We Spent Yesterday Crying in the Athens Riots
VICE's Elektra Kotsoni, Hugo Donkin, Henry Langston and Alex Miller have been having a gas in Athens – as you would know if you've been following their live updates at our Twitter.
Tear gas. Fucking tear gas. I stink of it. My bomber jacket and hair are cracking from it; my nostrils are basically Dresden and Nagasaki. I hate tear gas. The Greek police though, they fucking love it. Today, in the centre of Athens, they responded to 100,000 plus protesters the way they usually do: nailing them with canisters of vile, noxious crap.
We’ve been in Greece for three days now, filming for VICE.COM. Before I left, I assumed that I’d simply be coming to a more extreme version of London, or Berlin protests. I thought the public and the anarchists would be separate groups, suspicious and unsympathetic to each other. But this week, Greece has been surprising. Cab drivers have been extolling the virtues of anyone willing to fight against the Greek government and the austerity born from corruption and inefficiency. “I hope Greece’s young sons don’t go to bed for a week,” said one guy in his fifties. He said he’d bought a helmet and was coming down to join in.
Today, on the battlefield of Syntagma Square, with anywhere up to 200,000 Greeks descending, furious at a police defined by decades of abuse, the young black clad squatters fought alongside men who would have cut their teeth in the revolution of 1974.
After five hours of watching them brawl, it was easy to get carried away, to believe that we were on the precipice of history. After all, this is a country with a history of deposing rulers who screw it over. Women in their eighties congratulated teenagers with Misfits patches, old men picked weapons from the detritus of plant pots, walls and bollards smashed by faceless punks.
The protests started at 10AM. We’re staying in Eksarchia, the area dubbed, ‘the anarchist hub’ by the Greek media. It’s basically everything Camden Town wanted to be in the 80s. A largely unpoliced zone where squats and occupations neighbour one another. From here the anarchists, the students and some more middle-aged left-wingers marched on the centre of Athens. There they would meet with a loads of other political groups, none of whose policies I've yet got my head around.
After an hour in a packed Syntagma Square, a line of communists holding sticks formed to protect the pedestrian protesters from the police and anarchist battles. After about 45 minutes, they’d sodded off. “You wanna watch out, the Stalinists have left the square, and now there is no organisation, just violent madness,” warned some earnest Athenian as me and VICE’s Elektra Kotsoni and Hugo Donkin stood in our gasmasks on a side street after the first battle ended. Around us middle aged men and women plodded by, rolling their eyes at another punch-up in the centre of their city.
Gas flew everywhere around Syntagma, blinding us and forcing the crowd back. We’d charge, the police would lob their grenades, and we’d all crumple, blinded, coughing and tottering back in the direction we came from. People with alkaline spray were running around cleaning protesters' eyes, but I wish I’d spent more than seven Euros on a gas mask. Eyes cleansed, the crowd would tool-up again with bits of marble smashed from the walls of banks, they’d surge in once more. Weren’t Spartans Greek? Near enough, anyway.
Explosions were commonplace and greeted with cheers, an intake of breath, and then a short burst of panic as people fled an anticipated wave of batons and chemicals. But they soon regathered. Provided you’re not a journalist, it’s an inclusive environment. If you are carrying a camera though, as Hugo and VICE staff photographer Henry Langston found out, you’re fucked. Everyone here hates the press. You can see why: riots are perceived as underreported, condescended and belittled by the Greek media. Still though, you didn’t have to smash Hugo’s camera with a massive metal poll, did you? And you didn’t have to chase Henry through a pile of burning rubbish, either. Oh well, at least everyone left me and Elektra alone. Ta!
Tomorrow the Parliament are voting on the new austerity measures which have sparked all this rage (on top of years of police abuse and alleged political corruption), and it’s going to pass, otherwise they don’t get any German cash. I don’t know what any of the answers to Greece’s economic shit storm are, but I know that tomorrow everyone’s meeting outside Parliament again, and it’s not going to be chill.
When you run around with a crowd all day, watching cops hit women, it galvanises your righteous indignation against the men behind the riot shields throwing stones at your head. So, I’m probably not entirely without bias, and I might be clutching wildly for some familiar comparison in an environment that's totally alien to me, but it seems to me that in this dilapidated city, everyone is a young black man from Tottenham. Young and old feel threatened by an untrusted police force and abandoned by the economy. And that’s why the anarchists aren’t pariahs here. They certainly don’t speak for everyone, but when you’re fighting for representation against people in armour, 2,000 teenagers with the stomach for a Molotov cocktail are a welcome ally.
Anyway, we’ll see how it goes tomorrow. Badly, is my guess.
WORDS: ALEX MILLER
PHOTOS: HENRY LANGSTON
Follow VICE's adventures in Athens at the VICE UK Twitter.