Inside the gates of Athens’ main university, bonfires rage and masked gangs stockpile petrol bombs, broken paving stones and marble hacked from the neoclassical buildings. It’s their arsenal for more possible clashes with weary police.
But a week into Greece’s worst civil unrest in decades — sparked by the police shooting of a teenage boy and then fed by anger at the country’s economic unraveling — the rioters’ best weapon is arguably the law.
They have used, some say abused, a decades-old code that bars police from university campuses. The grounds of the Athens Polytechnic have become a combination of sanctuary and makeshift armory for the bands of young men and women who have left parts of the capital ransacked and smoldering.
The self-proclaimed anarchists and revolutionaries based at the Polytechnic have become outnumbered on the streets by more typical demonstrators — such as labor unions and opposition parties — who have called for Greece’s increasingly unpopular conservative government to resign.
Yet it’s the rage and destruction of the masked youths that have become the symbols of the showdown.
Nearly every night in the past week, the streets around the Polytechnic become an urban battleground.
“Stones! We need more stones!” someone bellowed in the dark.
“Don’t waste the Molotovs, damn it! Use them wisely!” another shouted, his voice hoarse from the tear gas fired by riot police night after night.
The demands now are mostly cries against the country’s conservative government and the economic hardships faced by many Greeks — particularly young people — as the economy stalls after years of moderate growth.
The police know that weapons and rocks are stockpiled in the Polytechnic grounds. But they dare not enter.
The image of a tank crashing through the Polytechnic’s gates on Nov. 17, 1973, to quell a student uprising against the military dictatorship is known to every Greek. The events have gained near mythical status, and Nov. 17 is a public holiday to mark the deaths of the protesters and the beginning of the end for the 1967-1974 junta.
The university amnesty law — drafted after the restoration of democracy — is a near airtight ban against police entering university or school campuses across the country. Its stated goal was to safeguard “academic freedom” and other ideals of openness.
But for years it also has given radicals a safe haven in which to regroup.
Although the law does allow authorities to enter the campus if a felony is committed, only on rare occasions has the asylum been lifted.