Tuesday 14 February 2012

Looting and Burning in Athens: Nothing to do with the Austerity Protests

Based on press reports last night and today, some information on the looting and burning of property in Athens follows. 

There were between 1,000 – 1,500 people, primarily young individuals operating in small groups, who participated in the looting. They were prepared; they had hoods and face masks, weapons and tools for breaking and entering. There are between 40-45 buildings or stores that have been destroyed by a combination of looting and burning. Others have been damaged less extensively: they were looted, or their facades were damaged, but they were not burned. The police report that over 500 molotov cocktails were thrown last night.

Owners of stores, including the Attiko theatre, report that they were first asked for bribes not to have their customers attacked. In the case of the Attiko, the owner apparently made one payment, and his customers left undisturbed. However, another group of looters started burning another entrance to the theatre. The entire building was finally burnt to the ground.

The police managed to make between 72 and 74 arrests (it is not clear if this arrest number pertains to the looting/burning or to subsequent street fights with the police). Most of the people arrested have a prior arrest record for similar incidents.

According to Kostas Pretenderis of Mega TV, “70 of the 74 people belong to a single political party”, without naming the party.

The staging point for the attacks was the Law School of the University of Athens. The premises were occupied on Thursday. On Friday, the administrative director of the Law School emailed the Rector of the University that the Law School was under occupation, and requested that all legal methods be taken to ensure their eviction.

The University Rector sent a request to the Police by mail to the Police headquarters. According to an article reported by Skai’s website today, the prosecution reports that two letters were received yesterday, 13.02.2012, sent by postĪ±l delivery, signed by the Rector. The first states that the Law School will end its classes between 10-12 February and requests the guarding of the premises. The second, dated 10.02.12, reports the occupation of the Law School, by unknown students, and that authorities of the Law School have no access to the building. However, it also reports that there are no reports of damage. The letters are dated 13.02.2012, i.e. after the looting in Athens.

Adonis Georgiades, the ex-LAOS MP, reported yesterday that according to Article 3 of the ammendments to the law on university asylum, there is no longer any need for a specific request, or a request in a specific format, by university authorities to the police. In other words, the email sent on Friday was sufficient to prompt an investigation. Such an investigation never took place.

Skai reported today that in the wreckage of the occupied Law School, professors found a strong smell of gasoline in one room, and elements used to start fires.

A common complaint is that individuals arrested are frequently released by the legal authorities within any meaningful prosecution or fine. They are certainly not jailed. Several of those arrested for violence (including the attempt to burn the Municipality of Athens) are well-known figures; others are children of well-known figures.

As usual, not a single political figure has resigned to take responsibility for the events.


It is extremely important in the first instance to disassociate the looting which occurred with the protests against the austerity and government reform plan passed on Sunday evening.  These two events have become conflated in many international media sources, which reported on Sunday and Monday headlines to the effect that “Athens burns while the Parliament votes on austerity”.  

As with many similar events, it is clear that the violence was carried out by a relatively small group of individuals who were not directly related with the main political organisers of the protests. This was confirmed once again not only by political leaders on TV, but by first-hand accounts I have from unionists and participants in the marches.

However, it is also impossible to speak of a total separation between the mob’s organisation and political forces. There is abundant evidence from these and other events that several key organisers are linked directly and indirectly to certain political parties. They are linked directly, in that several key looters arrested are long-standing, senior members in the youth or university student branches of these parties. They are linked indirectly in that these members have been shown through arrest records, telephone intercepts, and university political activity to be large-scale organisers of a political nihilism which is linked to criminal activity. This activity involves drug distribution and sales of counterfeit software and DVDs, often within university premises.

A false political ideology provides cover for illegal activity; the illegal activity in turn is justified by this ideology, i.e. the “struggle against the state” and the usual rhetorical suspects.

The question as to why the police and legal authorities cannot or choose not to launch a full-scale legal prosecution of these individuals and networks is unknown. In theory, they have every legal right to do so. We can surmise, however, that there are multiple reasons:

a.     Objectively, there are no resources to do so. This was the case even before the recent austerity cutbacks. The Greek court system faces a massive backlog of criminal cases, a penal code which does not include sufficiently deterrent punishment for civil crimes, and overcrowded prisons. Even if these individuals were arrested, they would soon be allowed to go free, either because they would not be prosecuted, or because they would be allowed to buy off their sentence.

b.     Subjectively, there have been many instances where the police and the prosecution has been prevented from acting due to direct and indirect political interference. The direct interference occurs when politicians intervene in the arrest process to protect their constituents. The indirect interference is far more discouraging: the police knows that it is vastly outnumbered in certain areas of Athens. There is a tacit agreement on “go” and “no go” areas, where the police will simply not intervene. If they do crack down, the implicit threat is that police will then be targeted. This has already happened in the past on several occasions.

This same threat, incidentally, has been in force for years against university administrators and professors. Although universities technically now have full control over their campus security, in reality they cannot enforce this. They don’t have the financial resources to hire private security forces. Nor can they cannot rely on the police or the legal system. One well-known professor once told me that after every occupation, he knows which store he has to go to in Monastiraki to buy back his stolen computer hard drive.

As a result, it’s clear that the university staff must turn a blind eye to illegal behaviour, if they are to safeguard their own lives and property.

This post deals with the sad reality of a certain nexus of events, people and institutions in Greece today. On the one hand, we have a policing and legal system which has, since the late 1980s, been set up to protect and serve a political elite rather than enforce the laws of the land. On the other hand, we have a growing number of disaffected youth with no serious job prospects who turn instead to political utopianism and crime.

The result of this is seen in events which occur every week in Athens. Once in a while, the enormity of one event – burning and looting 45 buildings – becomes so large as to be impossible to ignore. But for every large even, there are thousands of small ones which illustrate how the system works.

If you want to see what the reality is, go to Exarchia Square on a Friday night, and walk down Stournari Street to Patission Avenue past the Metsoveio University building. 

This reality is not going to go away, and has nothing to do with austerity votes or reform. It’s been there since the late 1980s, growing each year and becoming institutionalised. And I have yet to see any serious solutions for it.

Related Posts

December 19, 2010

© Philip Ammerman, 2012
Navigator Consulting Group


  1. It has become more and more apparent that a media campaign to devalue Greece in the eyes of the world has been underway in the last years. The license temporarily given to the minority of burning, looting 'protesters', and the sensationalism given to instantly captured and globally published images of their activities, combined with the rapidity with which the whole mess is cleaned up - all seem very remarkable. unique in Europe, and suspect.

    Like a rehearsed stage production.

    I walked up Ermou at 10:00 AM the next day (monday morn) and 99% of the shops were open, glass windows had been instantly repaired and business as usual was going on.

  2. This is the only post the deals with the question that has bugged me whenever this sort of burning/looting happens along with peaceful demonstrations.