Damian Mac Con Uladh

Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Spreading a falsehood: the posthumous placing of a firebomb in Alexis Grigoropoulos’ hands

In Athens riots on 21 December 2008 at 8:14 pm

The truth is often one of the first causalities of war. The same applies to the recent Athens riots: not that these resembled a war (although many would argue that they did), but because truth fell victim to the dissemination of outright lies, mainly thanks to the media.

The lie is that Alexis Grigoropoulos and his friends had thrown or were about to throw a petrol bomb at the two special police offices in their car.

One might question why it is necessary to write about something that never happened.

It is important to write about it, because the idea that the youths on that fateful night were about to throw a petrol bomb at the police – thus putting their lives in grave danger – is used by many to legitimise the police killing of a 15-year-old boy.

Stencil of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, taken somewhere in Athens on 18 Dec 2008 (DMCU)

Stencil of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, taken somewhere in Athens on 18 Dec 2008 (DMCU)

Today, the newspaper I work, the Athens News, for received a letter on the riots that contained the following paragraph:

From the immediate press reports, before ideological blinkers took  hold, it appeared that the child threatened the police officers (and others) with deadly force (the petrol bomb). As such their action in shooting him dead, whilst unfortunate, was entirely reasonable. The murder charges appear to be grossly excessive and the chance of conviction to be zero. The police officer is to be pitied as a victim here. The matter was clearly one of self-defence at least if not justifiable homicide. If I were expected to judge the officer’s actions in hindsight, I would be far more alarmed about the ‘stray bullet’ hypothesis than of any action to shoot to kill in the circumstances.

The letter-writer made otherwise very valid points. However, as I told him, I could not agree to publish the above paragraph, as it contradicts much of what has emerged about that night.

I don’t think the letter-writer meant any offence and seemed sure that he had read the firebomb claim in one of the initial BBC reports on the shooting.

The BBC report contained no such claim, but some other news sources did.

False reports

Indeed, the claim that Grigoropoulos threw or had threatened to throw a bomb at the police was contained in some, but not all, of the initial reports on the killing which appeared on Sunday, December 7

These reports were:

The Australian

DOZENS of rioters have rampaged through central Athens after police shot dead a teenage boy who attempted to throw a petrol bomb at a patrol car, police officials said.

The youths smashed shop windows and set fire to refuse containers after the shooting, which took place in the traditionally left-wing Exarchia district of the Greek capital.

“Hundreds of them hit the streets, probably for revenge … Dozens of police units are gathering to try to control the situation,” said a police official, who declined to be named.

Tear gas filled the narrow streets of the busy neighbourhood and restaurants closed their shutters, witnesses said.

Police said there were no arrests or reports of injuries so far.

The shooting took place after a group of around six youths started pelting a police vehicle with stones. When one tried to throw a petrol bomb, a policeman shot him in the stomach, said the official.

Given its detail, the AFP report is, I believe, the source of the claim, and although it isn’t dated precisely, I believe it appeared before 3am GMT on Sunday, December 7, when a very similar report, published by an Iranian agency, appeared:

  • Press TV (Iran) report, published at 03:09:07 GMT on Sunday, December 7:

The shooting took place after a group of six youths started throwing stones at a police vehicle and when one of them tried to throw a petrol bomb, a policeman shot him, said a police official, who declined to be identified.

  • Another much cited report was published by CNN on December 7:

A police statement about the boy’s death said the incident started when six young protesters pelted a police patrol car with stones. The 16-year-old boy was shot as he tried to throw a fuel-filled bomb at the officers, police said.

Police said the boy had been shot after a policeman fired into a crowd of people who had launched molotov cocktails at a police car.

Aljazeera

Police said the teenager was shot in the traditionally left-wing Exarchia district of the Greek capital on Saturday after the boy tried to throw a firebomb at a patrol car.

What is most worrying about the Al Jazeera post is that it presents the firebomb claim as fact. The AFP report, on which it is clearly based, at least attributed “police officials” as a source.

The effect that this disinformation is clearly evident in the comments on the article on the Al Jazeera. The first three readers, clearly fuelled by the bomb lie, wrote:

“He was throwing a fire bomb! He deserved to be shot” – Miguel, Mexico

“The idiot tried to throw a firebomb at a patrol car. He got what he deserved.” – JB, United States

“If you’re throwing a deadly weapon … what do you expect? I believe the officer was worried for his own safety and did what he had to do. what was a fifteen year old boy doing with a fire bomb? – Scott, Canada

  • Again, in a December 8 report datestamped 02:56 GMT on December 8, Al Jazeera repeated the allegation, again as fact:

Aljazeera2

The boy had tried to throw a firebomb at a police patrol car.

A police statement about the teenage boy’s death said the incident started when six young protesters pelted a police patrol car with stones. The teen was shot as he tried to throw a petrol bomb at the officers, police said.

What did the other agencies say?

It is important to point out that other news agencies made no reference to the petrol bombs. They had no reason to as the initial police report made no such reference to a firebomb.

Several hours after the incident, police issued a statement saying the patrol car, with two officers inside, was attacked by a group of 30 stone-throwing youths while patrolling the central district of Exarchia.

According to the initial statement given by the two officers, the incident occurred shortly after 9:00 on Saturday night when a police patrol car responding to a call in the Exarhia district was surrounded by a gang of 30 youths that started throwing stones and bits of wood at them.

A falsehood spreads

The original December 7 CNN article was still online on December 15, when it was mentioned on the talk page of the Wikipedia article on the riots, 2008 Greek riots.

It has since disappeared. However, the claim remains on other CNN reports on the shooting, including the December 8 one mentioned above.

The reference to the CNN claim in Wikipedia was first made on 11:01 (Greek time), on December 8. The source was the December 7 CNN article. The wording was:

A police statement stated that the teenager was killed while trying to throw a bomb at a police vehicle.

This statement, which was later reworded to

Police reports said the initial statement of the guard was that the shooting happened in self-defense, as the victim of the shooting was about to throw a molotov cocktail at the guards.

remained on Wikipedia until 22:06 (Greek time), December 14, when it was removed.

The claim in Greece

The claim was also published by a Greek English-language weekly newspaper, Athens Plus, which is owned by International Herald Tribune and Kathimerini:

In a letter to the editor published in the December 12 issue, Kerry Kay, from Kifissia, wrote:

… watching the media covering the killing of the 15-year-old boy, no one dared ask the question “What was a 15-year-old boy doing in the middle of the night attacking police cars with Molotov bombs?’’

Arguably, no one asked the question because a) the boy wasn’t carrying a bomb and b) the incident took place at 9pm and not in the middle of the night.

Surely, the Athens Plus should have exercised more editorial intervention in relation to this letter. It is simply irresponsible for an English-language weekly that is freely available to download and which is – judging by its readers’ letters – read by many Greeks abroad, to publish such unsubstantiated claims as fact, even in a reader’s letter.

Indeed, the letter contradicts the editorial line taken in the same issue:

The murder was not committed in the heat of battle between anarchists and riot police, where it could somehow be explained as a predictable accident. It came in the form of a police officer losing his temper and firing at a group of youngsters, who may or may not have taunted him and his partner when they drove by a bar in the anarchist stronghold of Exarchia.

Who is to blame?

It’s clear that the AFP report was based on the comments made by an unnamed police officer in the early hours of Sunday morning. AFP may have seen this information as a scoop, but surely report should have been based on official the police statement of the incident, which made no reference to petrol bombs, and not on the comments of an unnamed officer.

In any case, Epaminondas Korkoneas, the policeman who fired the fatal shots, also subscribes to the firebomb thesis. As a Reuters report, dated December 10, states:

A Greek policeman facing a murder charge for the shooting of a teenager testified to prosecutors on Wednesday that he fired warnings shots in self-defence when a gang of youths threw firebombs at him, a court source said.

The 37-year-old policeman, Epaminondas Korkoneas, said he did not realise that 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos had been hit by a ricochet bullet, the source told Reuters.

Why shouldn’t he? It seems to be his only defence, and judging by the letter mentioned at the beginning of this article and the many internet discussions taking place on the incident outside of Greece, the firebomb myth assures some that the killing was somewhat justified and the subsequent disturbances, which have very real causes, are completely illegimate.

Spreading unsubstantiated rumour so grave as this one could also have incited the violent reactions of demonstrators, particularly those abroad who were presented with the “firebomb fact” by the news agencies listed above.

News reporting should not just limit itself to reporting what actually happened, but also how what happened can be manipulated.

Advertisements

How can we explain the riots in Greece?

In Uncategorized on 20 December 2008 at 11:19 pm

What led to the December riots in Greece?

It’s a question everyone’s been asking themselves since the unprecedented violence that erupted after the fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 6.

To outsiders, Greece appears to be a wonderful country: blue skies, wonderful beaches and fantastic food. And there’s the laid-back lifestyle. It all appears so tranquil, so they say.

The reality within Greece for many Greeks is somewhat different. This country is not a failed state, but it’s a highly dysfunctional one that, in recent years, has been plagued by disasters (the forest fires of 2007 and 2008) and political and economic scandals (Olympic overspending, the phone-tapping scandal, the post-7/7 mysterious abduction of a group of Pakistanis, the Zachopoulos affair, the Vatopaidi affair, etc etc.). Indeed, the scandals are so frequent that they all seem to blend into one continues battle between the media and public on the one hand and the government on the other to establish the facts.

Life is difficult for many and this was the case before the credit crunch. Wages are ridiculously low and prices outrageously high. Greeks love cafes yet this country is probably one of the most expensive places to buy a coffee in Europe. It’s also one of the most expensive places in the EU to buy clothing and footware. Rents are also high.

The ongoing protests have mainly been a student and schoolpupil affair. Greek schoolchildren, particularly those who live in the big cities (ie Athens) are an unhappy lot. Most attend state schools during the day where they learn very little. In the evenings, the go to private cram schools (frontistiria) to study all subjects, not just foreign languages. Some teenagers I spoke to spend 18 hours in these frontistiria, at great cost to their parents and to their general mental and physical well being.

It’s simply not healthy for children to spend 7 hours in school during the day and a further 3-4 hours in a cramming academy in the evening. They also have to find time to do homework as well.

Greek schoolchildren find themselves in being processed through a machine that is geared to produce nothing else but good university-entry exam results. In the vast majority of state secondary schools there are no extracurricular activities such as drama, music or sports. If anything in undertaken in this direction, then it is the responsibility of the schoolkids or their parents, who again have to pay for all this.

No wonder these children are full of anger.

Not only are they are overworked, but they face a bleak future. The aspire to go to university but know full well that very little awaits them once they finish their primary degrees. Even if they obtain a postgraduate degree — there are thousands of Greek postgrads in Italian, German, French and British universities — their job prospects are bleak.

This generation of Greeks is facing the reality that they will be worse off than their parents.

Many young Greeks want change. They are turning against the corrupt political system that their parents have supported since the end of the dictatorship in 1974. They all know the problems the country has but are not willing to tolerate them anymore.

They are fed up of the country’s rulers, especially those who seem to have inherited political office (such as Prime Minsiter Karamanlis).  The alternative, socialist Pasok, is equally unattractive for the same reasons (the Papandreou dynasty).

They are fed up with the endless political game that accompanies every scandal.

They are fed up with the same old faces in the windows on Greece’s bizarre TV “chat news”.

They are also fed up with the ever-decreasing value of the money in their pockets as a result of inflation.

They are also fed up at the wanton destruction of the environment and the government’s paying lip-service to ecology.

They are also fed up of the police.

The Greek Police are almost universally reviled in Greece. Even conservative voters have no respect for the force. Respect has to be earned and it appears to me that the Greek Police has not earned the respect of the population nor does it have any idea how it can earn this respect.

Distrust of the police goes back to the Junta years. The police was never fully democratised after the fall of the Junta.

Of course, they are baldly paid like all civil servants, they are badly trained and they are corrupt like the rest of the system.

Unless they make an attempt to engage in dialogue with the people they are supposed to be protecting (community policing), particularly in flashpoints like Exarchia, then nothing will change.

Neither will anything change as long as the police and state prosecutors remain the political tools of the government. They must show more determination in combating top-level government corruption.

Will anything change?

This is another question that people have been asking.

The youth and students are discontented. They know what the problems are, but the danger is that various micro-groups will try to channel this protest movement into demanding laughable, unrealistic and nebulous aims such as complete social revolution and/or the abolition of the state! That’s simply not going to happen in 2008. The protests will end up demanding everything and achieving absolutely nothing.

The protests might lead to a change in policing if that remained the key focus. But arguably, the police are merely a product of a bad system and are certainly not at the root of it.

Some young people have told me that the protests need to be far more creative (and, above all, peaceful) in order to produce change.

There also needs to be real dialogue in society about the problems facing the country, but not in the daily mainstream TV media chatnews format or through the microparties of the left.

I saw one creative example of that today. Through Facebook, a group called for a “mobbing” on the central Syntagma Square this afternoon around the city’s (second) Christmas tree. A few hundred turned up, and the police — green (riot) and blue (regular) — were there as well. The police were determined to protect the tree — fearing that it could be set on fire — so they circled it. It was exactly what the protesters wanted, as they were now able to encircle the police, all 30 of them.

What followed allowed for the protesters to express everything they wanted to express: the sang anti-police slogans, danced around the tree and the police. They laughed. They even dumped some old pigmeat at their feet.

Apart from the protesters, hundreds of Christmas shoppers looked on and very few of them seemed to have any objection to what was going on. As mentioned above, the police have very little respect from most of society.

Basically, they humiliated the representatives of a force using verbal means. Granted, it wasn’t too pleasant for the police concerned, but they took it well. They were clearly under orders not to escalate the situation in any way.

The whole event allowed for the venting of frustration. After an hour or so when everything that could have been said was said, most of the demonstrators moved away peacefully. So did the police. And the tree remained unscathed.

Had the police resorted to its normal heavy-handed tactics, the world news would be broadcasting another report on rioting in central Athens and possibly another burning tree.

Dekemvriana 2008

In Uncategorized on 20 December 2008 at 10:04 pm

It’s two weeks now since a member of the Greek Special Police, a unit established some years ago to protect diplomats and prominent political personalities, shot and killed 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos in the central Athens district of Exarchia.

The shooting happened at around 9pm on that Saturday, December 6. I heard about it from a friend at around 10.30pm. I was in Maroussi and decided to head to Exarchia to look into what had happened. I had no idea who had been shot or any of the circumstances at the time.

By the time I reached the city centre, I was feeling tired and somewhat ill, so I returned home. I caught the last bus and the centre was its isual late-Saturday night busy self.

The next day I realised I’d missed one hell of a riot. Tens of shops in the city centre were petrolbombed, some destroyed totally.

I didn’t make it to the protest demonstration that Sunday afternoon but a friend told me later that the riot police were extremely heavyhanded and had attacked and tearbombed the crowd. That unleashed the fury of a section of the protesters, who went on to trash Alexandros Avenue.

Greece saw and has seen nothing like it since the fall of the dictatorship in 1974.

I went to the protest march on Monday evening and reported on what I saw for the Athens News.  I decided not to write an article, but a simple chronology of what I saw instead. Why? The paper already had a lenghty article on the week’s events, so I wanted to provide our readers, most of whom would have never seen or been in a riot in their lives, an idea of how a protest can develop. Here’s the account:

How does a protest unfold and what makes an otherwise peaceful march descend into an orgy of violence, vandalism, arson and looting?

The Athens News took to the streets on Monday 8 December to cover the protest march over the death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos. What follows below is not a total account of what happened – this would be impossible given the extent of the events and its aftermath; rather, it is what one eyewitness observed within the space of a few hours.
Monday 8 December 2008
6pm Thousands of demonstrators gather near Panepistimio metro station to protest the killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. This demonstration consisted of every leftwing group worth its salt, with the exception of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which held a separate demonstration at Omonoia Square. Many of the organisations are aligned with Syriza, the Coalition of the Left.
There is no police presence.
6.15 The first cars are set alight, next to the National Library.
6.30 The protest march slowly makes its way towards Omonoia. Meanwhile, on Korais Square kouklouforoi (hooded youths), use hatchets and sledgehammers to smash the windows of a Piraeus Bank branch to the cheers of hundreds of onlookers. They achieve their aim within minutes and commence to throw the fittings of the office out onto the square.
7 Black smoke bellows from the ground floor of the adjacent Pireaus Bank office after demonstrators forced their way through the steel-clad entrance. After the demonstrators moved on, bank staff, who found themselves on other floors of the building, emerge terrified from the smoking building.
7.05 Amid the booing of onlookers, a contingent of 30 riot police arrived and lined themselves around the Eurobank branch on the corner of Korais Sq and Panepistimiou. They come under attack from youths standing on the opposite side of the street, some of them armed with catapults (slingshots).
7.15 As the demonstration block makes its way up Stadiou, it is flanked on each side by kouklouforoi, who systematically smash windows of banks and businesses, even managing to bore small holes with ice-picks in the otherwise impregnable glass facade of the large Alpha Bank.
Many appeal for an end to the vandalism, leaving the demonstration train in protest.
7.30 Police appear from the lower end of Petmatzoglou St, where cars had been set alight, sending a booming echo through the narrow streets. The police come under a hail of rocks and stones.
7.35 Some rioters move back to Panepistimiou. A youth, hanging from the window railings of an Alpha Bank, smashes a surveillance camera.
7.40 Rioters rip open the locks on the shutters of a Cosmote shop. Youths, both Greek and foreign, many of whom are not masked, rush in and stuff their hoody pockets with mobile phones.
7.45 A small fire brigade tender, which had entered Panepistimiou from Korais Sq, comes under attack. While youths busy themselves with hitting it, one throws a lit flare into the driving cabin, igniting and destroying the truck.
8 A gang smashes the windows of an Accessorize outlet on the corner of Sina and Akadamias streets, emerging with dainty handbags and jewellery. Some youths even don fancy hats atop their balaclavas. A few onlookers record the scene with their iPhones and mobiles.
Across the road, another crowd of rioters busily carries mattresses from a Media Strom shop, building a bonfire in the middle of the street.
8.05 The Accessorize shop is ablaze.
8.10 Some demonstrators desperately try to stop the flames from a bus company portacabin office setting fire to the olive trees behind the Athens Academy.
8.30 Wafts of suffocating teargas force many protesters onto Solonos St, in Exarheia.
8.45 The front windows of many small and medium-sized businesses along Solonos are systematically destroyed by vandals. Elated, a masked adult jumps out onto the street from a smashed-up internet cafe. He is confronted by an enraged shop owner, who demands to know why the vandals don’t confine their activities to banks and the parliament. After a heated argument, during which the hooded man claims he was only “checking” to see that everything was OK in the shop, he removes his mask, revealing his mild, middle-aged, fatherly features and takes off on his moped.
9.00 A man in a new 4WD speeds up the street, stopping at the corner of Mavromihali and Solonos streets, where some bystanders and hooded youths have gathered. He jumps out of the vehicle and pleads loudly but not convincingly: “Guys, this is my Jeep, and I want to burn it. Do any of you want to help me?” The crowd looks on in bewilderment, and no one takes him up on his offer. He jumps back in the car and drives towards inner Exarheia. Some onlookers believe he was an undercover police officer, while others opine he wanted to cash in on his car insurance.
9.05 With a small but robust hammer in her hand and a fancy tie draped over her shoulder, a woman in her 30s strolls down the street with her partner.
9.15 Further down Solonos, an enraged British citizen, a resident of Kipseli, declares that the army should be brought in to deal with the disturbances.
9.30 On Themistokleous, a gang of 15 youths pull open the old-style shutters of Pera, a small, Turkish-owned alternative clothes shop, stuffing their bags with as much goods as possible. Within minutes, the gang – none of whom were speaking Greek – made off down the street. Afterwards, a tailor from the next door shop emerges and asks what the violence is all about. Passing by the trashed shop, an elderly Greek man stops to pick up a kilt mini-skirt that the looters had dropped and proceeds to walk down the street with it. The tailor apprehends him.
9.45 The group of looters reappears at the intersection of Themistokleous and Solonos and encounters a group of kouklouforoi. Suggesting a strong mutual disregard between anarcho-vandals and looters, both sides exchange heated words and go their separate ways.
10.30 When a youth tries to remove a large flower from outside a bar on Exarheia Sq, the bold owner rushes out to rescue her property and tell off the demonstrator.

Riots and demonstrations are all too common in Greece, but what was so unique about this night’s events was their intensity and ferocity. The damage was extensive. All the shops on Stounara, a street full of computer shops adjacent to the Polytechnic, were completely burnt out. Hundreds of banks, shops, offices and cars were also destoyed or severly damaged by fire and vandalism.