Witnessing the Greek Riots Through Foreign Eyes
Athens: Last night I saw a nine-year-old boy wearing a black hood, with his mouth covered by a bandana, hurl glass bottles at the riot police in the heart of the anarchist stronghold, Exarchia. It was 2am, and no one seemed to wonder where the hell this little boy had come from. Watching his single silhouette against the backdrop of twenty-odd riot police, I found myself cursing the day my camera broke. If there was any image that represents just how deep the problems that have pushed Greece over the edge, it is this.
The riot police, with their masks on, were ready for trouble. The thirty of us standing and watching them were ready for it too. It was only a matter of when. As we watched the child pelt heavy beer bottles with his lanky frame, shouts from the nearby university - the infamous Athen Polytechnic - grew louder. Suddenly, an explosion went off and the riot police sprung into action. As soon as the flames hit the ground, I could see them running towards us, hurling stun grenades our way. That was our cue to flee, and turning around to check that the little boy was ok was definitely not an option. The explosions continued, and it felt like they were landing at the heels of my feet.
This was my first taste of what has really been happening inside these 'battles of Exarchia', the place where most foreign press are referring to as ‘an anarchist stronghold’, or ‘bohemian area known for drugs and crime.’ The thing is, Exarchia is much, much more than that. Would it surprise you if you knew that those thirty people standing with me at the square that night were a mix of professionals and students? Did you know, that in that area known to so many as a ‘junky’s playground’, is a vibrant neighbourhood that houses families, students, expats, artists, lawyers and doctors? It also boasts an exciting nightlife and street culture, with galleries, restaurants, bars and cafes.
In fact, did you know that the spot were Alexis Grigoropoulos was killed, is a pedestrianized road were young people frequently hang out, and right next to that spot where the two policemen were allegedly ‘attacked’ are a number of cafes frequented by people of all ages and backgrounds? I have walked down that road where Alexis was killed, alone, on many nights and never once have I felt threatened, nor have I ever witnessed any aggressive behavior. Usually, I would encounter small groups of young people deep in conversation.
That fateful Saturday night that would plunge Greece into a state of turmoil could not have been any different, except for the fact that the police very rarely make open patrols in Exarchia. After all, Exarchia is the area of Athens that both literally and metaphorically stands shoulder to shoulder with the Polytechnic University, the site of the military storming in 1973 that saw the deaths of students protesting against the Greek military junta. This bloody event is the reason why police are forbidden by law from entering all state universities.
This painful chapter in Greek history has never fully been forgotten, and an inherent distrust of the police remains as a result of that fateful day, the 17th of November. Today, it is a Greek national holiday that commemorates a very dark period of Modern Greek history, and with its side entrance at Stounari Street, the main road into Exarchia, the Polytechnic stands as a lasting reminder of police brutality against its own peoples. Thus being in such close proximity to the Polytechnic, openly asserting control is not tolerated in Exarchia, though in actuality, this rings true for many people who live in Athens, for whom the military junta is more than a page in a history book.
“How am I supposed to feel safe in my own city when I see police standing on street corners with their machine guns?” Asks one 28 year old woman, a sentiment expressed not only by students and anarchists, but regular middle class Greeks. One man pointed at a spot in Exarchia and said “I was beaten right here when I was fifteen. I hadn’t done anything and they beat me.” Now thirty and a teacher, he still harbors a deep hatred for them. "Why should they be so heavily armed? Who are we, the enemy?" he asks.
To many Greek people, the police operate with their own laws, protected by the government to do as they please. It has been recently reported that Greek prisons are the worst in the E.U., with conditions falling far below EU standards. It seems to be the general impression that the policemen in Greece are ill-educated, and at best, “country idiots with a lust for power”. At first, I was shocked and dismissive of all the anti-police rhetoric I heard. But, after eight years in Greece, I am finally beginning to understand.
Today, even the main oppostion party's public order minister, Michalis Chrysohoidis was quoted calling the police 'cowboys', attributing incidents of police brutality and authoritarianism as two factors that led to the murder.
To illustrate this 'cowboy' mentality, in 2008 alone, there were riots and protests against a number of incidences, one being the death of an African man in Thessaloniki. Though the official report was that he had fallen off a balcony, the immigrant population suspected foul play. A few months later, an undercover report on police brutality against immigrants made the immigrant suspicion a feasible and justifiable accusation.That same year, there were protests against the near-fatal beating of a Cypriot student by police, who, despite having been caught on camera, insisted that the boy had fallen on a jardinière plant pot, widely-known as the 'zardiniera' incident.
Apart from that, other examples of police shootings include 15 year old Michael Katezal, who was shot dead in 1985, sparking weeks of riots when the policeman in question received only 2.5 years in prison. Other shootings include the death of 17 year old Marko Voulatonas in 1995, 18 year old Thedore Katsioti in 2000, and 22 year old Herakles Margaki in 2003. In each case, people remember that the police received little or no punishment.
This is why the death of Alex Grigoropoulos has ignited so much rage. This death was not accidental, nor was it provoked. According to eye witness reports, the police officer responsible for the death of Grigoropoulos, Special Guard officer Epaminondas Korkoneas, shot directly at the boy after Grigoropoulos threw a plastic bottle at their passing patrol car. Reports of an ‘attack’ of Molotov bombs and bricks are unfounded, as video evidence clearly illustrates no flames and eye witnesses report no such thing.
Dora Barkoula, a doctor, was in an apartment block near the scene of the shooting and recalls, “I heard three shots and we ran outside. When we got to the scene, the boy was lying down. His chest was covered in blood; he had been hit in the chest.” When asked if she heard any commotion before the three gun shots, she said “no, only three shots, nothing else.”
Despite the conflicting version of events by eye witnesses and the police, what was a policeman doing shooting around teenagers and residents in a busy, popular residential and entertainment area in the first place? Did those ‘boys being boys’ really warrant the use of a firearm? Was the situation so life-threatening that a gun was necessary? I must have been mistaken. I always thought firearms were used as a last resort, say, when you are threatened with a gun yourself.
Running from the stun grenades, I found myself thinking back to the little 9 year old anarchist. Did throwing a glass bottle at the riot police justify the police response of throwing a stun grenade in his direction?
At the same time, do the police really deserve to take the full blame for this public outrage? As one 37 year old teacher comments, “why should they pay for one bad egg?” However, judging by the long history of animosity between Greek protesters and the police, there is more to these riots than the death of Grigoropoulos, especially when history and politics are involved.
Standing on the balcony of a lawyer’s office on the fringe of the main battle between rioters and riot police during the aftermath of the first full day of rioting, we were spotted by a group of riot police. “Put that camera away and get back inside, otherwise we’ll come up there and make you,” he growled, eyes flashing. Before we could reply, another woman shouted at them from a neighbouring balcony to leave us alone, and she threw her rubbish at them. The police proceeded to call her every name under the sun.
Although I was shocked at the intensity of the confrontation, and particularly, the intensity of the police reaction towards us, I still felt sorry for them. Apparently, residents of Exachia had been throwing their plant pots and rubbish from their balconies all day while they had to fend off angry youths with molotovs. In Greece, young and old alike harbour a hatred fo the police and in turn, the police hate them back.
With a schism that runs so deep, the problems Greece face are complex. This article has only discussed the enforcement angle to this situation and the government, who is also in part responsible for the anger that has fed the flames of these riots, has not even been mentioned.
But what can be deduced from this angle, is that when there is a deep divide between a population and its law enforcers, what does that say about the country? After all, when a 15 year old boy is shot dead, most likely without severe provocation, something is not quite right. Perhaps it is time those laws that require policemen to undergo psychological testing are finally implemented.
With some very painful questions coming to the foregeound, reconcilliation between 'us' and 'them' is a necessary but very difficult process the Greek people, the police and the state must undertake. As one peaceful protester laments, “I thought the police are supposed to protect us. So why are they throwing tear gas at us?” I would like to think that the police have been wondering that very same thing about the molotovs.
Tags: Greece , Riot , Police , Protest
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