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 20086pm 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.