Friday, July 15, 2011

Embedded with Greece's Los Indignados

Occasionally, things happen that takes time to process or require distance to filter them through memory till they start to take on the contours of anything that can be explained in a meaningful way.

It has been over two weeks since I went to Athens to take part in the anti-government rally on the 29th June. Tagging along with a group of 400 "indignant" as the Greek protesters call themselves I found myself waiting at midnight outside the White Tower in the centre of Greece's second largest city, Thessaloniki with a bunch of people who resembled less a group of serious demonstrators than over aged participants in a school trip. The joking and jostling for position, who sits next to whom, brought back memories of similiar journeys as a kid.

Arriving in Athens the next morning we wasted no time and no sooner had we clambered off the coaches than a banner was unfurled and people took to the road to march and shout out chants, announcing to all who cared to listen that the northern contingent was in town and looking to join their big city counterparts in Syntagma Square. The Square which faces the houses of parliament has, for much of modern Greek history been the focal point of clashes between disgruntled citizens and their rulers.

As soon as we entered the square than many of us were overwhelmed with tears, though this was less to do with any emotion than the residue of tear gas that had been used the previous day and which still coated much of the area. Luckily for us, one of the leaders knew exactly where we could equip ourselves with gas masks and goggles that later would prove so vital for anyone who wanted to stay in Syntagma.

In the crowd that was massed in front of the parliament the atmosphere was a strange mix of carnival and demo, on the one hand people were in a upbeat mood with some present dancing to music played by drummers yet the underlying feeling of tension and anger was apparent to anyone familiar with Greeks and Greek culture.

Another interesting point was the "ideological" composition of the rally, which seemed to embrace a wide, if not contradictory range of political opinions. In the centre where trouble would later start were the "patriots" as I termed them, who were convinced that the entire Greek debt crisis was the result of American born prime minister, Giorgos Papandreou's collusion with the Jewish banking nexus, with a measure of masonic conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure.

On the other hand every shade of left wing opinion including the anarchists also had their own blocks. In the middle, a mass of others who identified with none of the available political choices but were convinced that the austerity law being debated was a disaster for the country and wanted send a message to those inside parliament.

The real panic began at 1.30pm when news that the austerity vote had passed became known, leading to a group of about 100-200 next to the barriers outside parliament to rush the police. The charge was quickly stopped when riot police units started firing tear gas and the demonstrators quickly retreated. Taking this as a cue a group of about 50-100 youths started pelting police lines from nearby the Grand Bretagne hotel and and the police intervened effectively the violence would have probably been over within a few minutes.

However, riot police units then took the attack as an excuse to lauch a concerted assault on the rally from five different directions, using thousands of tear gas cannisters, flash grenades and other weapons. The result was a generalised onslaught on anyone still remaining in Syntagma who were all perceived by the police as rioters, even though the vast majority were protesting peacefully and had nowhere to flee to.

Assualts by the police continued inside Syntagma and throughout much of the centre of Athens for the rest of the day, with hundreds being hospitalised with breathing problems or the result of beatings by the police who in many situations acted more like football hooligans than the agents of law and order.

How to describe the horror of seeing a pack of 10 officers kick and beat a man in front of my eyes, or the anger generated when a protesters who talked back to a policeman was repeatedly punched in the face by a another cop. It was scenes like these that infuriated many present and created a much wider circle of people, many older men and women willing to throw stones and other objects at the police.

I repeatedly saw demonstators plead with riot squad units to stop attacks and who intervened to calm down fellow protesters but often their attempts to play peacemaker were thwarted by the police themselves who lashed out at anyone who approached them or grabbed people, seemingly at random.Each time this happend yet another wave of anger rippled through those nearby.

This pattern of violence and over reaction repeated itself through the day and lead me to the conclusion that the violence of the police was not simply a lack of self control but part of a plan by the authorities to empty the square and put down the Indignant movement at all costs. I doubt if anyone in government uttered those words but I'm pretty sure that the police leadership was left with no illusion about what their political masters wanted done about the situation.

Another infuriating aspect of the day's events was the foreign coverage of the rally which seemed to misunderstand the gravity of the situation, For most of the foreign press crews the story as yet another clash between Greek "anarchists" and the police so ignoring the wider implications of a massive police surpression of a mainly peaceful protest movement.

I'm not sure if this was simply journalistic laziness or the result an agenda that much of the mainstream media often bring to news stories.I remember arguing with some smug US TV anchorman next to me who was waffling on about how futile the protests were as if it was a tired theatrical show that has outstayed its welcome rather than the desperate fight by ordinary Greeks for a viable future. This unwillingness or inability to look beyond the dramatic images to get to a deeper truth has marked much ofthe reporting from Syntagma and the Greek crisis in general.

Later as the day wore on my nerves and stamina dwindled the constant threat of attack by the police or injury by flying objects from both sides plus the experience of being tear gassed took its toll and even the adenaline jolt of being in a highly charged conflict wasn't enough to keep me going . So I went to a cafe to send off pictures and comment to Demotix. yet even there the atmosphere was heavy with tear gas and I ended up sitting at a table in a mall wearing a mask while tapping out my story.

Towards midnight I carefully made my way back  to Syntagma Square which now resembled a war zone with fires burning and the much of the surrounding area looking as if it had been used for target practice to get to the subway station to meet up with the other protesters from Thessaloniki who were going back by coach from Monestiraki.Even inside the station the regular thud of flash grenades going off near the entrance gave the impression that we were in an air raid.

Even though I have seen lots of upheaval in Greeece, including the violent uprising in December 2008 the level of violence I witnessed in Syntagma was of a new order of magnitude and it seemed that it was ushering in a violently different relationship between the Greek government and the people they are supposed to represent.

1 comment:

Torn Halves said...

Just a thought prompted by what you say about the violence witnessed on the demo and the media's shallow coverage. The condemnations of violence and the calls for demonstrations to remain peaceful presuppose a ridiculously narrow conception of violence. The overthrow of democracy (since that is what has happened effectively) is essentially violent. The imposition of policies that have no democratic mandate is essentially violent, even if the police restrain themselves and not a single teargas canister is fired. Call it systemic violence, if you like. It amounts to violence. It is experienced as violent, even if blood doesn't run in the streets. And it is inevitable - since we don't live in a society of angels - that that systemic violence will provoke a reaction.