By Jim Bliesner, SDFP contributor, reporting from Athens, Greece
Editor’s Note: We posted Jim’s first email yesterday. Stay safe, Jim.
September 25, 2012 There were two marches in Athens today. People gathered in various locations and converged in front of Parliament Building. Labor unions and the Communist Party met for speeches and music in Omonoia Square. A few hundred people gathered to hear speeches by the Secretary of the Pan-Hellenic Laborers’ Fighting Front. “The crisis should be be paid for by the plutocrats not the people” was one chant. A speech, some music, then chants from a van covered with loudspeakers. “Thieves and Liars are the troika with the government.”
Vendors roamed through the crowd with large pretzels, newspapers, hats. Older folks around the edges chatted amicably. Then a quartet of drummers entered from the left, marched through the crowd beating a rhythm, and moved off toward a side street, a small crowd behind them. I followed, down one block, two, then three into another square. There were thousands of people, banners waving, no speeches, no slogans except those scribbled across their banners.
Now they began to move, back in the direction we had come, meeting those from Omonoia Square then turning left along Panepistimiou Blvd. They moved tightly packed over a mile, shouting now with leaders every fifty feet. The crowd filled the full two miles to Parliament Square. They filled the square, paused to shake fists at the Parliament Building then continued down Amalias Avenue. The crowd bulked up at the Temple of Zeus and then slowly began to dissipate into the cafes and up the narrow streets in the area.
I turned back to Parliament Square. That was where I encountered the second demonstration. The police now lined the Square, City in blue, Federal in green, all with tear gas masks, shields, helmets, chest protectors, shin guards, shoe protectors. People milled about, somewhat restive, expectant.
Panos Alexion introduced me to the president of his union, Mikes Stavru. Panos talked excitedly. “We are demonstrating now the fourth time because the government cuts our pay again and again. They have privatized the beaches and the forests. We have 23% unemployment. When it goes away we lose health care. The pharmacies stop selling medicine because the government does not pay for the peoples’ medicine.”
At that moment he looked down the square. He became tense. Some people began to filter away from the Square. I walked down the hill past the luxury hotels. Police lined the Square. The intensity deepened.
“There come the oranges and the blacks” said a photographer from Zuma Press. A phalanx of demonstrators was pushing into the Square from Stadiou Street. Banners, flags, black clothes, red flags wrapped around baseball bats. They had cloth masks wrapped around neck and head, ski masks, tear gas masks. They gathered under the shade trees, smoking, talking, wary glances, angry reactions. “Go out! go out! Do not photograph our faces. Where are you from?” I backed out and walked the periphery.
A loud blast, white smoke. Masks came down and kerchiefs up. The crowds surged toward the federal police. Another blast over the crowd in back of us now. Rocks and frozen water bottles flew from the crowd toward the police. Then three or four flaming canisters over the heads of the crowds at the police. The charge came and the crowd retreated. Flames spread across the street burning black smoke. A vendor stand was set afire, more black smoke. My skin started to burn and my eyes teared. Coughing, I pulled up my scarf and put my swimming goggles on. I backed up with the crowd now. Pan-Hellenic Laborers’ Fighting Front.
But behind us three more canisters of tear gas exploded in quick succession. From the side more fire bombs and rocks were thrown at the police. The police backed off. The blacks attacked now throwing everything. A policeman went down. From up top and from every side more police converged. The crowd split in half, some heading down the side streets screaming, doubling over holding their eyes, grasping at their necks and arms.
Every move the action took, lines of photographers swarmed like jellyfish around the action. The streets were burning everywhere now, the air mixing black and white smoke clouds.
The police controlled the space, smoke curling around them. Then the blacks attacked with the red flags and sticks. The demonstrators wearing black were all young people, some in t-shirts printed with the occupy (Guy Fawkes) mask. Tough kids, not communist nor labor. Straight into the police. More police and the blacks and crowd dispersed into the many side streets, running down. The police came after. I moved down Panepistimiou because I knew it led to Omonoia Square.
A policeman, maybe a traffic cop, was caught unawares and mobbed by the blacks. Tear gas bombs burst again, the green uniformed police came running and on motorcycles attacking the blacks on the police.
The tear gas was now filtering into the restaurants, casual diners coughing, rubbing their eyes, rushing inside or running down the street from the police. Pitched battles continued on the side streets. The outer edges were covered with motorcycle police pincering the crowds toward Omonoia Square. When they isolated a lone black they would beat him. Time after time chasing one or two stragglers down the street, diners watching like it was theater. The battle spread throughout the city center on all the streets.
“Everyone will converge at Exarchia Square.” said a straggling photographer. This was the Square in front of the National Archeological Museum where
600 thousands of years of human history was housed. “We need to go there. The camera may be the only protection they have.”
Jim Bliesner is the Director of the Center for Urban Economics and Design at UCSD, an adjunct professor of Urban Studies, resident of City Heights and an urban artist in sculpture and painting.