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Campus offers activists haven

Riot police stand behind shields as demonstrators hurl objects at them in central Athens on Monday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Riot police stand behind shields as demonstrators hurl objects at them in central Athens on Monday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Greek law bars police from university

ATHENS, Greece – 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 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. Riot police emerge through clouds of tear gas and the smoke of flaming barricades.

Black-clad youths – their faces covered by masks, scarves and motorbike helmets – hurl petrol bombs over the hulks of torched cars.

“Stones! We need more stones!” someone bellowed in the dark. One young man, his face hidden behind a bandanna and a hood, began smashing pieces of concrete from one of the university’s buildings, lit only by the orange glow of bonfires.

The demands now are mostly cries against the country’s increasingly unpopular 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 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 junta that ruled from 1967 to 1974.

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, rearm and launch hit-and-run attacks during protests.

Although the law does allow authorities to enter the campus if a felony is committed, only on rare occasions has the asylum been lifted.

Greeks have a deep well of tolerance for those who rebel against authority and generally accept the occasional low-level violence that can break out during demonstrations, such as smashing store windows or torching the occasional car. But the destructive fury unleashed by the fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos on Dec. 6 has deeply shocked many Greeks.

On Monday, about 2,000 youths confronted riot police outside Athens’ main police headquarters.

Students also gathered outside Athens’ main court complex, where four people arrested during last week’s riots were ordered to remain in custody. The policeman accused of killing the teenager, meanwhile, has been charged with murder and is being held pending trial.

Socialist opposition leader George Papandreou renewed calls Monday for early elections.

“The government cannot deal with this crisis,” he said. “It cannot protect people – their rights or property – and it cannot identify with the anxiety felt by the younger generation.”

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