A brief history of the petrol bomb during Greek protests



Since Greece’s worst-ever train crash killed at least 57 people on Feb. 28, protesters in the country have organized several rallies, marches, walkouts and memorials to honor the dead and demand accountability from the government. Tens of thousands of demonstrators, many of whom are university students and rail workers, have led actions across the country.

While most of the demonstrations have remained peaceful, the public outcry has been punctuated with clashes between police and protesters. In Patras, Greece’s third-most populous city, police fired tear gas at crowds on March 8. The same day, photos and video from protests showed Athenians brandishing what’s become a familiar symbol of dissent in that city’s central square: the petrol bomb.

There are many reasons the petrol bomb, or molotov cocktail, is a favorite among rioters. It’s cheap, easy to furnish, and sends a loud message. The device is easily built with common household items, typically a glass bottle, or other container that shatters on impact, filled with a flammable substance and lit fuse, like a soaked rag.

Clashes broke out in Athens and in the northern city of Thessaloniki on Dec. 6, 2022, marking the 14th anniversary of the killing of a teenager by police. (Video: Reuters)

Political protests of all ideological stripes have wielded the makeshift weapon in Greece. The country has a tumultuous history of political violence, much of which came to a head in a 1967 coup that resulted in seven years of military rule. After many years of relative calm, the financial crisis reignited Greek people’s penchant for mass protest and the global underdogs’ favorite incendiary device.

“Violence associated with a new wave of political protest spread in the late 2000s and the 2010s,” said Lamprini Rori, an assistant professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens who focuses on political violence.

“December 2008 was the catalyst for the eruption of riots and the resurgence of political violence triggered by the murder of a 15-year-old student by a police officer,” Rori said.

The petrol bomb is common across the world. Social media videos of Ukrainians making molotov cocktails were abundant at the start of the war. The bottled explosive is also profiled in Che Guevara’s famous military handbook “La Guerra de Guerrillas.” And in 2020, during unrest in New York following the killing of George Floyd, protesters made headlines and were ultimately charged for using improvised incendiary devices to damage police property.

Greek police detained at least 10 people on Nov. 9, 2022, during a protest outside parliament against soaring inflation. (Video: Reuters)

In Greece, Rori said, it’s protesters on the far left who are more prone to using the petrol bomb and similarly violent methods against police and government property.

“It is like a ritual,” Rori said. “It’s also a matter of know-how. The violent milieu knows how to do it – but it’s also the easiest, compared to other recognized methods such as arson attacks, armed attacks or bombings.”

On Nov. 17, 2018, thousands took to the streets in central Athens to mark the anniversary of a student uprising in 1973 that helped topple the military junta. (Video: TWP)

Rori, along with researchers Vasiliki Georgiadou and Costas Roumanias, conducted a study published last year that found that in Greece the far left is more prone to political violence than the far right.

Their research found that the far left was more likely to use methods like the petrol bomb — an easy, portable, highly visual weapon perfect for urban settings.

However, while leftist violence was more frequent and unpredictable, far-right violence remains more dangerous.

“Far-left perpetrators prefer material targets,” Rori said. “Far-right perpetrators prefer human ones.”

Migrants at a camp on the Greek island of Chios were attacked by suspected right-wing extremists on Nov. 18, 2016. (Video: Reuters)


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