A Decade of Change for the Civic Movement in Greece: A Brief Account

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By Nikos Papakostas

Executive summary

This report briefly accounts for some of the main street movements in Greece in the past decade. It aims to raise awareness about the events, seen from a non-institutional, grassroots view-point. The materials underpinning the report and the tentative conclusions it includes, are testimonials of participants in the events, on-line literature and videos and previous research of the author.

The report emphasises on three incidents that exemplify to an important extent the rise and fall of the contemporary anti-establishment movement in Greece: the riots following the assassination of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos by two police offices in Exarchia in 2008, the anti-government protests in 2011-2 and the mobilisation in view of the referendum in 2015. The incidents are analysed as to their causes and effects on the political establishment, the social movement and the Greek society. The rise of the extreme right-wing, primarily the neo-Nazi formation of Golden Dawn, is highlighted as a secondary effect of the rise of the civil society and an underlying parameter of the analysis.

The report concludes that despite the ineffectiveness of the protests to bring about radical transformation, the attraction of large numbers of young protestors had significant impact on building a culture of social mobilisation. This culture, despite currently lacking a chance for breaking with systemic realities, can result in increasing social awareness and, sequentially, increased popular assertiveness and closer scrutiny of political, economic and social elites.

The rise of the Golden Dawn casts a heavy shadow on the civic movement in Greece. On the one hand, it enabled equations and white-washing that poisoned the constituency. On the other hand, it exemplifies that managing deep-seated social challenges in a reactionary manner favours division and hatred and that constant activation is required.


Triggered by specific incidents but implying systemic failures and mistrust towards the political establishment, street movements in Greece have contributed to an eventful decade. Overlapping crises and the social dynamics they unravelled, led diverse populations to look for justice to the “street”. At the same time, generalised social and economic turmoil rendered the movements complex and far-reaching as to their motives and agenda.  

Participation in the movements was an emancipatory experience for many citizens who saw no alternative but to mobilise and collectively protect their income, rights or freedoms or just express their indignation with the political establishment. The reinvigoration of the civil society, however, had a dark side too; the rise of the extreme right that was mostly expressed through Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party/criminal organisation that went parliamentary in 2012 and then twice in 2015. Along with it, it brought an increase in politically and racially motivated crimes and deepened political divisions.

In parallel to the stories of social movements that made headlines there were tacit and smaller scale social procedures as well as private revolts that were triggered by social and political factors. These incidents and their outcomes have been portrayed in the videos created by Inter Alia in the context of the BRING project. The main events that defined social movements and the civil society in Greece are subtly present in the videos constituting reference points in the stories of the heroes.

2008 – 2019: Emancipation, Hope & Disenchantment

2008 – The Days of Alexis
Money to the Banks, Bullets to the Youth. These Are Our Times!

In late 2008, a 15-year-old boy was shot dead in cold blood by two police officers during their patrol in Exarchia neighbourhood in central Athens. The date was December 6 and his name was Alexis Grigoropoulos.

While this was by far not the first instance of police brutality, nor the first homicide committed by police against a minor in Exarchia, Alexis’ death caused an unprecedented wave of protests and riots throughout Greece. Thousands of people of all ages, primarily youngsters, instinctively took the streets. People’s stance certainly reflected indignation with police brutality and their willingness to see developments with their own eyes, as the information coming from the scene was scarce, biased or plainly false. Yet, a generalised, underlying condemnation of a political system perceived as corrupt, arbitrary and inefficient, caused its intensity and tenacity.

The police, after an initial effort to avert protesters from entering the city center that was subdued by the size and determination of the crowd, responded to the predicament mildly. This had two main outcomes: on the one hand, it gave the establishment, media being a central part of it, a stepping stone to frame the movement as violent, disrespectful and non-solidary. On the other hand, the movement was given room to grow, define itself and evolve.

Riots and attacks against state and corporate property were covered extensively by the media causing a sensation. In this way, attention was drawn away from the unprovoked killing of a person by a state official or the miserable failures of the government to deliver on its promises or its scandalous backing to the banking sector, towards the riots in themselves. Images of burned and destroyed property created moral panic and confusion and, indeed, obstructed the unravelling of the full dynamics of the movement.

Still, the escalation was unprecedented. Citizens occupied public buildings all over Athens and in different Greek cities. People’s assemblies and structures for self-organisation articulated political claims; hundreds of collectives and individuals shared their thoughts and feelings in different forms expressing their agony and calling for action.

The events of December had a delegitimising and destabilising effect on the government and contributed to a massive defeat in the 2009 elections. But even more importantly, the structures and processes it brought about, constituted a precedent of collective action which was used to re-activate and organise people on different occasions in the years that followed. Also, it educated the movement about the potentials of social mobilisation, widening the limits of what is possible and imaginable.

While the situation defused after a couple of months, the December 2008 events were among the formational instances for the contemporary anti-estabishment movement in Greece. The latter was defined by people who initially came together to protest, grief or take revenge for the murder of Alexis and then collectively discovered ways of turning their indignation into political thought and action. They would be among those who would be lead the anti-establishment action and discourse on the societal level ever since, featuring an abrupt and difficult relationship with the mainstream of social mobilisation and its agents.

2010 – 2012: The Greek Indignados
Take the MoU and Get Out of Here!

The global financial crisis that erupted in 2008 as an outcome of a corrupt international financial system, fueled by an unprepared, biased and ineffective EU decision making mechanism and furthered by chronic maladies of the Greece’s political, financial and economic system, led the country’s economy into a downward spiral characterised by deep recession. This, in turn, resulted in escalating tensions between the government and society. Frustration, economic hardship and social disenchantment particularly started building up following the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Greek government and the newly established Troika (ECB, European Commission, IMF) in May 2010.

Large demonstrations and general strikes organised by trade and labor unions almost on a weekly basis constituted the main expression of public disappointment. In one of the demonstrations on May 5th 2010, a department of Marfin Bank, which was operating at that time was burned down causing the death of three people (one of them a pregnant woman). While it is unknown who the perpetrators were, the way the incident was covered by media stigmatised the protests, causing extensive numbness to Greek citizens and stalled the groups’ assertions.

Social mobilisation was revitalised upon the announcement of the signing of the mid-term program of fiscal consolidation, including complementary austerity measures, agreed between Troika and the center-left PASOK government. By that time, public frustration and indignation with the political system (trade unions being part of it) coupled with the formation of the “indignados” movement in Spain, marked the diversification of modes of protest in Greece and the introduction of the Square movement of Indignant Greeks (aganaktismenoi).

During the first two weeks of June a rapidly increasing number protestors (reaching 200.000 on June 5th) gathered at Syntagma (Constitution) square opposite to the Parliament on a daily basis and demonstrated peacefully. The movement resulted in mounting social pressure that, in turn, caused the gradual fragmentation of the government during the period preceding the voting of the mid-term program in the Parliament.

The basic agenda or, to put it differently, the higher common denominator of protestors was related to the lack of trust to the country’s political personnel as well as the government’s lack of legitimacy for proceeding with harsh austerity measures fostered by the unloved Troika of lenders. The social geography of the crowd was highly diverse. It largely comprised of unemployed youth and students who saw a grim future ahead of them, leftist intellectuals, public servants and pensioners whose income decreased rapidly, nationalist and (far) right groups condemning the government’s yielding to foreign pressures and free-lancers and business owners who suffered from the lack of liquidity and the unstable and hostile business environment that resulted from governmental palinodes.

In the course of time and after a series of small-scale clashes with police forces, the daily gatherings continued but were divided in two parts: the upper square where most of the public servants, (far) rightists and free lancers were gathered and the lower square which was comprised of leftist groups of students, unemployed, intellectuals etc. The reason for that was the realisation by the latter that better organisation and viable alternatives to existing political order was imperative for the survival of the movement.

This resulted in the daily formation of ad hoc open councils (based on the pattern introduced by Spanish indignados) which discussed courses of actions and aimed at fostering direct democratic procedures. The upper square individuals clearly separated themselves and most of them would be heading home by the time the councils were brought to session (9 pm). This underlined a conceptual differentiation between groups that strived to organise themselves in order to challenge the functioning of the system and the others that primarily protested their declining living standards with the prospect of moderating their income losses.

Τhe indignant Greeks were largely unsuccessful with regards to their goals and were fairly easily broken. Still, in spite of the many problematic aspects of the square movement in Greece, it should be noted that their contribution to enhancing the role of civil society has been important. The interaction between people of different backgrounds, the communication of ideas and the familiarisation of many with the importance of demonstrating for a fair cause may have increased impact on the level of social control and pressure exerted towards elites.

Even more importantly, the mass participation of the youth in the particular protests opened a window of opportunity. It is possible that despite the bitter dissolution of the movement in June 2011, the bulk of demonstrators will cherish the times they spent at Syntagma while deeming their contribution rather positive in terms of public mobilisation, externalisation of their condemnation of government policies and, therefore, diminishment of the political system’s legitimacy.

2015 – The End of an Era?
The Big No’s Are Said by the People

Following escalating pressures by the European counterparts and the Troika of lenders, in a state of capital controls suffocating the economy and, at the same time, incarcerated in his own maximalist pre-electoral rhetoric, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras proclaimed a referendum. The questions was whether or not the Greek government should accept a bail-out offer put forward by the EC president Jean-Claude Junker bringing along further austerity measures and adding to the country’s unsustainable public debt. The question divided people deeply even more so as it was presented by national media and the European political leadership as a question of Greece remaining in the Eurozone or not.

The massive victory of the “no” vote (rejecting the bail-out offer) bordering 62% of the popular vote, reflected high expectations of citizens by the progressive government as well as their willingness to protest against the ways and policies of Brussels. The harsh, non-solidary and largely “un-European” response to the popular vote by the Euro-group and the leaders of the biggest member states led to a retraction by the Greek government, the voting of further austerity measures and the proclamation of new general elections for September.

This sequence of events led to a disenchantment of citizens with the progressive government and furthered the mistrust in the political system and the EU. The massive mobilisation of both the “yes” and the “no” voters indicated a civil society that was ready to act. The impact of the final debacle, remains to be seen. It is however certain that the civil society and social movements have been rather silent ever since.

The Extreme Right-Wing Factor

Around the midnight of September 18th 2013, Killah P., a rapper whose real name was Pavlos Fyssas, was assassinated by a high-ranked member of Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn is neo-Nazi formation whose political following rose rapidly following the eruption of the crisis and the imposition of austerity measures. The assassination of Fyssas caused a domino effect that led many of the leaders of the organisation in prison or house detainment through a dramatic trial that is still ongoing.

Fyssas was an antifascist activist whose political rhymes were inspired by social struggles, with particular references to the aforementioned assassination of Alexis Grigoropoulos in 2008, the murder of anarchist Rudolph Giulliani in Genova in 2001 and others. Prior to the unraveling of the criminal activity of Golden Dawn, the repertoire of its supporters and members included lethal attacks against migrants, hate speech, anti-Semitism. However, prior to September 2013, prosecution authorities were rather silent on their case while the public opinion and the political system had started embracing GD as an unpleasant reality. In the midst of the economic crisis, Golden Dawn made it for the first time to the parliament in 2012 and then, despite the ongoing investigation and the fact that many of its members were prosecuted, maintain its seats in 2015.

Golden Dawn reflects the darkest side of the reactivation of civil society that was caused by the crisis of the political and financial system. People who had rejected the political establishment, supported Golden Dawn in the ballot and in the street. The discourse about regaining national pride and independence, blaming elites and migrants alike, and finding easy solutions in hate-speech, xenophobia and conspiracy theories, mobilised many and justified acts and discourses that deepened dividing lines in Greek society.


The three central periods of massive mobilisation in Greece are connected to a process of violent realisation by Greek citizens that the political and economic system, both national and international, that flourished with significant popular support during the previous decades, was hollow, unsustainable and corrupt. The adjustment to the new reality brought along further inequalities, impoverishment and frustration. The management of the crisis by political elites and institutions both at national and European level, cynically disregarded the outcome of policies in people’s lives and was miserably ineffective too. The way Greek governments dealt with the issue was consistently discontinuous and populist.

Despite the ineffectiveness of the protests to bring about radical transformation, the attraction of large numbers of young protestors had significant impact on building a culture of social mobilisation. This culture, despite currently lacking a chance for breaking with systemic realities, can result in increasing social awareness and, sequentially, increased popular assertiveness and closer scrutiny of political, economic and social elites.

The rise of the Golden Dawn casts a heavy shadow on the civic movement in Greece. On the one hand, it enabled equations and white-washing that poisoned the constituency. On the other hand, it exemplified that managing deep-seated social challenges in a reactionary manner favours division and hatred and that constant activation is required.

A Greek person needed to die in order to prosecute and eventually marginalise a gang of thugs whose discourse, however, has been consistently violent and hateful throughout the years. The institutional unpreparedness to deal with nationalist terrorist groups due to fear of empowering them further or the institutional racism of connecting the quality of investigations to the nationality victims is dangerous. And it should be opposed by all democratic citizens regardless of the fate of the Golden Dawn organisation.  

Project Outcomes

Videos – Athens’ Stories of Resilience

Four videos unravel stories of collectives and individuals from different walks of life leaving and operating in Athens. Literally, their paths cross in the city center, in the triangle connecting the neighbourhood of Exarchia to the main Athenian squares of Omonia and Syntagma. On a figurative level, they are connected by their choice to be outside the mainstream: a refugee from Syria who left Germany to return to Greece, a young activist involved in recent social struggles and expressing his frustration over European political realities, a collective of young poets and performers evoking social crisis in a context of audience estrangement from their art and a group of journalists in a self-organised, alternative medium providing counter-information; All of them under 30 years old; all of them ready to take risks and defend what they believe in.

Their life stories reflect their resentment for the Establishment in a subtle way, revealing how revolutions, no matter how small, can happen in different ways and, actually, make a difference.

A Road Less Traveled: A Kurdish-Syrian refugee from the war-torn area of Afrin explains the practical and cultural reasons that led him to leave Germany, the Promised Land for most, to return back to Greece https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqyhJUjr7Ig.

Bad Poetry Social Club: A collective of young poets, performers and musicians that form the Bad Poetry Social Club, narrate their endeavor to introduce a new form of art and expression to a detached audience while struggling with a major social and economic crisis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSc2OynmnnQ

Times of Change: Enri is a politically active young person who reflects on the waves of protest that rocked Greece in the past few years. He describes the emancipating effect they had on him, but also, the disenchantment that political developments caused to its supporters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-jFwe8Apj4

Think Differently: 3point magazine is a self-organised platform for counter-information. Two of its co-founders share the story of the magazine, draw parallels to social developments in Greece and discuss challenges and potentials for similar projects, posed by a changing landscape in the field of media: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLQxHnLb4rk 

Open Events

The project was a good chance to reflect on the achievements, shortcomings and challenges ahead for social movements in Greece. Through this process we became parts of a deeper discussion on what constitutes a social movement. What make social movements succeed? How collective claims must be structured and articulated? What constitutes success and how their impact can be measured?

The first activity was a street debate. It was organised in the most central place in Athens, in Syntagma square. We had a chance to discuss with by-passers about the meaning of solidarity for them. When they felt it and how? What mobilised them to act in a solidary way? The idea was to foster reflection on issues that make us feel solidarity to others and, by extension, that make us stand up for them. We received a lot of answers that we wrote down on cartons and displayed them publicly. Hundreds of people would stop and read the responses of others.

The second activity was related to the issue of citizenship and the capacity of people residing in Athens to claim their rights. It was organised along with the Greek Forum of Migrants and tackled the issue of political rights of migrants. The discussion involved two of the leaders of communities in Athens while several other were in the audience. The main issues that came up were the institutional unpreparedeness and the political bias of institutions to offer political rights to individuals who were not born by Greek parents. The political manipulation of the issue of political rights and freedoms was also central to the discussion. Finally, the responsibility of the migrants themselves was also pointed out. The fact that they need to do more to integrate but also to learn how to demand and act as citizens.

Nikos Papakostas is a political scientist and a co-founder of Inter Alia