Socialist time in Athens is even more fluid than Scottish socialist time. Despite the call being made for 10.30, by 10.45 only a few hundred had gathered, and it was not until gone 12 that the march started properly assembling. Through that period small groups, each with large banners appeared, noisily coming down the road to pitch up in outside the museum to wait for the march to start. The main Mayday march in Athens had been called by the extra-parliamentary left. The KKE, the main far-left party chose not to participate but instead attending a rally to support the striking steelworkers.
There was a remarkable, if a little confusing, international presence. The Worker-Communist Party of Iran was represented with a banner which celebrated the Occupy movement, while we puzzled over a flag that we had to rely on Wikipedia to identify as the the flag of the Syrian Republic (’38-’53). The most confusing was a flag which portrayed a middle aged man with a small moustache, after arguing for a while whether it was Stalin, or Saddam Hussain, (neither of which we considered particularly fitting) we finally discovered it was Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK, currently imprisoned in Turkey.
The main bloc on the march was that of Antarsya, the anti-capitalist organisation formed in March 2009, drawing together a number of radical forces, although each of those forces had their own identity on the march together with many others which did not form part of Antarsya. The march appeared to be very organic with no co-ordinated formation for such a large gathering. Groups formed up in the road, and once one was in place, the next followed. In general the socialist groups formed the front part of the march, followed by international groups with the anarchists towards the end. Neither stewards nor police seemed to be overseeing it, although police were stationed in sideroads all along the route, people broke off to write slogans on walls and attack the propaganda booth of the “New Democracy” party. Around 5000-7000appeared to be there, but we were told this was a disappointing turnout and that Mayday usually saw far greater numbers on the streets.
The route was along a main street which had been closed for the day, entering Syntagma Square from the bottom and exiting at the rear. It slowed down considerably as people passed the parliament, where chants got louder. Armed police and MAT units were situated at either end of the parliament, while the main entrance was blocked, rather comically guarded by formally dressed mannequins. After exiting from the top end of the square we could hear smoke bombs explode behind us and stopped awhile to see what was happening.
A little further on, the march split in two, with one group continuing along the main prominade toward the rally, and a significant contingent heading down a smaller sideroad. Here the march got darker: the bright clothes of ordinary Athenians gave way to the black favoured by the more radical elements and the mood grew much more sombre and people started picking up large pieces of wood as they walked. Down every sidestreet was the MAT, watching the proceedings very carefully. It headed back to excharia and and quickly dispersed.
Within an hour, masked up anarchists, some of which I recognised from the previous night, had blockaded the road leading in from the Polytechnic to Excharia Square, blocking it with bins and burning rubbish and setting cars alight. The MAT were situated at the end of the road, and smokebombs gave off loud bangs as they were hurled towards them. People started breaking off chunks of pavement and aiming them directly at the police. While all this was going on, in the square itself, people sat outside in cafe watching it with a mild interest.
Suddenly and with no warning, the police threw stun grenades, followed up by tear gas and a mass of people ran hell for leather to the top end of Excharia Square. Ordinary people quickly daubed on Maalox, and ran for cover into the cafes which rushed to push closed their doors, while the anarchists pulling on gas masks headed up the sidestreets as a standoff ensued. The stragglers who hadn’t got inside quickly enough, pulled scarfs over their faces as they tried to get to safety. Watching from a nearby glass fronted cafe was a surreal experience, as we saw anarchists advance on the police standing only a few feet away from us, throwing missiles smoke bombs. Again with no warning, and no attempt to clear the area, the police let off another round of teargas. A few stood their ground for a short time, before retreating and the scruffles in neighbouring streets petered out relatively quickly.
Within half an hour, square life was back to normal, with people sitting outside cafes and groups once again gathering in the main square. There was an element of ritual to the whole event. There was no target for the protester other than the police themselves which had not been engaged to any great extent until the trouble had flared. Like the march, the violence seemed to have no particular target, nor any real sense of impetus, but a feeling of a “need to do something”, and the calmness with which Athenians accepted the presence of a quasi-military police force entering their area and attacking its youth with chemical weapons, was disconcerting.
It has been suggested that the Mayday march was small today as many people who would have attended would have been preoccupied by Sunday’s elections, while the heat would have discouraged others. Alternatively, perhaps some see no point in such a ritual of defending workers rights when they are so blatently ignored. Similarly the clashes in Excharia today were on a much smaller scale than those seen previously. Again an element of ritual could be seen in the lack of target, objective or strategy to broaden the action. It was expected that there would be clashes, and people didn’t like to disappoint.
People have lost faith in the parliamentary process and it would seem that they are increasingly losing faith in the extra-parliamentary approach as well. When you ask people what the solution is, they shrug or sometimes mention immigration. With the Golden Dawn predicted to gain seats in the ritual which takes place on Sunday, the radical left must re-find its purpose and put forward positive solutions for change which can reignite the resistance movement before the fascists suggest alternative measures.