If painted slogans could tell the story of a city, then, at present, that city would be Athens. Like most things in the Greek capital, graffiti arrived late. But when it did come, it erupted with a vengeance, leaping from street corner to street corner and pillar to pillar, exhorting anyone whose eyes might skim it to “fuck authority” and “bring down the system” and “kill the rich”.
This was long before early December, when Epaminondas Korkoneas, a special guard seconded to the police, allegedly shot dead Alexis Grigoropoulos, a tousle-haired teenager, plunging Greece into an orgy of violence not seen since the collapse of military rule in 1974. And long before thousands of rock-throwing students and schoolchildren took to the streets in protest.
But like so many others, I failed to see the warning signs, to read the writing on the walls. Now words of rage are everywhere, splashed across buildings, banners, hoardings and road signs. In squares, streets and boulevards, passers-by are told that “Athens is burning”, that “Cops are murderers and pigs”, and urged to “Remember, remember 6 December”, the day young Grigoropoulos died from a bullet to his chest, the day “the uprising was born”. Self-styled anarchists have sprayed one word across the four pillars of Athens University’s ornate neoclassical façade: XAOS (chaos).
On 5 January, gunmen pumped 40 bullets into a 21-year-old policeman standing guard outside the culture ministry – a brazen attack, conducted in broad daylight, that has fuelled fears of a resurgence of domestic terrorism. Four days later, when Eastern Orthodox Christians had barely celebrated Epiphany, thousands of student protesters again took to the streets. Fresh clashes erupted between Molotov cocktail-wielding youths and police and, in a sign of the union unrest also gathering pace, farmers erected roadblocks on highways nationwide.
On 12 January, as anti-terror police intensified their hunt for those who had attacked the police guard a week earlier, Pericles Panagopoulos, a prominent Greek shipping tycoon, was also targeted by gunmen. He was abducted with his driver – who was later released unharmed – as he travelled to his office along the Athenian Riviera. A ransom of ?40m has reportedly been demanded.
The euphoria that enveloped Athens during the 2004 Olympic Games seems a long way away. Pessimism, like the acrid tear gas that has become so commonplace, hangs heavily in the air. For politicians, who have been left speechless by the intensity of the protests, the destruction they have wreaked and the discontent they have exposed, the new year could not have begun more ominously.
At no time in the past two decades of reporting from Greece have I encountered such despondency. The shooting of 15-year-old Grigoropoulos ignited the wrath of a nation that has never had much time for the police, but it was also the flame that lit the inferno. The country is a tinderbox. Its state apparatus, institutions and political and ecclesiastical elite – ossified and corrupt, archaic and scandal-ridden – no longer inspire confidence or trust.
As I write, workers are planning yet more mass strikes over fiscal policies that have brought many to their knees; far-left groups are readying for rallies; children are moving to take over schools; university students are announcing sit-ins, and employees are occupying factories. And the global financial and economic crisis hasn’t reached these parts yet: Greeks know that with their public sector labouring under unprecedented debt, and their economy so dependent on tourism, things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.
The ruling conservatives, already clinging to power with a parliamentary majority of one, also know this, because they understand that the young and disenfranchised – those behind the protests – have nothing to lose.
The generations who worked to re-establish democracy after civil war, decades of authoritarian right-wing rule and, in 1974, the end of military dictatorship, had dreams for a better Greece. In many ways these dreams have been shattered. But younger Greeks, who have seen their parents exhaust themselves to educate them, who have laboured through private language schools and college education and are now finding themselves jobless and struggling to make ends meet, aren’t going to give up so easily.
“All my life I have only known scandals and corruption with nobody ever paying the price,” 25-year-old Fotini Papadopoulos told me as we marched together through the centre of Athens. “It’s sickening. My parents own a kiosk in a rural town. My mother wasn’t allowed to go to college because her father said it would turn her into a slut, so I worked hard to go to university, to study psychology, to fulfil her dreams. Now, without connections, I have no chance of getting a decent job. Please write that it’s people like me who personify what is going on here.”
In the absence of any credible alternatives in a political system that appears increasingly blocked, young Greeks say the street is the only place where they can “fight and be heard”.
Whether their protests will morph into an organised movement of civil unrest is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that Greece’s children have been surprised by their own runaway success. “We won’t sit quietly,” says another slogan. “Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear.”
Helena Smith is the Guardian’s Athens correspondent