The Athens Riots: Fallout from the Financial Crisis?

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Aris Messinis / AFP / Getty

Rioters torched a bank as they fought riot police in central Athens

One important target stands out in the riots and street clashes engulfing Greece as the damage totals are tallied. In addition to the scores of cars burned and shops ransacked by radical youths, the damage in Athens extends to banks. Since the violence ignited Saturday night, when a policeman fatally shot an Athens teenager, rioters have damaged at least 38 banks in the capital, with more than 150 targeted across all of Greece, as the rioting has spread to such cities as Thessaloniki, Larissa and Patras. (See pictures of the unrest in Athens.)

Of course, attacking the arteries of capitalism has long been a favorite symbolic act of hooded anarchists and hard-left protesters, including the dozens of ATMs smashed and banks set ablaze during the antiglobalization uprisings in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001. But Athens 2008 comes as the very words damaged banks have taken on a whole new connotation. Indeed, in the weeks before the violence began, many Greeks had expressed outrage at the government's $35 billion in aid to the nation's lenders at a time when one out of five citizens lives below the poverty line. And so, nearly a week after they began, the Greek riots offer the first tangible sign since the West's financial meltdown of the potential social unrest percolating just below the surface. (See the top 10 underreported stories of 2008.)

Already, demonstrations of solidarity for the Greek protesters have arisen across European capitals. "We are mobilizing. Solidarity manifestation with Greek insurgents," declared the alternative-media website Indymedia, announcing a Friday rally at Greece's embassy in London. Eleven protesters were arrested Wednesday during clashes in Madrid and Barcelona, while Danish police took 32 people into custody during violent protests in Copenhagen. The Greek consulate in New York City was also attacked.

Anarchist groups have always had a stronger presence in Greece, even as the government struggles to pursue its First World ambitions while battling the ghosts of a military dictatorship that ruled from 1967 to 1974. But the current clashes are also linked to a broader movement across the West that came to the fore during a week of demonstrations and violence at the World Trade Organization summit nearly a decade ago. Utilizing both peaceful and violent tactics, the "Seattle Movement," as it came to be known, was a grass-roots effort to fight the ill effects of capital-driven globalization. Two years later, in 2001, the movement came to a head at the G-8 summit in Genoa, which was marked by three days of violence and the fatal shooting by Italian police of a 23-year-old protester. Only the attacks on Sept. 11, seven weeks after the chaos in Genoa, diverted the debate from global capitalism to global terrorism. Now, the so-called No Global protesters, feeling vindicated perhaps by the financial crisis and the coming wave of unemployment, may hope that this week's attention paid to Athens will rejuvenate their cause.