Since Athens, demonstrations & riots are in the news again, I thought for “strike” season” I’d feature a blog post from about 14 months ago …. see the comment section, too.

I arrived back in Athens on Sunday afternoon, learning about the riots from Yannis, the driver who often picks up our guests and usually meets us when we arrive at the airport as well.
Yannis told us that earlier in the day and the night before there had been chaos around the Polytechnio (The Technical University of Athens) over the fatal shooting by a police officer of a 15 year old boy. He did not know at that time the details surrounding the shooting, but he did know that there were groups of teens burning things, smashing windows and in general causing mayhem in this particular area, as well as in an area a Ministry building around Panormou (neither of which are near our neighborhood). Since we had returned to Athens for my mother in law’s funeral, we left Athens early Monday morning to go to Tripolis. We traveled through the city and traffic (and everything else) seemed pretty normal (there was the usual morning traffic, a bit of a jam on the highway, nothing out of the ordinary).

Protests and demonstrations are a familiar part of Greek life, we are used to them, people staying in hotels or working around Syntagma Square (the Square across from the Greek Parliament building) are used to them, and the Athens police force has “moveable” precincts, which they frequently deploy to close off streets as marches move through the city. I’ve witnessed many over the years, and though I’ve found them annoying if I was in a hurry, I’ve always sort of admired the way they are here: In the US demonstrators are often given a “square” area to march in circles. In Greece the people take to the streets, marching from one part of the city to a particular government building depending on what they are protesting. To me it is the ultimate in democracy – lovely to me since I witness this in the birthplace of democracy. (Some of our guests have even taken their kids to see them, to illustrate democracy in action!) I also find them somewhat entertaining, as Greeks, being the passionate people they are, lovers of drama and exaggeration, will latch on to a government proposal or recently passed piece of legislation, and ultimately someone will have a beef with is, opening up the excuse for either a protest march or a strike or both. I’ve often wondered if they just planned these strikes and demonstrations to accumulate extra vacation time or days off, since these “events” are so well scheduled, planned far in advance, and often coupled with a holiday or even a long weekend. So it was with these thoughts that we took Yannis’ report somewhat with a grain of salt.

But, while in Tripolis on Monday we finally had the chance to watch the news. What we saw left us shocked, and honestly a little bit scared. Every channel showed clips of fires burning, reports of rioters roaming the streets, starting fires and destroying everything on their route, from the Polytechnio campus on the north, down through Omonia Square (a popular centrally located square) and to Syntagma Square. We flipped stations and saw the same scene: fires, fires and more fires – Athens is burning the announcers kept saying. But as we continued to watch, we noticed the same clips running over and over and over again on different stations. And in these clips we would see only a handful of people on the streets, followed by interviews where we learned the police were commanded to have no interactions, no confrontations, no involvement at all, with the “rioters”. After the funeral we had a chance to speak with some of Basil’s relatives who had also driven in from Athens. I asked several of them why the police did not stop these people, and the answer was the same from them all: In the 70’s Greece had a military junta, and during this time the students took over the Polytechnio to protest the military junta, and the government brought in tanks and troops to overcome them, killing 24 people in the process. It is a very sad time in Greece’s history, and most politicians are very sensitive to ordering police crackdowns when youth are involved in protests and demonstrations, for fear of looking like the military junta in 1973. And thus, police were ordered to avoid any confrontations.

We heard conflicting reports as to whether the boy who had been shot and killed was participating in a protest demonstration in which students were throwing rocks at the police who were there to keep them in line, or that he was merely a passerby, in the wrong place at the wrong time. One policeman fired 3 shots, two in the air and one straight ahead – and this boy was struck, apparently by one of the upward fired bullets on its way back down, perhaps. No one seems to know for sure if the shots were aimed at the boy or if he was caught in the crossfire (as I’ve said, there are conflicting reports) – but the policeman was arrested and jailed, as it is not the custom to use real bullets ever during demonstrations (they do use a lot of tear gas and also rubber bullets, perhaps water hoses as well, but never anything that could result in death, for the reasons I listed above).

Late Monday night we returned to Athens, and on Tuesday we again watched the television coverage and read news reports. Hotels evacuated on Syntagma Square, the metro was being shut down, “the city braces for a night worse than any so far” said the newscaster reporting on the funeral of the boy who was killed. The funeral would be at 3 pm, in a southern suburb, and by 4 pm they were reporting that while the funeral was peaceful, in Syntagma protesters tried to “storm the Parliament building” and elsewhere more fires were burning.

We also had a chance to speak with guests in our Beta penthouse – a family with 2 toddlers – they reported walking through Syntagma without anyone bothering them on Monday early in the day, while another guest reported taking the trolley through Syntagma on Monday afternoon, there were some broken windows and burned garbage cans, but nothing that she thought looked like the remains of what she had seen on television the night before.

By this time we decided we needed to get an idea of what was going on, so around 5 PM we set out for the historical center, Plaka and Thissio and then we drove around Omonia Square and through Syntagma Square, down Vasilis Sophias street, with its elegant mansions and museums and through the “Rigillis” area, where the diplomats live and which borders our neighborhood along with the Old Olympic Stadium before we returned home. The streets in the historical center were quiet, many stores and restaurants were closed, but those that were open did have some people eating or drinking coffee, but other than how quiet it was, nothing in this area seemed out of the ordinary, and we didn’t see any damage or destruction. In Thissio, we visited our newly arrived guest at the Heritage House, and again, the streets were quiet, but we saw nothing that could have been attributed to fires, riots or protests. We had dinner at one of our favorite Thissio favorites, giant plates piled with lamb chops, and then wandered back along the Ancient Agora to our favorite dessert place, climbed up to the glass enclosed rooftop of Chocolate Café for coffee, loukoumades and to survey the area from this vantage point. Things looked normal from here – we saw no fires or smoke, there were certainly fewer people below on Apostolou Pavlou, but in general, things seemed normal.

Now for us the real test was to drive through Omonia, Kolonaki and Syntagma – when we reached the intersection where the choice had to be made, a right turn would send us right into the two squares, a left turn would take us in a circle around the historical center, up Sygrou and completely avoid the two “riot zones”. Since I was the only “non Greek” in the car, the Greek obsession with drama won out: we turned right and headed past Gazi (quiet, nothing looked damaged from the street we could see) and into Omonia. As we got about 2 blocks from the square two fire trucks pulled in front of us, lights flashing. There was a collective deep breath, as we could no longer turn around to avoid the Square. The trucks turned into a parking lot a block down, and began hosing down a dilapidated Neo-Classical building that was smoking from the top.

As we continued we saw the streets littered with papers, and the remains of several garbage dumpsters, two or three burned “kiosks”, the corner newsstands which supply Athenians with newspapers, magazine, cigarettes and candy. In the square itself, as in the restaurants and souvlaki stands around the square, people milled about, ate or drank coffee. No one seemed to be “en masse” and it was basically quiet. On the far side of the square we saw one building with the ground floor burned out. From Omonia we drove down Stadiou street, a commercial street with lots of retail, which the news had been reporting to be “devastated and completely destroyed”. Other than the previously mentioned building on the far side of the square, we found no burned buildings, a couple of storefronts had metal covering the windows – we don’t know if this was preventative or a Greek style board up service, although there was no sign of fire on the walls surrounding the windows.

From Stadiou we headed to Akadamias, on the way we saw the remains of a torched BMW. There was one block where 3 storefronts in a row were burned, and 2 blocks before we arrived at Syntagma, across from the University, a corner storefront had been gutted by fire.

In Syntagma Square the 3 luxury hotels, the Grand Bretagne, the King George and the Plaza were all boarded up – they seemed closed to the public and we had heard that all guests had been evacuated. The Square itself was basically quiet, though there were some tourists watching the changing of the guard, some younger people wandering around, some papers littered the street corner and there were the remains of burned garbage cans in front of the Parliament building. The banks lining one side of the Square all had broken windows. We also saw a burned out Eurobank, but now we can’t recall if that was on Syntagma or near Omonia.

Our drive around the square was pretty uneventful. McDonald’s appeared to have applied protective plastic to their windows, as did some of the other stores that appeared unharmed.

So, while the whole country is certainly in mourning over the death of the 15 year old boy, I would say that the media coverage has been greatly exaggerated. Having just returned from the historical center, Syntagma and Omonia squares, I would say that there’s no danger violence or “riots” will impact your stay in Athens. Although I cannot figure out what is behind this, there was a lot of talk on morning TV and radio that the left would like to force new elections, and that in some way they “encouraged” the disappointment in young people which lead to the demonstrations which lead to the shooting which lead to the mayhem. These commentators also said that those in the left who did this certainly never imagined it would go so far. I have another take on things, and though I’m no political commentator, I’ve lived here long enough to have an opinion about it: In reality there were not the “mass riots” described in the news – there were groups of a 6 – 10 angry people, perhaps a couple hundred in all, roaming around Athens, intent on causing destruction. These people have always existed, but the police in the past have been able to control them. The circumstances of the shooting and the order not to get into confrontations meant the police could not act as they would normally have, and things got out of hand, not only on the streets, but in the press as well, until we expected to find the entire central area burned down when we returned to Athens, only to find some pockets of random destruction. (Which I am not saying makes it ok – but really, it was nothing like the 5 of us imagined it would be – and our guests who are here now reported the same thing. Watching the news one would think the world had ended for Athens!)

Unfortunately the mass media in Greece, in its overzealousness to make headlines and increase their viewership by creating drama, has made the situation seem far worse than it really is. I’m pretty certain that just as last week’s sensationalized media reports focused on a land-scandal involving the Greek church, this week’s “riots” will be forgotten as they grab on to next week’s hot item.

** update ** Thursday December 11, 2008

I got an email from a friend this morning with the article from USA Today. It was the same AP story that has appeared in every English paper … it occurred to me this morning as I was reading an article entitled “Four Years After the Olympics Greek Dreams in Flames” that the best way to describe the Greeks (here in Greece that is) in general terms is to say they are like spoiled children, acting up because they are not reciving attention. CNN is showing 4 day old clips of fires – what they don’t show is that it is a garbage can burning in the middle of the street, or a BMW that has been firebombed – something that occurs twice a week in Excharia, a neighborhood with a history of anarchist activity. What very few people point out is that Greece has a history of protest, the small group of organized (and unorganized) anarchists have a history of burning luxury cars and tossing Molitov cocktails at police, and that everywhere, not only in Greece, a generation gap exists where youth feel disenfranchised. A quick search of U-tube reveals lots of footage of previous protests and marches, mostly peaceful, but often with some unruly element, just as protests and demonstrations throughout the world might have a small unruly element that causes things to get out of hand. In Greece, though, this can be seen as something of a tradition.
Yesterday we went down to Syntagma for the strike that was planned 3 weeks ago – I think this one was called to protest pension reform. The news reports claimed 10,000 protesters … I’m not a good crowd judge, but I don’t think that the street in front of the Parliament would hold 10,000 people, and the square seemed to be closed. To be fair, there may have been more on another street, around the corner, that I could not see. Anyway, I went there with my son and niece, Scruffy the dog walking along with us, playing with the Syntagma Strays (that’s the dogs in the square, not the band).
I did take some photos along the way, my favorite being some kids and their grandma riding their bikes around in the square in the Zappeio gardens across the street from where the “violent demonstrations where polices clashed with thousands … “ I guess she wasn’t swayed by the news reports and decided the park was still safe J Beyond the gardens we sat watching a group of demonstrators hanging around the square, they sat on walls, curbs and in the middle of the street, facing a line of riot police who stood casually holding their shields between the “mobs” and the tomb of the unknown soldier. Behind them, and scattered along the curb on the Parliament side of the street random journalists, cameramen and photographers waited for something to film. I thought back to the first Intifada in Israel and to how my father (educated as a journalist, by the way J) explained to me the magic of photography, how a photo can project whatever you want it to project, depending on the angle, the cropping, etc. And as I looked at the people hanging out around the square, I decided to play with this idea.
As we snapped photos of the damage, bus shelters surrounded by shattered glass panels, some banks adjacent to the Square with their windows cracked or shattered entirely, chants erupted from the top of the Square, in the area where the police faced off against the “angry mob”. My son raced to the top of the Square, where television cameramen had come out onto Vasilias Amalias street to film the crowd. It was as if someone had shouted “Take 1: roll ‘em”. The kids who moments earlier had been lounging on curbs and half walls along the stairs, sitting cross legged, chatting and laughing in the street in small groups, rose to their feet to perform. MURDERORS, MURDERORS, they chanted in Greek for the rolling cameras. In front of the chanters, a few meters behind the row of police, the changing of the guard began on the hour before the tomb of the unknown solder.
And then, as quickly as it had begun, the cameras stopped, the crowd melted back into their places along the sidewalk, curb and fell away again into the small groups from where they had risen.
We made our way to the hotel side of the square, where another small group of police mingled on the corner as a pair of maids, in black and white ruffled attire, swept up broken glass on the sidewalk in front of the Grande Bretagne hotel. The doors to the lobby were boarded up, one door propped open before which a well dressed doorman stood chatting with what looked like hotel management. A woman with a clipboard shuffled between the maids and a maintenance man at the other end of the entryway, who was washing away graffiti on the marble wall between the GB and her neighbor, the King George. The entrance to what I believe is the lounge at the King George was closed, furniture appeared to be piled inside the doors, protecting them from opening. At the end of the block the Athens Plaza appeared to have suffered the worst, it’s entrance shuttered, with only a single door, drapped in plastic sheeting, open to permit entrance. A sole man stood watch in a window above the hotel’s main entrance. As I captured him on camera I thought of the drama this photo could create in the hands of a savy, sensationalistic reporter or one of my overly dramatic, exagerating Greek friends.
We circled the square and crossed over to Ermou street, Athens central most retail shopping street, a wide, pedestrian only cobblestone road which runs from Syntagma Square to Monasteraki Square. The street was full of people, shoppers working through their Christmas lists, street vendors hawking knock-offs and curious Athenians enjoying the sunny, pleasant afternoon, pausing before the dozen or so smashed windows we encountered between Syntagma and the church midway down the street, taking photos of the cracked windows. By the time we reached this point, halfway to Monasteraki, we were thinking things we way overblown, even the street performers had come out, and other than the cardboard that had been taped on a few of the storefronts, things seemed pretty normal. But as we appoached the halfway point, where a Byzantine church sits, sucken below street level, the smell of something burned filled the air. On one side of the tiny church painters rolled a fresh coat of paint over the charred wells on a lovely neo-classical building that housed a retail clothing store, while a man stood guard in front of the remains of the Alpha bank building – an imposing neo-classical that was completely gutted. As I stood before the building my eyes were drawn upward, to where the now missing roof left gaps through which the sun shone.
The rest of Ermou was similar, a few broken storefronts, the worst of which was just beyond Monestaraki Square, where the building that houses Geniki Bank (and an Applebees restaurant) was left a skelaton, burned out completely, along with the remains of three cars parked in front of the former bank building. As I stood before this, the worst of the damage we’d seen so far, I glanced across the street that the dilapitated Neo-Classical buildings on the Psirri side of Ermou — this was one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas of central Athens, and I wondered about the owners of these protected white elephant buildings, costly to renovate and impossible to tear down for their architectural value. My Greek friends have no concept of this, while we in Chicago have lived through the gentrificaiton of our city’s neighborhoods are well aware of buildings being burned down to force out tenants and renovate and/or rebuild.
We had dinner outside on Adrianou, in Thissio overlooking the Ancient Agora. There were other diners enjoying the evening, and the restaurant next door had some customers as well. The street was certainly quieter than normal for a pre-Christmas evening, but certainly it was not the scary, mob-run chaos CNN keeps describing.
I awoke this morning to CNN announcing that chaos and mayhem continue in the streets of Athens. The newscaster appeared, it was nightime in Athens, the Parthenon illuminated behind him, and clips of youths tossing molitov cocktails at a line of policemen appeared on the screen. The same, 4 day old footage they’ve been running constantly. I flipped channels to Antenna, a Greek station, where Christmas music played and the footage showed the Christmas fair at the Flisvo Marina. Children smiled on the screen, a giant dancing bear (I think) entertained them, and for the first time in 3 days I saw the TV representing what I see here in Athens.
Athens is perfectly safe. I find it amazing that after some 30+ years of demonstrations, protests, destruction and clashes with police around the Polytechnio, and several months of the ruling party holding a slim, tedious majority in the Parliament, the media is turning this into the crisis of the week. Perhaps I am a jaded American, or perhaps a naïve American, but I think that the hoopla is a great exageration, and that the tradition of protest, anarchy, and exageration that is really just part of daily life here in Greece will have returned to its “normal” state, perhaps with a new party in power, perhaps not, until the next crisis of the week brings them back into our homes via CNN.