Greek Anarchists Set Athens on Fire in Solidarity with a Hunger Striker
Thousands marched in support of an imprisoned anarchist bank robber last Tuesday night.
This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.
Last Tuesday afternoon, I made my way to the Monastiraki area in Athens, Greece, to attend a demonstration in solidarity with imprisoned anarchist Nikos Romanos. Romanos has been on hunger strike since November 10, demanding he be allowed to attend college from prison. The 21-year-old was arrested last year after a failed attempt at a bank robbery.
When I arrived at the demonstration's meeting point, I was a bit disappointed with the weak turnout. But after an hour or so, the scene had changed completely. It wasn't just anarchists but also representatives of most leftist fractions—men and women, young and old, all joined together to support Romanos.
The march began at 7 PM, with a crowd of more than 7,000 people making its way to Omonia. As we walked down Stadiou Street, the riot police made their first appearance. "I'm afraid the riot police will tear gas us without any provocation, just to break up the protest," said a girl marching with the anarchist bloc.
The aim of the march was to pass by Syntagma Square, the central square in Athens. More than 200 Syrians have been holding a protest in the square for the last couple of weeks, demanding that they be allowed free and legal passage into the EU. The Syrians have also been on hunger strike since last Monday.
With a bust-up between the left-wing protest on the cards, the Syrians began to organize themselves to hold their spot. "We aren't leaving here unless the police decides to move us by force," said Khaldoon.
"We aren't afraid," said Khaled, who has been on hunger strike for the past nine days. "We know that the demonstration is in is solidarity with Nikos Romanos, who has also been on hunger strike. We know his story. We don't understand why they won't allow him to go to college. But we stand beside him—it is a matter of humanity."
As soon as the march reached Syntagma Square, squads of riot police closed the street in front of the Hotel Grande Bretagne, which overlooks the square. The protesters shouted slogans in solidarity with the Syrian refugees, while the Syrians cheered for them. "They support us!" said Khaled.
A few demonstrators decided to get sarcastic with the riot police. They shouted, "Do you want a bottle of water, guys?" and "Aren't you stealing any water bottles today?"—referring to the night of November 17, when a rally marking the 41st anniversary of a student uprising against the junta turned violent. That night, a protester threw a bottle of water at the riot squad and they unleashed a torrent of tear gas.
The march ended in the middle of Panepistimiou Street. Most of the protesters rolled up their banners and many left from the nearby streets, but a few of them headed towards the Athens Polytechnic University for a speech by Romanos's father. The school has been occupied for the last couple of days by students holding general meetings about what should happen at another demonstration planned for December 6—the anniversary of the murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old gunned down by police in 2008.
Trouble soon broke out on Solonos Street. Luxury cars were turned upside down, bank fronts were shattered, and trash cans were set on fire by protesters. As I headed down Stournari Street, tensions outside the Polytechnic began to escalate. The doors closed. Everyone started to panic. We knew that any moment now police would start the tear-gas party.
A groups of protesters that stood on the side of Stournari Street stopped an empty bus. The driver climbed out, and Molotov cocktails were tossed inside, igniting the whole bus in flames. Trash cans were set on fire and used as barricades to prevent the police from approaching. A tear-gas canister was thrown into the university, just a yard away from where I was standing.
Inside, most people weren't wearing helmets or masks. Everyone was coughing and in tears. The air was stifling. Riot police surrounded the building from the outside, and the tensions continued until the early hours of the night. There were reports of beatings, detentions, and arrests.
I headed to the auditorium for the 10 PM meeting. As I entered, I heard Nikos Romanos's father say: "The prosecutor has rejected our requests for Nikos to be granted leave to attend technical college. We will wait until tomorrow to see if there is any change."
"What does Nikos intend to do?" one student asked.
"Nikos will fight to the end."
When I left a few hours later, the situation had calmed down somewhat—but there was a hangover from the earlier chaos. The smell of tear gas was lingering in the air. I could feel it in my chest. Firefighters were trying to put out the remaining fires outside the college. The night's riots had been intense, but I think they're only a small taste of what will take place this coming weekend—the six-year anniversary of Alexandros Grigoropoulos's death.