In 1928, Walter Benjamin wrote in “One Way Street”:
“For only that which we knew or practiced at fifteen will one day constitute our attraction. And one thing, therefore, can never be made good: having neglected to run away from home. From forty-eight hours’ exposure in those years, as in a caustic solution, the crystal of life’s happiness forms.”
I ran away from my parents in 2010. I was 17 years old. After forty eight hours of uncertainty, I returned home. They forgave me. Two years earlier, 2008 was the year that made me feel doubt and rage. It was near Christmas time, I was 15 years old and really angry. There was a very serious reason that made me and many other children of my age feel this way.
On December 6th 2008, on a Saturday night, Alexis Grigoropoulos was killed in Exarcheia by Epameinondas Korkoneas, a Special Guard of the Hellenic Police. Alexis Grigoropoulos was murdered at 15 years of age.
I was at home with my parents when it happened and I received a text message on my phone from a number I didn’t recognize. It said that police officers had murdered a young kid in Athens, at Exarcheia. I don’t remember what the television was broadcasting on that same night or the following days. But the news spread quickly. Communication goes through telephone and internet. Mobile phones were ringing. Messages. Callouts for marches and protests. The wrath of the world spread within just a few hours, and the almost reflective mobilization of provincial networks and solidarity groups will play a key role in this.
At the age of fifteen I didn’t know exactly what Exarcheia was. I grew up and lived in the province of Larissa until the age of 18. For a child growing up in the countryside, visiting the capital is limited to school excursions that include visits to the Greek Parliament, the Acropolis and the night music stages of Athens.
In those days of December, everything we found out about the evolving episodes happening in Exarcheia was through the stories of third parties. For panelists, politicians and a portion of people, there was Exarcheia of the “protestors wearing hoods”. For the rest of the people, who were on the streets, Exarcheia was the starting point of the conflict aiming to transfer the pulse of what was happening at the same time in the rest of Greece as well as in cities abroad, showing their solidarity through protests and mobilizations.
At the age of 25 and ten years after the murder of Grigoropoulos, I now live in Exarcheia. Even today I might not be aware of all the aspects of Exarcheia, but I can surely discern the different aspects of the place I grew up in. The place of my childhood, the place I always get away from and I always turn back to, incorporates the creation and the decay. It’s a place you hate and sometimes you love.
This perception among people is variously recycled, touching the boundaries of romance and at the same time, of uncritically accepting everything that is dictated by the tradition, i.e. that life in the countryside is much easier, people are open and hospitable and life is more human (sic).
During the crisis this rhetoric was even more intensified. There was a dividing line between life in the village and that in the city amid crisis, the former being presented as more manageable and thus sustainable. “In the village,” as many people used to say, “you have your chickens, a garden with vegetables, and a couple of trees in the yard. And if you don’t have any of these, your neighbor will.” Or maybe not. Nowadays, for me it is a suffocating place and people are harsh. Harsher than anywhere else.
That December and Christmas of 2008 brought awareness, when, along with the glare in the eyes of some people, the rage that became a stone against the police and the banks, the revolution that became love, one could also see the bewilderment of a world denying emphatically to live.
I remember that on Monday following the weekend, together with a small group of students, we were entering into every classroom and we were trying to persuade the students and the teachers to leave the classrooms and join the students’ protests taking place in the city. Reacting wasn’t a necessity for all and conflict was not always considered inevitable, nor was it ever massive. I remember the embarrassed looks of those who had already decided not to sacrifice their courses, studying, the comfort zone of their routine, and, of course, Christmas holidays that were approaching.
Students and teachers, but also parents who had accompanied children to school in the morning to make sure everything was going smoothly, refused to interrupt the courses, and were reconciled with the idea of some teachers to make a discussion during the first class period. “To discuss what?” I wondered and clenched my teeth. I don’t know if their attitude indicated their indifference. However I remember being enraged and getting even angrier. Today I might forgive them for everything. Today, even amid the peak of nation-wide nationalist mobilizations, taking place mainly in schools, I remain almost over-optimistic, one would say, for my generation and the generation that follows, and I respectfully believe in it. I believe in the transformations it’s attempting, in its explosive creativity, in the imaginative things it discovers, in its solidarity networks, in the co-creative spaces and in the youth hubs it acts on.
The burning tree
While the rage was diffused, schools were preparing to close down all over Greece and people were taking to the streets, at the peak of the demonstrations, the Christmas tree on Syntagma Square is torched on Monday, December 8. There were many who were unable or unwilling to understand the meaning of such an action. Distressing voices in television panels and on the front covers of the newspapers. Politicians were losing their minds. Peaceful citizens grizzled for the spirit of Christmas which was violently killed. “Why Christmas?” “What’s their problem with Christmas?” “What’s their problem with a Christmas tree?” Some people found it outrageous while others understood that Christmas came earlier that year.
In reality we were witnessing a moment of poetry and “celebration”. In my 15 years, the best holidays were those I saw through the horrifying eyes of people who mourned Christmas’ hypocrisy and its glamorous aesthetic. The attempts to re-occupy the public space and burn the Christmas tree expressed, in the most urgent way, people’s need to bring the upside down. Christmas’ tyrannical consumerism could wait. Releasing everyday life from regularity was more urgent.
A few days after the Christmas tree was torched, the Mayor of Athens, Nikitas Kaklamanis, invited citizens to participate in the Christmas events: “Athens will celebrate Christmas.”
In those days, as a child, nothing seemed more violent than returning to routine, and Christmas’ greedy spirit of consumption was the most incurable of all illnesses.
In fact, Christmas imposes its own reality with which people are taught to comply very early on. When you are still a child, you hear grown-ups saying and children repeating that Santa Claus only visits good boys and girls. Only a fool could perceive this behavioral trick of rewarding as motivation for continuous improvement. In the letters we sent as children, this should be made clear from the first lines: “Dear Santa Claus, I’ve been a good kid all year long,” was usually the opening phrase of the letter. Then you cut to the chase: “Please bring me…”. And somehow you learn to discipline yourself in a pattern where only good children (see obedient) will receive their present in the morning. Only the ones obeying their parents, their teachers and, then as grown-ups, the men of their lives. Those considered “naughty” are left out of the list.
December and Christmas of 2008 turned into a “celebration” of all these disobedient children. A “celebration” that emphasized a wider reconsideration of the world in its present existence and a sense of care for what it means to live and act. December devised its own example through a new spectrum of possibilities for human creativity and imagination giving birth to new ways and forms of life.
The subject of the December uprising was collective, where its various parts were difficult to analyze and investigate as to the role played by each. What happened was not judged from the result but along a process of reconstruction and recreation. The December Riots wasn’t a movement based on a programming logic and an ideological position; instead, it was unfolded into changing circumstances and experiences while at the same time it reconsidered life. It was born as an uninterrupted movement and a mobilization without demands and without a plan. It proposed, in other words, a life that could not yet be imagined, in the sense that one could not really discern the possibilities and directions that could be followed.
“Discipline is over. A magical life”
This year, I have only seen the Christmas Tree on Syntagma Square on December 9th on a Facebook photo taken by a friend photographer. The riot police are there once again this year to guard the Christmas tree, Christmas itself, people’s ostrich policy and petite bourgeoisie. “We’ve decorated the Christmas tree” is the accompanying caption in a derogatory way. “People still dream of the Christmas trees wrapped in flames,” I think and I wish Christmas to come earlier this year.
In 2008, in the consciences of the people who experienced the December 2008 riots, narrated the incidents that took place in December, sang for December, “celebrated” in December, it was clear that the police as institution does not safeguard the rule of law but exerts a violently repressive and disciplinary authority.
In 2018, in a recently published Public Issue annual report on people’s trust in institutions, 89% of respondents show confidence in the army and 72% in the police.
Ten years after the assassination of Alexis Grigoropoulos, bourgeois, police officers and fascists are still committing murders. The deeply racist, sexist, patriarchal and nationally proud Greek society is still murdering. It murders people like Zak, Eleni, Petrit.
This year- like last year- my mother called me on the afternoon of 6 December to remind me to be careful.
Last year- like this year- I slept by the sounds of molotov cocktails, sirens, voices and the police radio equipment.
The need to write about all this, which is nothing but fragments of a memory of a persisting controversy and anger, emerged on the day after the 10-year anniversary of the murder of Grigoropoulos.
On the morning of 7 December, 2018, I crossed Kallidromiou Street, like every day, to go to work. I found the dog I meet every morning lying at the entrance of the same apartment block. I saw the cats I meet every morning grooming themselves as the sun comes over Lykavittos hill and illuminates the first signs of life.
Nothing indicated what had happened last night a few streets below. Only a poster was hanging at some point on the road, on the wall of a high staircase leading to the entrance of a house. “Discipline is over. A magical life”. I had seen this poster for the first time in a house in Ioannina in 2011. It was an extract of the “Exogama tou Dekemvri” (The illicit children of December) but it has come to summarize all those that still constitute our attraction today. Not the anniversaries. But a magical life.
Behind the trees, the sun was illuminating this part of the wall. I picked up my cell phone and took a photo. “Why you didn’t get it?” a friend asked me when I showed him the photo. “It was more magical on the stairs of that house than it would be in my living room.”
The next day it had been removed.