Remembering the Polytechnic Uprising
When students, workers, and Athenian citizens occupied the Athens Polytechnic on this day in 1973, they did so propelled by an elemental human hunger. Their chant was “bread, education, freedom!” A variation on these demands can be heard at almost every demonstration against austerity in Greece today, but on November 14th, 1973, when the 1,500 “Free Besieged” barricaded themselves within the gates of the University located in central Athens, such liberal expressions were rarely uttered above a whisper.
A climate of fear and uncertainty pervaded the years of the “Regime of the Colonels,” the junta that ruled Greece from 1967-1974. It was a time in which 10 per cent of the Greek population was living in internal exile—either on island prison camps or under house arrest. Parties were dissolved, torture became institutionalized, and "Freedom of Thought" and "Freedom of the Press" as protected by Article 14 of the Greek constitution were lost as the article was suspended. In the months preceding the Polytechnic Uprising, as the events of November 14th to 17th, 1974 came to be known, dictator George Papadopoulos decided to reevaluate the drachma [Greek currency] and halt the giving of credit in a desperate ploy to curb inflation. These unpopular economic measures created a climate not unlike that fostered by the imposition of strict neoliberal reform in Greece today.
Inspired by the simmering agony of the Greek citizenry and the French, Italian, and West German student movements, a vanguard of Polytechnic students occupied the University demanding a campus restaurant (“bread”), a third examination period (“education”), and elections (“freedom”). For the first time since 1964 a space for the defense of basic human rights emerged, and not just anywhere. This dissent was occurring in the administrative and psychological epicenter of the Greek power structure—central Athens.
Police blockaded the University, and then withdrew, creating an unprecedented opportunity for the occupation to gain a critical mass. At this time approximately a thousand workers entered the campus, a radio station established streaming to combat the dictatorship’s ceaseless imposition of martial music on the airwaves, and by the next morning, 30,000 Athenians gathered on the streets surrounding the school to observe or voice support for the student-worker vanguard. The dictatorship panicked, sealing off the campus once again, creating a black-and-white environment for political theater to develop.
The human sea was swelling. Students in other major Greek cities began demonstrations in a similar fashion, occupying Universities and schools in Thessaloniki and Patras. In a calculated move to deteriorate the situation surrounding the Polytechnic in order to justify military intervention, the government withdrew police. A sense of chaos ensued when tear gas was dispersed in the crowds surrounding the Polytechnic, and military snipers positioned in hotel rooms across the street began firing into the crowds gathered in the central square of the Polytechnic.
The quintessential image of the Athens Polytechnic Uprising came when tanks, armored cars, and a mass of helmeted troops thundered down Patission Street, smashing through the gates of the University and into the scattering students and workers. Hundreds were injured, and 24 killed in the bedlam.
Greeks across the country commemorate the event’s brave vocalization of democratic ideals amidst a climate of fear and mutual mistrust. The repaired gates of the Polytechnic remain open during the three-day commemoration, allowing those who wish to pay respects to the fallen Greeks to lay flowers on the original gates of the Polytechnic, mangled as they were by the Junta’s tanks. In regards to the annual march from the Polytechnic to the United States Embassy (the CIA backed the Junta and the United States was the first to recognize the Regime of the Colonels), Greek online newspaper, Eleftherotypia reports that “7,000 police are expected to be deployed around the Polytechnic…and the US embassy, which in the past has sometimes turned violent.”
The Greeks demonstrating today will undoubtedly echo the slogan of demands chanted by the Polytechnic occupants of 1974, and ask the extent to which they have been fulfilled in Greece today.