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'Riots' in Athens Part 2

Athens demonstration, Syntagma SquareWell things seem to be a lot more calm today despite the fact that two of the largest unions in Greece are having a demonstration in Syntagma Square, planned months ago, and there is a general strike, meaning no metro, some buses some hours, no flights or ferries. Neither event has anything to do with the shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulis and those demonstrations, but when so many people have so much to complain about, some of these gatherings tend to run into each other or even conflict. Prime Minister Karamanlis asked the organizations to postpone their demonstration in the interest of the country but they had no interest in being accommodating to this government so the show is on. But they promised to keep it peaceful. Of course the 'anarchists' have made no such promises and as they often do they will probably show up to throw stones and use the event as an excuse to do more rampaging, unless they are burnt out and home in their parents apartments nursing a great big tear-gas hangover, which I hope.

damage, athens, GreeceYesterday I went downtown to see the damage. I took the bus to Syngrou Avenue where a mob had marched down smashing windows and displaying their hatred of car rental agencies? The first thing I saw was a truck from ELPA, the Greek Road Assistance organization carrying what was left of a new Smart Car, which was not more than a wire frame. Walking down Syngrou almost every window was smashed including Dolphin Hellas where Dionysious, the guy who sells tickets was sitting at his desk working(photo). They, like most people on the street were waiting for a new door. Apparently it is easier to break down and smash a glass door than the windows. In fact the windows appeared to take a lot of individual effort. Even on television the night before I could see people using metal bars to smash the windows of banks and it was taking a long time. But more on that later. There were two or three buildings that had been totally torched. One was a car rental, another a bank and the third was a sex shop. Unfortunately the sex shop was right next to Swift rent-a-Car and Elias was in there working answering e-mails, waiting for his door to come (It never came. He had to pay 200 euros to seal the door with cardboard for the night). He had spent the night in the shop even during the demonstration-battle-riot-march or whatever it was that caused all the damage. The street was a flurry of activity as workers removed broken glass, charred cars, and in many places were replacing the holes with sheet metal to protect the offices from the funeral march for Alexis that they assumed would be coming down Syngrou on the way to the cemetery. (Mercifully it took another route).

athens demonstrations, damageAndrea was finished with her dentist appointment and we arranged to meet at Fantasy Travel. The night before we had watched Syntagma square as the 'revolutionaries' burned the Christmas tree for the whole world to see what kind of crazy people live here, and then set fires to several buildings on Filleninon street which seemed to burn forever until the fire department showed up. If you remember from my blog of 2 days ago I had stopped at George's office and mentioned his metal gate that made his agency a fortress. It paid off. The two buildings next door were burnt to a crisp, putting one travel agency out of business for the foreseeable future. Inside Fantasy the girls were finishing up work and going home before the streets got crazy again. "Look at you all. I am so proud. Your customers don't realize that you are risking your lives to answer their e-mails and complete their reservations." I told them. They laughed but I could see they were nervous about getting home, realizing that the funeral march could turn ugly. George was staying with the store. He was going to bring his motorcycle into the office and close the giant metal gate and wait for dawn. I was impressed by his courage and told him that if we survive the night we should meet for a drink or coffee. In the meantime Andrea had sent a message saying she was cut off from us by a barricade of police buses and demonstrators and was going to Panormou for coffee. I told her I would meet her there after taking some photos at Syntagma Square, where I could catch the metro.

demonstrations, athens, greece, riotsWhen I got to Syntagma there was a crowd at the top of the square so I went to investigate. There were riot police (called MAT) protecting the Parliament building and a crowd blocking Stadiou Street. In front of the square was a group of kids who would run up and get as close as they could and throw rocks at the riot police, who were wearing gas masks, helmets, some kind of body armor and had plexiglass shields. Just as I got there the police moved to confront the demonstration and started shooting tear gas. The street was littered with chunks of marble and oranges from the trees around the square that the demonstrators and 'anarchists' had thrown. I was standing with a group of spectators but some kids got between us and the police and began throwing rocks. The police turned on us and we all took off like scared rabbits, many running down into the metro. I could see one group of Police going down the opposite side of the square and came to the sudden realization that I might be cut off and then stuck in this world of rock throwers, tear gassers and head bangers for the rest of the afternoon. So I ran down Metropolis street until I was sure I was outside the police encirclement. Along the way I could see groups of kids, some in ski masks, on cell phones, coordinating attacks or escape routes, I don't know which. There was a group of Africans with their large white bags of leather purses and carved wooden antelopes who had been selling on Ermou street, standing under the Ministry of Education (the wrong place to be) wondering what to do and where to go. Word had spread that the riot police were coming and there was a sense of panic but many people were just carrying on like normal, especially as I got down towards Monastiraki where they were still eating souvlakia or watching the event I had just escaped on TV. The Municipal Police were using tape to seal off the street in front of their headquarters. I did not want to take the metro after I had seen a thousand people run down into it with the cops in pursuit at Syntagma. Its bad enough during rush hour. I thought I could go past Omonia and down a couple blocks to avoid the Polytechic and then go up through Kypseli and over the mountain to Psyhico. So I asked the cop if it was safe to go this way."I have no idea" he told me.

demonstrations, athens, greeceMy next stop for sanctuary was the Hotel Attalos. Maybe Lazarus, the handyman would give me a ride up to Galatsi on his motorbike, but he was too busy. I walked down Athinas street towards Omonia, past City Hall where they had parked a bunch of firetrucks in case they attacked the mayor's office or one of the enormous central banks, inviting targets if you want a really spectacular fire. Omonia square was empty of traffic but people were going down into the metro so I followed them and took the train towards Kifissia. I felt like a refugee leaving a burning city but actually all my fellow refugees were just people going home from work. I got off at Ag Nicholaos, a stop I had never been to before, but found a taxi who took me to Psyhico. The whole way he was complaining about the demonstrators. "When someone dies you go to a funeral to pay your respects, to leave flowers and light a candle. You don't use it to fight the police or smash windows of the shops!" he said emphatically. He picked up several women along the way who were going to the same area as me and they all agreed. There was no sign of any trouble along the way or in Psyhico. Even Alpha Beta Supermarket which is usually full of frantic shoppers seemed calm. On television last night they showed some street fighting in Nea Smyrni after the funeral but by now it was obvious that most of the people had gone home and now it was just a handful of hardcore 'anarchists', happy for the chance to battle the police outside of the Exarchia neighborhood. Of course any footage of police facing off with rock-throwing kids makes good TV and CNN and BBC had their reporters in Athens so they may as well keep the story going, but now the story is not the demonstrations or riots or whatever you want to call it. The story is the government's inability to stop them right away, which they could have done.

So today was the general strike but it seems more like a holiday. We went to lunch at Takis and then did some shopping and had a coffee in Psyhico. Then Andrea took Amarandi to the dentist and I came home to do the laundry so I could hang them on the roof for what is left of a beautiful sunny Athenian day. Of course I turned on the television to see if there was anything going on. There were a couple Greek channels talking about the events of the last few days but no live footage which means there was nothing exciting happening, even with the major demonstrations. The other channels were showing cartoons, a movie with Gerrard Depardeau called Green Card, an infomercial for an exercise program, and a couple cooking shows. Oh yeah, and CNN which was reporting the unrest that was continuing in Athens and a major strike that had crippled the country. (They also said urban buses were shut down but I see them going past my house like any other day).

athens demonstrations, greeceThere is a law in Greece that was enacted after the military Junta sent tanks to crush the rebellion at the Polytechnic University in 1973, resulting in the death of at least 50 people that from now on the campuses were a safe haven and police could not enter them. So students and no-students base themselves on campus and then run out to throw Molotov cocktails and rocks and then run back, sort of like when you play tag and you have a tree or front step that you call 'base' and once you get to it nobody can tag you. But in my opinion to use this base to launch guerilla attacks from and then retreat to its safety, sort of goes beyond the intent of this law. Likewise the use of the military on the streets of Athens which the government refuses to do because it would remind people of the dictatorship. So they let a handful of thugs run amok, burning and smashing businesses in order not to create the wrong impression. The news reports make it seem like there are ten thousand people smashing everything in site but if you go to a demonstration you will see a big crowd huddled in the street with signs and banners and on the fringes are these kids who run out and throw rocks at the police and then back to the safety of the crowd. In some footage you see the police bend down and pick up a rock and throw it back at them. So this is how you bring peace to the streets of Athens? Have the police and the demonstrators throwing rocks at each other? Seems more like caveman warfare than urban.

Anyway from the news you would think the country is descending into chaos but I think these may be birth pangs for something new and hopefully better. As for safety in Athens it seems to me you still have to go looking for trouble to find it. The vast majority of us are just watching it on TV. Many believe that this whole mess is some kind of government conspiracy to make the people fearful and surrender some of their freedoms, just like in the USA.

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