A Greek Tragedy
A diary of rage at police brutality and tragically failed government
Dec. 8, 2008 Monday. The Inferno
Greece is an inferno. The raging gangs of youths seem to be unstoppable, destroying anything that comes their way. In government buildings, shops, banks, and even luxury hotels, windows have been smashed and flames plume up into yet another night of lawlessness. Youths continue fighting running battles with riot police. Black smoke rises above the city center, mingling with clouds of tear gas.
The damage is indescribable. But it is not only public buildings and luxury hotels that are falling victims to the rioters’ rampage: Shopkeeper Spyros Kyryakopulos returned to find his car had been set on fire; he stood by helplessly, watching it burn in front of his eyes.
"People are in great danger," he said, his voice quivering with fear. "Rioters are burning private property. People may be trapped inside the buildings!"
The fury of the Greek youths was sparked by the fatal police shooting of a teenager, 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropulous, on Dec. 6. Within hours, several key ministers submitted their resignations. The refusal of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to accept them, stoked the already existing fury across the country. Authorities in Athens are expecting an escalation of the riots on Tuesday, Dec 9, when the funeral of the victim is scheduled to take place.
Minister of the Interior Prokopis Pavlopoulos and possibly others sent in resignations, which were not accepted by Prime Minister Karamanlis.
It has all happened with alarming speed.
"These demonstrations are not only anger against an injustice, but against a major government crime," said Richard S. Someritis, a journalist for the Daily Vima, and one of Greece’s most famous political analysts. "It is the police who allowed extremist groups to set Athens and Thessaloniki on fire and cause trouble across the whole country."
Violence often breaks out in Greece between riot police and anarchists during demonstrations. But this time, the speed with which things have escalated is feared to potentially lead to the collapse of the government.
"Now everything is possible, but this would be a very bad scenario," said Someritis. "I hope it will not get that far, because if the government falls, things will get even worse."
At this point, this "worst case" scenario appears increasingly likely, with rampaging youth taking ownership of the streets and nobody able to stop them.
Dec. 9, 2008 Tuesday. The Funeral
Violence continues today in Athens, the day of the funeral of 15-year-old Grigoropulous. For a fourth day, students have kept up the rioting, pelting policemen with stones and Molotov cocktails. They have been joined by other in masks chanting, "Cops! Pigs! Murderers!"
Riot police have fired massive quantities of tear gas in an attempt to dispel the protesters but have not intervened when businesses were torched. Very quickly, local media began reporting instances of enraged civilians confronting looters. A heavy cloud has settled over the Syntagma Square in front of the Greek parliament. The clashes reached a peak shortly after the funeral.
The threat to the government is escalating, as the opposition has used the situation to back up their demands for early elections:
"This is much more than a protest against the behavior of the police," said Petros Constantinous of the Socialist Workers Party. "The opposition will not stop until it topples the government." This was necessary, he said, as the problems lie with the leadership.
"I do not blame the students and rioters," Constantinous said. "They have the full right to do it. The responsibility lies with the government."
Young and old took part in the march, organized by the Socialists. Schools and universities across Greece were closed and hundreds of teachers, university lecturers, and students rallied in central Athens. For the most part, students seemed unconcerned about their safety:
"I am not concerned about security," confirmed a member of the Student’s Protest Committee. Students were protesting peacefully during the day, he said, although at night other protests take place that are dangerous.
Dec. 10, 2008 Wednesday. General Strike
What started as a peaceful demonstration of the Labor Unions and the Opposition turned into another wave of clashes between riot police and youths. Over 10,000 people gathered on the Syntagma Square, in front of the Greek Parliament, to protest the economic crisis and police violence but also an overall crisis in the political system in Greece. Youths, not part of the Union march, pelted policemen with stones and set off firebombs. But in spite of widespread discontent, many condemned the unprecedented violence:
"I am the one who will go to the ballot and I am the one who will choose my government," said merchant Georgyios Kouloumvakis. "I won’t accept anarchists and rioters to dictate the situation in a democratic Greece."
In the capital, the damages are immense: "The riots have only added to the existing social problems," said Panayotis Doumas, a representative of the Athens Traders Association. "Athens has been destroyed."
But while change is urgently needed, he refuses to blame current leadership. The problems Greeks are facing now originated a long time ago.
"It is not about this government or that government," Doumas insisted. "The system has to be changed." Among other things, the government has to be given more authority. "Why do we have police if the police is not allowed to do its job?" he wondered.
With the riots and social protests expected to continue, Greeks have become hostages to both the raging youths and a failed political system.
However, so far, there is no sign that the government plans to step down – one of the expressed goals of the protesters. But the protests have nonetheless served as a wake-up call for those in power.
Dec. 12, 2008 Friday. Violence Continues
Molotov cocktails and stones from protesters continue to rain down on Athens in the wake of the Dec. 5 shooting. The 4,600 canisters of tear gas, released over the past five days by Greek police in an attempt to stop the riots, has not managed to disperse the angry youths. And, as clashes continue, so do the public debates, trying to analyze how exactly the situation got so out of control.
"Added to all social problems, we now have this tragic incident - a boy is shot dead," said Richard Someritis, a reporter for the Greek daily Vima. He described the police as "apathetic," standing by while "extremists" set fire to Athens and Thessaloniki, causing more than 200 million euros of damage in Athens alone, according to estimates by the National Confederation of Commerce, where some 565 shops were sacked, leading to confrontations with enraged civilians.
"From now on, police and government officials are at a dead-end," he said, "trapped in this situation of public anger against a terrible crime. And in this crucial moment, I have to say, the overall impression is that the government has totally lost control."
The shooting is seen by many as only "the last drop in an already full bucket," said Someritis. In fact, the social protests started long ago - with the economic crisis that followed the introduction of the Euro in Greece.
The Euro led to a jump in prices that brought living costs up to the general European level while Greek wages stayed low. The average monthly wage in Greece is about 700 euro – far below the European standard. This gap fueled anger that was already raging.
Rebellion has often served as an emotional safety valve for Greece. And violence is nothing new in a country of frequent demonstrations, where the right to protest is considered an intrinsic part of democracy. The 1973 student uprising against the military dictatorship has gained near mythical status here, where people are emotional and traditionally outspoken, where they have always been taught that they have to participate actively in the country’s political life.
"Sure Greeks are angry," says Athenian Lambros Matopulous. "But protests and riots are not unusual for Greece. People like to express their opinion and are getting angry if anyone tries to stop them."
However, some feel that the riots could have wider implications, namely that the situation in Greece threatens to unleash a pan-European wave of protests. Nikos Mouzakitis works as a chauffeur in Piraeus. Years ago, though, he was one of the rampaging youths. This is how he explained the reaction of the young people in the country.
"The riots are a logical outcome, as people have had enough," he said. "With this pressure, change is almost inevitable." However, he admitted, many remain skeptical that those changes will be for the better.
Tavern keeper Bako Anserian is not so sure. "In the end," he says, "nothing will change. This government will go, a new one will come; things will stay more or less the same. It has always been that way and will remain that way."
The passiveness of the government in handling the violence has been disastrous. And although they may not lose their mandate, it will have grave consequences for the country - if nothing else, revealing how powerless authorities are in the face of fury on the streets.
A week after the teenager was slain, people are trying to restore the rhythm of their normal lives. Protests will continue, but no one expects much to change - under this government, or any other. The unprecedented violence in recent years – including a 2007 attacks by the leftist group Revolutionary People’s Struggle on the United States Embassy in Athens, the offices of the ruling New Democracy Party and a branch of the National Bank – has left Greece enveloped in gloom over the future. These latest events make that future even darker.
Eva Manasieva, a native of Macedonia, is Vienna Bureau Chief for Press TV, the first Iranian international news channel, with headquarters in Tehran and broadcasting from bureaus in strategic cities around the world. Its stated goal is to deliver "unbiased reporting of controversial global news, with a special emphasis on Middle East current affairs," as well as "portraying viewpoints often ignored by current mainstream media outlets." www.presstv.com