for its anarchism and home to the street where Grigoropolous was shot.
Scenes of Molotov cocktails hurled at police, burnt-out and upturned cars and tear-gassed protesters haven’t spilled outside of Exarchia yet, but the city waits with held breath. Yannis Michailidis, who was arrested alongside Romanos, is on hunger strike in solidarity. The Turkish Prime Minister’s visit to Athens provided a reason to close the city’s main streets, yet it’s clear that Athens is in lockdown mode, with riot units ready to deploy at a hat’s drop.
Whatever the scale of the fallout, the Greek state has misplayed its cards. After Romanos passed his university entrance exams from behind bars, the Ministry of Justice and the President of Greece wanted to award him for his academic success. Romanos chose to stick to his anarchist principles as he saw them, and refused the prize. His furlough to attend his Business Studies course was then denied, in an act interpreted by some as revenge. The more likely reason may be that two cases linking him with terrorist acts are still hanging. Nevertheless, since the hunger strike, the Minister of Education has drawn up panicked plans for distance learning. It’s too late. The only way to stop Romanos now is through force-feeding, which his lawyer has rightly stated would amount to torture.
Even without this unpredicted crisis, Greece is already heading for turbulent times. Early elections are probable – before March 2015 – in which Syriza looks set to win. The right-wing ruling party, New Democracy, won’t hesitate to take drastic action in order to retain their hold on power. Some within the party will no doubt feel that a brutal crackdown on students, anarchists and other leftists would play well with their majority older, right-wing voters. This would truly be playing with fire.
In 2008 the country teetered on the edge of social collapse after the killing of a Alexandros Grigoropolous, with rioting and looting in all the major cities. Of course Romanos is not an innocent teenager: he is a convicted criminal, who has consciously put his life in danger for his beliefs. Yet 2008 was before the austerity crisis that has hit young people in Greece the hardest, before the Syntagma Square protests that radicalized many and turned them against the police, before the announcement of Type-C prisons, which will bundle “ideological enemies of the state” in with dangerous criminals, subjecting them to horrifying conditions.
In 2014, Greece is a country of barely repressed tensions. It may look positive from the outside. The dangerous energy of the anti-austerity movements were in part channeled into the electoral success of Syriza, which is pulling ahead in the polls by 10%. Also this year, the country exited recession for the first time in six years, with growth forecast to continue. Yet the ‘Coalition of the Radical Left’ has inevitably moved towards the centre in preparation for taking power. Many on the far left have departed, while others whisper increasingly loudly of the ‘coming betrayal’. There is no firm evidence, meanwhile, that the economic ‘upturn’ is helping living conditions or lifting ordinary people in Greece out of unemployment.
Everything is far from resolved, and Greece is still a country ripe for unrest. It seems clear that Romanos, by risking his life, wants to call on the ‘fighters’: those committed to what he sees as the anarchist struggle for freedom against injustice and oppression. We will see very soon the response to this call. One thing seems clear. Whatever the fallout of Romanos’s hunger strike, he will have acted with the intention not only of winning his right to education, but to influence the future direction of the country.