Today we were going to take a wander through Exarcheia in Athens. It’s a controversial area near the University, known as a place for activists and those of the ‘counter-cultural’ persuasion. The history is complex, but in recent years it’s been the focus of much of the political resistance in the city. As a result, the police don’t tend to come through here very often, as they cause more trouble than is worth.
Today marked an important event in Greek history, marking the 41st anniversary of the uprisings against the military junta (dictatorship) that existed in the country at the time. Tanks rolled in to the University to crush an occupation that was broadcasting messages of resistance – reportedly killing students, and sparking off the revolution that eventually led to the dictators being run out of Greece.
I thought there might be something going on at somepoint, but I hadn’t found anything online to indicate there would be anything serious. That feeling was quickly dispelled as our metro hurtled past Syntagma without stopping. Making our way into Exarcheia from the nearby Omonia square, we turned the corner to find the street empty, and a huge group marching towards us.
We decided to follow the crowd along for a bit, as they were going the same way as we were heading. It seems naive to think that at that point, as things changed pretty quickly as we turned the corner to find that the side streets were filled with riot police, and we found ourselves caught in the uncomfortable position of being in the middle of the two sides lining up against one another.
The atmosphere was pretty intense, and seeing the crowd had gas masks and helmets with them, we decided to get ahead of things rather than get stuck where we were. We ended up following along as they headed towards the centre of Athens.
The riot police at this point were keeping far back – but they could easily be seen down the parallel streets to where the protest was, and blocking off certain key roads, designed to route the marchers in a certain way. The atmosphere was pretty intense, though partly as we weren’t sure exactly what was going to happen next.
Police were stationed outside certain buildings, and it looked like it could get hairy for a minute or two when the two groups came into close contact. However, even when there was just a few of them, the protesters would form a human shield between them and the police – ensuring that the police were never out of sight – protecting those who had their back to them, and symbolically demonstrating their distrust of the police.
Irrespective of how cautious people were being, we decided not to follow the protesters down a couple of the streets, as it seems a bit too tightly packed – and far too easy for the police to kettle us inside like they would back in the UK. Instead, we took the long way around.
It felt a bit weird going past the piles of police that were sitting around with their riot shields, smoking. They were clearly showing a bit of interest in us, as we looked the same age as most of the protestors – which was pretty uncomfortable.
The crowd that had gathered at the bottom was considerable, having seemingly met up with another group that had splintered off earlier on.
All the shops had pre-emptively pulled down their shutters, or were in the process of doing so. It was notable that the larger brands and banks hadn’t even opened for the day at all.
We came to Syntagma Square, where the police were lined up in an L shape. It was a strange experience, with them fully kitted out in not only riot gear (that we’ve seen lots of times before), but actually wearing gas masks. Not a good sign.
Why would they be wearing the masks to face off a bunch of students unless they planned to use some sort of chemical? It seemed like the aggression level was being purposefully raised by the police – an authoritarian display of power more than anything else.
The other thing that was interesting is that the police weren’t deploying the same tactics as they did a few weeks ago – where they completely sealed off Syntagma Square with their busses. Instead, they were focussing much more on being mobile.
In total contrast to what would have been happening in the UK though, the square was filled with Greeks – old, young, and otherwise – hanging around, drinking coffee, and waiting to see what was going to happen. There was even a protest dog.
The Greeks are obviously much more experienced at this protesting stuff than we are.
Watching the crowd finally surge around the corner in the centre of Athens, and the Parliament, was pretty impressive.
There was some irony in seeing a demonstration against the use of state force confronted with such a display of state force.
The marchers were completely peaceful, despite being angry. It struck me how the composition was almost completely students, with older people supporting from the sides – something that we hardly ever see back home. It was inspiring to be there, and easy to get caught up in the feeling.
What would it feel like to be part of a country that had experienced the turbulent history that Greece has? What would it be like to be a student somewhere that had such a high rate of unemployment? How would it change the way you viewed ideas of governance and politics?
We dived off for a bit to head up a nearby hill and get a look at the view. From the top we could still hear the chants. When we came back down, the tension in the air seemed to have increased. Multiple other anti-fascist and anti-capitalist groups has joined in the demonstrations – with packs of them marching down the street outside the US embassy – traditionally to demonstrate against the American support for the military dictatorship.
We wanted to stay and see how things would unfold, but it seemed like things had become even more intense than before – and in a direction that we weren’t quite sure how to deal with as foreigners. Groups of police on bikes were zooming down streets shouting at people, and we weren’t quite sure how we would get back home as the roads were blocked.
As we made our way back towards Syntagma we felt our noses and throat sting – realising that something must have been fired into the air, with people sneezing and coughing around us. Looking at the news reports after confirmed that we were just around the corner from where the police had set off tear gas and flash bang grenades. That was our cue to leave.
Following the reports online, it seemed things went badly from there. The police headed in to the usually out of bounds Exarcheia, setting off more tear gas and taking the opportunity to have a significant show of force. The pictures and videos can be found on #17ngr on Twitter.
It’s hard to put everything into words, and I’m not sure I’ve done any of it much justice.
As an outsider, it seemed like the Greek police came prepared today with the intent to escalate things when given the excuse. It seemed more like gang warfare at times – with the police getting revenge on those who they are constantly in conflict with. The young police force were leery and waiting for something to kick off. The use of tear gas seemed completely disproportionate, especially given that it is easily spread to affect such a large area. However, the involvement and engagement of the Greek people was amazing; seeing everything from pensioners to kids marching even in the face of such a huge police presence was inspiring.