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Anarchists in Europe: What Unites the Stone-Throwing Black Bloc?

By , Jan Grundmann and

For days, youths in Athens have been fighting with police. The riots have spread to other parts of Europe, where left-wing radicals are protesting in support of their Greek brethren. They're considered the militant spearheads of an international scene that is largely united by violence.

It took less than 24 hours before Germany saw the first demonstrations of solidarity. On Sunday evening in Hamburg, a few dozen black-clad protesters gathered in front of the Rote Flora, a looseknit community center for the city's leftist and anarchist scene. "Greece -- it was murder! Resistance everywhere!" they chanted. When police stopped the march after just a few meters, the officers were greeted with chants of "Polizia -- Assassini!" The Italian slogan was adopted after the 2001 shooting by paramilitary police of 23-year-old anti-capitalism protester Carlo Giuliani at the G-8 summit in Genoa.

There were similar scenes that evening in Berlin: Some 150 protesters dressed all in black marched through the German capital's Kreuzberg district to show support for protesting anarchists in Athens and other Greek cities who had unleashed their absolute fury. The night before, a police bullet killed 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Athens' Exarchia district. City officials are speaking of a death caused by a ricocheting bullet or a warning shot. But members of the Black Bloc -- and not just in Greece -- are calling it murder.

Rioters in Athens: The spearheads of the militant scene?
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Rioters in Athens: The spearheads of the militant scene?

Since the teen's death, more than a dozen solidarity events have been announced on the left-wing Internet portal Indymedia in Germany alone. They have been largely peaceful. But on Tuesday night, the violence of Athens also spread briefly to Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. In Barcelona, bank windows were shattered as hundreds marched through the city in an unregistered protest. In Madrid, rioters attacked a police station. In Rome, anarchists threw stones at the Greek Embassy. And in the Danish capital Copenhagen, security forces broke up a spontaneous march.

A Heterogenous Movement

The "First International of stone throwers," as one German domestic intelligence worker once put it, describing the international association of socialists that tried to bring togther left-wing political groups in the 1800s, functions, but its capacity for mobilizaition is generally limited. Still, Grigoropoulos' death has been a catalyzing incident, and it has driven leftist anarchists to the streets in a handful of cities across Europe. "This may have hit one person, but it was meant for us all," one German protester's banner read. And it doesn't take much coordinating before the anarchists are out on the streets expressing their rage.

But the "international" scene is, in fact, only loosely connected. The Internet has made it easier for different networks to connect with each other, but real organization would contradict the very self-image of anarchists. "The anarchist movement is not homogenous," states a report by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, on the country's estimated 5,800 Black Bloc members. There are "more or less consolidated and self-contained groups" who have "no unified ideological concept," the report maintains.

Instead, each individual tends to fight his or her own battle against the state, the political establishment or right-wing extremists. Indeed, the one thing that seems to unite these diffuse ideological fragments is a preference for the prefix "anti." "Anti-American, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist tend to be the Black Bloc's driving principles these days," says Wilhem Heitmeyer, a sociologist at Germany's University of Bielefeld who is a researcher in the field of youth violence. "That's what binds them."

Even more binding than any theoretical minimal consensus, however, is the extremely practical means with which the movement draws attention to itself: The idea that violence is the best way to fight against the "system" or "rulers." "Militance is an identity-building, formative component of the movement's experience," and a "necessary component of left-radical politics," a group of aging German anarchists wrote a few years back, recalling their experiences. In that regard, nothing has changed except that the principle has since spread around the world.

In this context, the Greek anarchists may feel confident of being viewed as the militant spearheads of the movement. And while there may have been relative quiet for the first time in days on Wednesday night, in the orgy of violence in previous days, it had looked as though an entire frustrated generation was unleashing its fury -- or as if the anarchists in Greece had a reputation to defend.

When the militants from Athens or Thessaloniki travel to one of the few far-left international gatherings, security officials are always alarmed. Much as football hooligans like to travel to the World Cup for shows of strength, these political hooligans head to the annual G-8 meetings to battle with the host nation's security forces.

"Cool, the Greeks Are Coming"

When the world's most industrialized nations met in Genoa in 2001, the Italian police tried to head off the Greek rioters at the port -- with little success. And German security officials were also concerned about the Southern European hooligans ahead of the G-8 summit at Heiligendamm in 2007. German anarchists, who have seen things get a bit quiet at home since the heyday of the May Day riots of the 1980s, on the other, hand looked forward to their arrival. "Cool, the Greeks are coming!" one excited anarchist told the left-leaning Die Tageszeitung newspaper at the time.

When a mass protest in Rostock, the city nearest the G-8, descended into violence in the run-up to the summit, police officers present said that the far-left tourists were at the frontline of the skirmishes. They reported that the Greeks, as well as Spaniards, Italians and Scandinavians were far from reserved in their behavior. The foreign bands of anarchists armed with paving stones got as near as 15 meters to the German riot police, one Berlin far-leftist approvingly told Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper.

The Black Bloc scene in Greece -- as in Italy and Spain -- is so distinct because the divide between right and left is so deep, says Dieter Rucht of the Social Science Research Center Berlin. He argues that there is a complete lack of a political center. Greece and Spain, he adds, also have relatively fresh experience with right-wing dictatorships.

Greek anarchists in the Exarchia quarter, where skirmishes with the police are now a daily occurrence, view themselves as part of a tradition of resistance that started under the military junta. Every November 17 the anarchists mark the anniversary of the bloodily suppressed student revolts at the Athens Polytechnic University. Riots are normal. Around the anniversary, in fact, the campus becomes a retreat for rioters.

Alexandros' death was the spark for heavy riots in Exarchia. The fuel for continued violence was a deep mistrust of the government, coupled with frustration over crony capitalism and corruption, a ramshackle education system and high unemployment. Even students who graduate with good grades from a university or a trade school have few prospects of getting a well-paid job. And instead of offering students a chance -- according to the rioters -- the state would much rather reach for a weapon and put down any protest.

Dieter Rucht, in Berlin, believes a similar eruption of violence in Germany is not impossible -- though it is "highly unlikely," he says. When outbreaks of violence take German security forces by surprise, they prove that a situation can always lurch out of control -- and not just when members of the international anarchist scene come for a visit.

In May, when left- and right-wing extremists fought in the streets of Hamburg, police reported that some people were almost killed. A year earlier, at a protest held against a meeting of European and Asian foreign ministers, an isolated cop failed to draw his weapon, and several rioters attacked him. They threw stones and bottles and paint bombs until, at the last moment, he fired a warning shot, and managed to escape and get to the safety of his vehicle.

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