Athens Protests Refuse to Subside

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The two young men with hoods pulled to their eyebrows and scarves around their mouths stood behind Syntagma Square, the main square of Athens not far from the Greek parliament. The violence had just been ratcheted up in the continuing protests that have rocked Greece since the fatal police shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15, on Dec. 6. No one is certain yet why the riots continue to flare up. And, on Thursday, the two youths approached by TIME were not providing any clues either. Asked to explain why they were waging their violent campaign against the police the pair answered with a brusque "No." A third youth in black didn't even acknowledge the question. The three then dashed to Panepistimiou Avenue where their peers were camped out, hiding from police, waiting to make their next move.

The three had just emerged from a dramatic assault that had ended what seemed to be a period of relative quiet in the demonstrations. On Thursday, shortly before 3 p.m., a group of teenagers emerged from among a crowd of peaceful demonstrators led by teachers and hospital workers to put on scarves and pulled hoods over their heads. Ten minutes later, they penerated a group of students that had veered off from the 7,000-person march, and, using that group as cover, rushed police officers blocking off the street next to parliament. As the students pounded large wooden flagpoles against the shields of the riot police, the anarchist youth started throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the cops, who responded with tear gas. At least one police officer was treated inside the halls of parliament, as the heart of government was turned into an impromptu medivac center. (See pictures of the Greek riots.)

Nearly two weeks after they began, the protests across Greece have not stopped. Noisy demonstrations continue almost daily in front of Parliament, youths stormed a local TV station in Athens, and protesters Wednesday unfurled banners over the walls of the Acropolis calling for "Resistance" across all of Europe. Black-hooded anarchists still storm banks and smash storefronts. For a couple of days, the intensity of the protests seemed to ebb but on Thursday, civil disobedience degenerated back into all-out civil disorder. With the "pop-pop" of launched tear gas canisters, Christmas shoppers and cafe customers who had finally returnd downtown were sent running for cover, while parents and grandparents yanked their kids off a winter carousel in Syntagma Square.

Though many of the demonstrators on Thursday said they oppose violent tactics, they continue to focus on what they call unwarranted police response to their protests. Lila, a 24-year-old speech therapist, says she would never hurl rocks at police, but says the authorities should not be occupying the streets. "Each individual is able to protect themselves," she said. She said the protests are not "just for the boy," but express the anger at the financial crisis and political corruption, and "will not end until the government falls." Lazaros Apekis, president of the Hellenic Federation of University Teachers, said the youth demonstrations are "a genuine social revolt." He said the target is "a political system that has sold out the public in favor of private interests."

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose center-right majority has a slim Parliamentary majority, has ignored calls for early elections. Political observers say a budget vote slated for the coming days could undo his coalition, though paradoxically the violence may help him hold onto power as allies do not want a government collapse during the unrest.

Ultimately, ordinary Greeks will make their political judgment based on both the outbreak of anarchist violence and the actions of the government. Thus far, apart from the still unclear circumstances of the Dec. 6 fatal shooting, the police have mostly taken defensive tactics. But the protests, which harken back to the anti-globalization mix of violence and civil disobedience of Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001, don't appear to be ending any time soon. Protesters say the use of online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have helped organize street demonstrations, as well as the more high-profile stunts, like the hanging of the two giant pink banners from the Acropolis calling on other Europeans to take part in the protests. So far, outside of Greece, other anti-globalization demonstrations in sympathy with the Athens protests have remained rather limited.

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