Thursday, October 20, 2011

Experiencing the mother of all protests

What are the protests about and what’s actually going on here?
Last Wednesday and Thursday marked some of the largest mass rallies the Greeks have seen since the fall of the Military Junta in the 1970’s. They came on the eve and day of a final vote by parliament to implement yet another set of austerity measures in hopes to counter the immense government debt.

Protests in Greece are nothing new, we have seen our fair share and been tear gassed here and there as well. However, they rarely turn violent and usually do not involve clashes between protestors. What happened on Wednesday and Thursday was different and much more violent than expected. 

As over 100,000 heads marched into Syntagma square the mood was especially tense and angry. This was visible as we walked through the crowds and as we watched the chaos ensue from our balcony. The vast majority of Greeks are enraged with their government for loosing so much money through superfluous spending and corrupt hoarding. This was the last political party in charge, the current socialist majority leaders entered the scene vowing to clean it up but once unable to do so, bore the brunt of the public’s disdain. As a result Greeks are bitter over the government and see no reason to help them, viewing it as their leader’s problem to fix. Hence the implementation of more austerity measures is viewed by many to be unfair punishment by a government that got themselves in trouble. So let the protests begin! 

99% of the protesters are not violent and want nothing to do with battling the riot police. Many of them only wish to be present in the city center and exercise their right to voice their concerns and anger over the tough situation. Another group exists though, identified by black hoodies, red bandanas, and the big Anarchist ‘A’. These youths arrive to the protests only with the intention of causing as much damage and hurt as many policemen as possible. Although they are a minority, the Anarchists often gain the media spot light and shed an inaccurate image onto the protest scene. On Thursday, two of the Greek communist parties had enough of the Anarchists stealing the show and fought back with force. What resulted was a full on street battle. 

What happened to us that day…

Our view of Wednesday’s protests was from a fourth flour balcony over Syntagma Square. Everybody but us and a few other guests left the hotel the previous night, probably the right decision. As the thousands of people filtered in it became immediately obvious that there were much larger groups of black hooded anarchists than normal. As it turned out, there were over 1,000 present when normally only 50 – 100 show up. Before the main rallies and peaceful protests chants could even begin fire and petrol bombs began to explode throughout the square. The riot police remained oddly apathetic as Molotov cocktails were chucked at their phalanxes. This occurred for a few hours and then the police fought back with dozens of tear gas grenades. This infuriated the anarchists who broke down the police barricades, lit small structures on fire, and started smashing the steps of our hotel to acquire more marble missiles. 

As the anarchists destroyed more and more private property, the rest of the protesters became increasingly aggravated and began to fight back. This resulted in many fistfights and street brawls throughout the square with fire bombs being thrown at ordinary people rather than the fire-suit laden police. More than once we saw elderly women yell at a hooded youth only to be punched or clubbed in the face with a stick.

As we were watching the mood suddenly shifted and the marble smashers began to throw rocks at us rather than the police around them. At this point we decided perhaps it was time to leave the balcony and find some other human beings to be with in the hotel. Thus we headed to the top floor restaurant to curb our worries by getting some food. As we were eating the staff was noticeably worried and sounds of banging and bomb explosions outside were becoming louder and more frequent. Our waiter knocked over our water because he was shaking and shortly after two employees came running in franticly speaking in Greek. Next came the universal signal that something is not OK….they turned on oddly peppy music to soothe the mood. I couldn’t help humming Harry Chapin’s ‘Dance band on the Titanic’.
Suddenly the manager of the restaurant burst open the doors yelling ‘PROBLEM, COME NOW!’. As we headed towards the exit we were greeted by a cloud of teargas inside the hotel and a large man wielding a nasty metal club. He ordered us to run as fast as we could down the back stairs and wait for security to meet us. Rebecca and I took the lead with about 20 other tourists following our directions. As we ran down 8 stories, smoke and teargas strengthened. At the bottom we briefly got lost in a dark room, could hear loud noises from outside the door, turned around, and found the security men with more clubs in the kitchen. By that time the gas was nearly unbearable and we were given lemon slices to put over our eyes to cut the burning. Next came a knock on the door and we were escorted by another club wielding man down burning, gas filled streets, to a safer area. 

Barricaded door after the fact

The Road to Safety

As the story unfolded later, it turns out that for some reason the anarchists decided to attack the hotel. So, they began breaking down the door which eventually gave way, fought their way past some security guards and staff to made their way into the hotel. We aren’t sure if they set fire and teargassed the lobby but somehow their efforts brought much smoke and gas into the hotel. After that my mom and aunt were moved to another hotel and we decided to get out of dodge to spend a quiet weekend in Nafplio. More blogs to come soon! 

1 comment:

  1. Great Story! Amazing to hear how events unfold. Thanks for all the details. We never get that in the news.