When Nicos Romanos was fifteen, he watched his friend and comrade, Alexandros Grigoropoulos murdered by police in the radical area of Exarchia in Athens. He was the last person to speak to him, and held him in his arms as the life seeped from him. Today, Romanos also faces death. On day 26 of hunger strike while imprisoned, he is growing weaker by the moment; but the passion for freedom is stronger than the prisons, and his spirit is engulfing Athens.
In December 2008, Greece had just started on its long crisis. The collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a financial crisis of which Greece was one of the primary victims. Since joining the Euro in 2001, cheap finance had flooded into the country, however a culture of corruption among politicians and rich businessmen had seen this credit used to finance consumption rather than investment. The young who had been sold ambitions of a Greece as a consumer paradise saw their future slipping away. The “700 Euro Generation” named after the maximum monthly salary that they could ever hope to earn, realised that they were in the front line of the misery to come. Their ambitions had been raised and then squandered.
Against that backdrop, Alexei’s murder galvanised a generation as tens of thousands of young people, mainly students from the high schools and universities, took to the streets. Several weeks of rioting followed, as a bleak future of repression and recession appeared on the horizon. A carnival of rage consumed the streets. with over 5,000 canisters of gas used on the protesters.
The people had been sold a lie, not only that entry to the EU and the Eurozone would keep them financially safe, but also that it would keep them safe from the Greek State. By becoming part of a modern shiny democratic Europe, they would be entitled to rights and protections and guarantees. But as the scale of the crisis unfolded; as corruption was exposed; as the lengths the state would go to to enforce its rule – including collusion with fascists, the lie unravelled. More riots followed in the subsequent years, but none so sustained as the revolt of 08.
Following the shooting, Romanos went underground, becoming a bank robber to finance the movement – to keep the printers turning, the electricity running and to obtain expensive explosive materials. In February 2013, he robbed a bank in Velvetnos and, among others, was picked up in a car chase. When pictures of the group were released post-arrest (an unusual occurrence in itself), they were doctored to cover up the extensive injuries they had suffered whilst in detention. The photoshopping was crude and easily identifiable as fake. Those photographs were released as a warning.
Romanos, who claimed responsibility for the armed robbery, continued his studies in detention, obtaining entry to the University of Athens. He was convicted on 3rd October and given a sentence of over 15 years. As a convicted criminal, Romanos is entitled to day release to attend university studies. This has been denied, no reason has been given for this denial, other than the blatant lie that there is no such policy. On 10th November, Romanos announced that he would embark on a hunger strike until he was granted his rights to education.
On the 1st December, the Polytechnic – a massively symbolic institution, where the Junta had suppressed an uprising in 1974 – was occupied in solidarity. The following day, a huge demonstration was held in central Athens. Afterwards clashes between police and protesters resulted in 31 detentions and 12 arrests. When SYRIZA MPs turned up at the police station where they were being held, they were refused access to the detainees, but noted that ominously the walls were covered in blood.
Today, with Romanos in hospital facing death, is the sixth anniversary of the murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos. In these six years nothing has got better. The “700 euro Generation” now seems an aspiration as young people scramble to gather a couple of hundred euros a month. A steady job which consistently pays the minimum wage of 684 euros is a rarity in a country where over half of the youth population is unemployed.
An armed bank robber on hunger strike over a lack of educational day release, doesn’t seem like the most sympathetic cause. Its not your poster child innocent victim like Alexei, forever frozen at 15, smiling in the photograph that looks down on the place where he was shot. But Romanos carries on Alexei’s legacy. Those fresh faced youth of 2008, relatively innocent then, have now seen the rise of the Golden Dawn and the devastation; the safe spaces of the squats have been torn apart, and University campuses are no longer protected spaces from the police. They are now the contemporaries of Romanos, the ones who marched and rioted, but which became consumed in the despondancy.
Just as the youth realised that they may have been Alexei had they been in the wrong place at the wrong time, they are becoming aware that they too could have been Romanos. Had they seen their friend gunned down in cold blood would they have gone back to the suburbs once the riots were over, or would they too have fought on. They have seen the decline of Greece, they have watched some of their contemporaries be drawn towards cheap street drugs while the pharmacies have none; they have seen their gold disappearing from their land as “Eldorado Gold” siphons off its riches. They have seen bailout after bailout, yet still the crisis gets worse.
What began in 2008 may now be coming full circle. The youth who had descended into a depressed slumber, are again waking up to the arbitrariness of the judicial system and violence with which it protects its own. The bank robbery of Romanos pales into insignificance given the scale of robbery committed by the banks and their accomplices. While he may have held a gun, the gun which killed his friend was in the hands of the Athens police. The same police who act as protectors of the banks and the rich, who keep the kleptocracy in power; the same police who indiscriminately use chemical weapons on citizens; the same police who beat detainees.