ATHENS – Sometimes you come to protest and sometimes you come to fight. On Tuesday night about 5,000 people marched in the southern Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni to peacefully protest repeated incidents of police violence.
But Dimitri came to fight some cops. And the cops were ready to fight Dimitri.
“We fucking hate cops and we are going to fuck them,” said “Dimitri,” as he handed out lengths of rebar and chunks of concrete to his tracksuited colleagues, who it turns out were Ultras from various football clubs in the south of Greece’s capital.
This particular protest came on the heels of a video of a police officer pointlessly beating a man in Nea Smyrni’s square on Sunday, footage that horrified many Greeks but also served to reinforce an attitude that’s felt deeply across much of Athens: the police are your enemy. And it’s such a vibe that I don’t make eye contact with the cops in my neighbourhood. Nobody does.
So when the southern Athens middle class and communists with flags marched on Tuesday, they had this unusual – and completely unrequested – vanguard of hundreds of self-described football hooligans. Because the Ultras of AEK, Panionos, AO Egaleo, Olympiakos, Atromitos and Panathinakos had decided the Hellenic Police Force was actually the worst of all enemies and unified under one command for the night. Instead of, you know, beating the crap out of each other.
That police violence would unify a chunk of Greek society comes as little surprise. Athens is a safe and crime free place compared to most of Europe, let alone the U.S., so the sheer aggression of Greek policing is shocking. Notorious riot police units known locally as MAT have a brutal and arbitrary reputation that’s easily understood from any of a number of clips on social media. Peaceful protests here have repeatedly been targeted by aggressive policing that would be comical if real people weren’t being beaten.
Videos of half a dozen peaceful protestors having a water cannon turned on them on Tuesday, or the video of Sunday night’s incident, where police beat a man for simply asking some questions, have turned into a political crisis for Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. His centre-right government earned praise for its early handling of the pandemic with strict lockdowns, but that’s been the government’s only tool in the plague box and Greece has been almost completely locked down for nine of the last 12 months. And it’s taken its toll in Greece just as it has everywhere.
In January, a convicted hitman for a leftist terror group, Dimitris Koufodinas, began a hunger strike over his prison conditions. His supporters, as well as a large part of Greek civil society that argue his rights are being violated, have been repeatedly attacked by cops, and it has set Greece on edge.
The crackdown has drawn the ire of international media watchdogs, such as Reporters Without Borders, who warn Greece is actively suppressing the media coverage of the protests through targeting journalists with police attacks.
So as the protest march mostly wrapped up as night fell, it was obvious violence was coming. The Ultras began closing off the neighbourhood by overturning burning dumpsters to block routes for the police to attack, eventually taking over the main approaches to the central square with scores of young men wielding bottles, bricks and pipes.
The clash that followed is said to be among the worst Athens has seen in years. After the front of the protest clashed with cops near the neighbourhood police station, the scene exploded as teams of motorcycle police tried to mount a series of cavalry charge-like advances against flaming dumpster-fortified football hooligans.
These didn’t go well and an officer was badly injured for all the same reasons that armies stopped doing unsupported calvary charges a century ago: They go great until you lose your forward momentum and get swarmed.
About 100 Ultras had set up at the mouth of the main entrance to the square and park, and had blocked off the access street with dumpsters. About ten or so motorcycles carrying two cops each came around the corner at speed and charged into the crowd while throwing flash grenades.
As the cops lost momentum, more flash bangs and lots of flying batons followed, meeting rebar and concrete as the police tried to right toppled bikes during beatings and bottle salvos. After a bit they panicked and fled, leaving behind their wounded colleague.
The actions of the police served absolutely no discernible law enforcement purpose. The motorcycle cops repeatedly charged the protestors for no purpose other than to fight them.
A police officer has now been suspended over the video of the man being beaten in Nea Smyrni for apparently breaching COVID restrictions. One man has been arrested in connection with the wounds sustained by a police officer on Tuesday night.
In a televised statement, Prime Minister Mitsotakis appealed for calm. “I am addressing young people, who are destined to create and not to destroy,” he said. “Blind rage does not lead anywhere. It should serve as a wake-up call that the life of a young policeman was endangered. At this point everyone must display restraint and calm.”