Remembering the polytechnic uprising in the haze of Obama’s visit

This year the 17th of November took place in a very particular context.

Photos: A. Christofilopoulos / FOS PHOTOS

Each year on the 17th of November a certain ritual is carried out in Athens. Rooted in the student uprising against the military junta of 1967–1974, nowadays it’s also about a lot more: Anti-americanism in the week when Obama visited Athens on his last grand diplomacy tour before leaving office to Trump. Nobody knows what will come next. AthensLive deconstructs the ritual: A collective memory, a march, and a riot. Separate but intertwined.
History doesn’t seem to sleep in Athens.

At 12.35 a father is taking pictures of his two kids, his wife is standing on the side trying to instruct them; putting them closer together, making them smile.

The boy is holding a red flower in his hand, giving his best awkward smile. The girl looks more neutral, not that bothered by her mother’s instructions.

They all stand close to the sculpture of a big head, laying on the ground.

It’s the 17th of November, the sun is generous, and families are repeating this action; smartphones held carefully, focusing on children, then the finger pressing on the screen button.

They all stand close to the sculpture of a big head, laying on the ground. A sculpture made by Memos Makris in honor of the students who occupied the university for three days until the confrontation with the military dictatorship in 1973, in which 21 of the young students were killed.

But the ritual goes beyond 1973; the families leave the flower, a carnation and a symbol of the Greek left, next to the head.

In 1952 Picasso sketched the drawing “The man with the carnation”; Nikos Beloyannis, a Greek resistance leader and Communist, who throughout the German occupation of Greece and the civil war from 1946–1949, played a significant role.

Now he had to pay for it.

The first accusations against Nikos Beloyannis and his fellow comrades were of spreading “communist propaganda”. Back in 1947 the Communist Party, KKE, had been declared illegal by the state. It was a Cold War climate.

He was sentenced to death, but after an international outcry the sentence was dismissed, and another trial took place accusing Beloyannis of espionage for secretly transmitting important information of national interest to the Soviet Union.

He was sentenced again, and this time it was carried out. He was shot to death on the morning of March the 30th in 1952.

He became a symbol of the victims of the authoritarian postwar establishment.

The uprising began on November 14, 1973, escalated to an open anti-junta revolt and ended in bloodshed in the early morning of November 17 after a series of events starting with a tank crashing through the gates of the Polytechnic.

While this story seems like a detour, the story of Beloyannis is as much about Anti-americanism as this particular day is.

As I have been trying to understand what the 17th of November consists of, I’m led to believe it mainly consists of three events:

First, the remembering of 1973: students reliving the three day occupation of the Polytechnic University in Athens, where families etc. visit the university, honoring the memory with flowers.

Second, a march from the university to the U.S. Embassy takes place; an event I find hard to define as either tradition or protest. Maybe it is both.

Thirdly, the day consist of riots in Exarchia; a tradition that has been added more recently.

This year the 17th November takes place in a very particular context; the President of the United States, Barack Obama, has just left Greece after a two day visit.

And while the streets of Athens were left empty in most places for security reasons, protests against the President’s visit also took place.

No surprise for people familiar with the culture of Athenian protests.

Around 3,000 left-wing marchers were protesting, and after they tried to enter an area declared off-limits to demonstrators, the riot police used tear gas and stun grenades.

Around 5,000 supporters of the Communist party took part in a more peaceful protest. And in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city, 1,000 people attended a similar protest.

Alongside this, the Greek authorities had deployed more than 5,000 police for Obama’s visit. A busy week for them; 7.000 were deployed for the 17th of November alone.

Final preparations for the 43rd Polytechnic commemoration march.

At 14.10, outside the university, students are starting to form blocks according to the party or union they belong to. The first line consists of young men who carry red flags and scooter helmets.

They are preparing for the next phase of the ritual; the march from the Athens Polytechnic main building in Patision all the way to the US Embassy through the city’s center.

I ask two girls sitting on the sidewalk, waiting, if the march is more of a tradition than a protest?

Alexandra, 25, who studied film and creative writing in London, replies fast: “For me it is definitely still a protest.”

Elenor, 23, with a degree in history, nods; agreeing with her friend.

Then we talk about the Greek relationship with the United States. Why they march down to the U.S. Embassy, why they were demonstrating earlier this week, against Obama.

The bloodstained national flag, the unique symbol of the uprising, which the tank pulled down as well, leads the way to the final destination, the U.S. Embassy in Athens.

“Well, it’s not against Obama,” Elenor tells me, “but more the foreign policy the U.S. is pursuing, and always has been pursuing.”

“It’s imperialism,” she says.

A study carried out in 2013 showed that Greece is among the top six countries that dislike the U.S. the most. And the highest ranked among European countries.

Back in 2013, disapproval was 57%, and 62% percent of Greeks said they have no confidence in Obama’s ability to handle international affairs.

Elenor and Alexandra are just two among this number.

A paper by Christina Politi titled ‘American Intervention in Greece 1946–64’, addresses why the march is heading for the U.S. Embassy.

“During the period 1946–64, Greece emerged from a world war only to plunge directly into a horrific civil war,” Politi starts out.

The paper details how the period between World War II and the military dictatorship was influenced by American politics; Greece’s geopolitical significance meant that the United States was determined it not fall into Soviet hands.

“The involvement was deep and far reaching, encompassing four broad areas: military affairs, economic policy, political and legal development, and foreign policy,” the paper concludes, although also noting that “the U.S. has often been unfairly implicated even when it remained on the sidelines.”

The military 2-step of the colonels has been overthrown by the student marches of metapolitefsi , the period in modern Greek history after the fall of the military junta of 1967–74.

The interpretation of the United States’ role in Greece is still highly important, and the press release from the Communist party, KKE, shows their view on the current situation.

“The KKE calls on the working people, the youth, all Greek people to give a militant ‘welcome’ to the outgoing President of the USA, Barack Obama, who visits our country in a period when the aggressive plans of NATO-USA-EU in our region are intensifying,” it says, highlighting the hypocrisy of the SYRIZA-ANEL government, laying out ‘red carpets and preparing to welcome the leader of an imperialist power’, and telling the Greek people they can benefit from the visit in terms of settlement of the Greek debt.

“The reality is completely different,” KKE concludes:

“The visit of the President of the USA to Greece has as its focal point the further participation of our country in the dangerous plans of the imperialists in the wider region, from Syria, Iraq and Libya to the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.”

And then the press release addresses Trump’s election:

“The aggressive imperialist policy of the USA will also continue under the new President Donald Trump, despite the tactical differences. As it would have continued, if Hillary Clinton had been elected to the presidency.”

History doesn’t seem to sleep in Athens.

At 15.10 the march starts. I meet Alex, he is 28 years old and he has studied International Relations and Politics in Amsterdam.

He explains to me how the separate groups in the march are also different political groups. How the Communist Party, abbreviated to KKE in Greek, doesn’t start from the university where everyone else gathers, but from Omonia Square.

“They don’t want to mix with the rest of the demonstration” he says. It still doesn’t make sense to me. I will come to understand later…

Alex points at some protesters holding yellow banners, “look” he says, “those are my ex-comrades.”

Alex has been politically active since he was 16, which also means he already been a member of more than one political group. I’m led to believe this is normal, as each time I talk to someone who is politically active, they give me a rather complicated resume of breaking up, joining coalition parties, or umbrella groups.

Now he is a part of a political group called ‘Intervention’. And maybe because of the puzzled expression on my face; he gives me a simple explanation of the structure of the left today in Greece:

You can put the left in three blocks,” he says. “One is the communists, one is the middle; they want to leave the EU and the Eurozone, and then there is the front my group belongs to; we just want to leave the Eurozone.”

What does the Communists want? I ask, trying to follow his explanation.

“They want a social revolution to take place first,” he tells.

“Okay,” I reply.

Since 1974, hundreds of groups have formed and dissolved, over and over again. It goes without saying that none of them are or were ever in favor of American foreign policy.

It’s getting darker, and as we walk by a kiosk with a coca-cola commercial on the roof and the christmas lights hanging over us on the street, shining blue light, Alex’s group is chanting:

“Polytechnic uprising is still alive… Americans get out of our country.”

“60 years of NATO. The same thing. Supporting authoritarian regimes.”

We reach the U.S. Embassy which is guarded by 14 police buses with policemen standing in front of them. The demonstration is about to finish and soon the red flags and banners are getting packed away in white vans.

“Set all prisons and cages on fire”

At 19.10 the only thing left of the ritual is the riots. A Greek friend of mine wrote on Facebook a few days before the 17th, that he was bothered by the way international media portrayed this day and in particular the riots.

“The fact that every year the protests on the 17th of November and on the 6th of December — which have been happening annually since 1974 and 2008 respectively — are considered newsworthy or politically important by foreign media,” he wrote and continued his argument:

“I know that audiences can’t get enough of Greece and in particular Athens being portrayed as an ongoing protest playground — where thousands of angry people are clashing with military looking riot police officers while Molotov cocktails and rocks are thrown into the CS gas filled air — but I’m really fed up with this and I hate that it is the only representation of this place that has gotten out the past few years.”

He especially blamed journalists and photographers for the “riot porn” that has no political importance.

Earlier today, talking to the girls and Alex about the riots, they all seemed to be understanding, although not very supportive of it: they understand the need for a pressure relief by the youngsters who riot.

Yesterday I talked to an anarchist, who wishes to be anonymous. He doesn’t participate in the riots although he is deeply involved in the anarchist movement.

“There are no good reasons for rioting on the 17th November,” he says.

“Somehow the anniversary of the Polytechnic just makes a good excuse for doing it.”

The anarchist group he belongs to doesn’t think it’s a good day to clash with the state. “Revolt has to be unexpected by the state that’s why we have to always be ready and organised” he tells me.

“I prefer to have a silent day, join the demonstration with a coffee in my hand and think about how democracy affects the labor and student movement.”

He also explains how the riots can be seen as “ksekavloma”, a Greek slang word. Literally it means “putting your erection down” and following this guy’s interpretation, it is about how the desire leaves the body right after “hard sex”.

Alex on the other hand, doesn’t think the riots can be seen separately from the march to the U.S Embassy.

“I think you have to understand the day in links,” he tells. “Normally when you have a day with a demonstration, riots are a part of it. So I think it has grown out of the march,” he continues. “But I don’t know when and where.”

As I walk through Exarchia, the venue for the annual riots, most streets are empty, and the sound from a police helicopter can be heard from above.

I pass a homeless man lying on a mattress, he doesn’t seem to take much notice of the situation. Next to him stands a group of riot policemen in uniforms and gas masks, but he seems to be sleeping peacefully…

I guess this is what this annual riot looks like.

The 43rd ritual of the 17th of November Student Uprising is over. A collective memory taking place in the streets, not in a museum.


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