Yesterday saw large protests in the Greek capital of Athens to commemorate the death of a 15 year old boy named Alexis Grigoropoulos at the hands of Greek police in 2008. This year has extra significance due to the hunger strike of Nikos Romanos, who was there when Griogoropoulos was killed.
There was meant to be a gathering from 12 noon outside the University of Athens, so we headed in to see what would happen. The police had already banned demonstrations in a large portion of the city centre for the visit of the Turkish Prime minister; something that was set to end at 3pm.
When we turned up, nothing was really happening. Lots of people were gathered around the University, but there was no chanting or people grouped together; nobody addressing the crowd or anything like that. There were a few banners here and there, but it was a sunny day, and largely people were just sitting around drinking coffee.
We hung around for a while and decided to go and get something to eat and drink and come back a bit later when there was due to be a march from the University to the neighbourhood of Exarcheia, via Syntagma Square.
Despite there reportedly being around 8000 police deployed in the city, their presence was far lower key than it has been on previous occasions. For a day where they expected a lot more trouble, there didn’t seem to be as many on them about as usual – especially considering that there was roughly one member of the police for every protestor.
There were a few on street corners, but mainly to close off particular areas and re-direct traffic. That wasn’t always successful as the Greeks don’t like to be told what to do – including not to drive down a particular road.
It wasn’t clear exactly what they were trying to achieve, as they closed one road off first, and then moved it to the next one. It also wasn’t clear whether the tape they were using to mark the streets was tied to a car they owned, or just one that happened to be parked there at the time.
We headed back up towards the University after 6pm, and things seemed like they were amping up to get ready to move off. We ducked into a nearby bar to get a drink and use their bathroom. Pretty soon after, we head the chanting a street over as people marched past, with fully clad riot police running alongside the side streets. Then came the sound of smashes, and bangs – with the owner of the bar telling us: “They’re smashing up the old Parliament. What’s the point? If they go down the street they’ll find the real enemies.”
We headed back out to see for ourselves for what was going on, and found the street in a sad state of disrepair, with bus shelters and shop windows smashed up, and bins on fire. The police (or fire brigade – it’s hard to tell) weren’t far behind with miniature extinguishers.
We tagged onto the tail end of the march, but didn’t get too far before both the police and some of the protestors told us to stop taking pictures. This isn’t something I would usually ever comply with, but given the intense atmosphere, and us as foreigners, we thought it wise to do so. All around us there were people with masks smashing up the fronts of windows, or dragging away large plant plots to break into pieces. They were definitely in the minority though, with plenty of both older and younger people simply marching peacefully along, or watching from the sidelines.
A few seconds later we heard a few huge bangs come from just behind us, and saw people start to run. The police had thrown flashbang grenades and tear gas in retaliation to what looked like water bottles or small stones that had been thrown at them. This quickly escalated, and you can see exactly where we were in the opening scenes of the video below. Watch out for the police punching an already handcuffed man in the face.
We took our leave at this point, with the march heading onwards to Exarcheia. Reports are that the use of the force by the police continued, predictably – with both water cannon, and the liberal use of both tear gas and flashbangs. I’m not sure how any police force can ever justify using chemicals or military tactics so brazenly in a residential area.
As we walked back to Syntagma, we passed more destruction, with steps and shops all smashed up.
I’m really not sure what destroying shops or steps is supposed to achieve, and whilst I completely support direct action, I’m completely against the destruction of the city that you live in to make a political point. Many activists online have decried these actions, circulating videos that apparently show a few hundred masked, undercover police emerging from the crowd and going behind police lines. It wouldn’t be the first time that the police have infiltrated marches and provoked violence to discredit, or give an excuse to move in with force, so it’s hard to know exactly what the truth is.
Athens once again lies smashed up, in a country where finances are already beyond strained. Today, the Greek Government are set to vote on a controversial new austerity budget in an attempt to appease the European Union, with further demonstrations planned. We can only hope that things won’t go like they did yesterday.