The day after
Last evening, over 6,000 people gathered in Nea Smyrni’s main square to protest the excessive and unnecessary use of force which was displayed by law enforcement on this past Sunday. I attended the protest and saw people of all ages present, mostly just standing around and talking. I couldn’t see the front of the protest – I could hear someone speaking at a microphone but sound quality was poor and I couldn’t make out what was being said. As night fell, I walked home.
Soon afterwards, from my balcony, we witnessed hundreds of
people running in all directions, some carrying what looked like long wooden
sticks. The sounds of chaos – shouting, feet running on pavement, crashing, the
boom of flash grenades, the rushing whoosh of trash bins rolling down the
street and being set on fire. The sudden quiet, as the first lines of riot
police appeared, almost gliding up the street, followed by police buzzing
around on motorcycles. The smell of burnt plastic from the garbage, a hint of
stinging tear gas wafting through the cracks of the closed balcony doors.Helicopters whirring overhead.
Camera crews broadcast live from around the corner as we watched the scene unfold on our TV screen. A police officer was knocked off his motorcycle by someone in the crowd, beaten by a large group of people, before police were able to form a protective ring around him. The injured officer was left lying on the asphalt, his head bleeding, until an ambulance showed up. (This footage shows the incident, at 2:25).
In the meantime, countless videos from people on the ground (or above from their balconies) were being posted online, showing incidents occurring in various areas of Nea Smyrni. Videos show police aggressively accosting bystanders and protesters (who were not behaving with hostility). People were grabbed, pushed down, pulled, slapped and even run over from behind by a police motorcycle, plowing down a sidewalk. Another video showed police officers on motorcycles revving their engines and bellowing Let’s get them! Let’s finish them! Let’s kill them! before speeding off into action. (This article has a round-up of these videos).
And then the PM spoke to the nation. He made this address on TV:
The sad images of violence we all saw tonight in Athens must be the last we witness. And the life of one of our fellow citizens, the young policeman whose life was endangered – let this be our wake-up call. In these moments, self-control and composure must prevail. And I especially address this sentiment to our young people, who are destined to create, not to destroy. Blind rage leads nowhere. Unfortunately, some people ignored our warnings. And to those who attempt to spread hatred and division in society in order to conceal their own impasse as they did in the past, I reply with the following: On the night of the elections, on July 7, 2019, I stressed that I am here to guarantee unity, the security and prosperity of all Greeks. Today, I repeat this again. I will not allow anyone to divide us. We will not allow anyone to force us to turn back.
Today in an effort to process what has occurred here since Sunday, I took a walk around my neighborhood and the square. On the surface things looked normal. It was a beautiful sunny, spring-like day, toddlers were in the square with balls and balloons as mothers sat on nearby benches with coffee cups in hand; pensioners gathered in small groups, talking, gesturing, debating; people were out and about – going to the supermarket and the nearby farmer’s market. Things were back to normal.
Except that the ATMs have been smashed and burned, some stores have been vandalized and crews were busy replacing large glass storefronts; town workers were sweeping up trash and debris; graffiti and slogans have been spray-painted on white marble walls. I didn’t feel like taking any photos. Everyone I passed was talking about what happened.
I went to my usual spot on the steps and observed the scene. I sat and closed my eyes. And listened. And felt the warm sun on my back and the cool air on my face. And sat some more. Then I walked home.
Despair, sadness, disappointment, anger, quiet rage.
We could go on and on in circles, arguing and counter-arguing various points, squabbling, bickering… But I find that I’m just left with more and more questions and concerns. As I watch and re-watch and re-read the PM’s address to the nation last night, so many thoughts spring forth. I’m left wondering about so many things.
Who are the ‘people’ that ignored their warnings? What did the government warn of? Who are the ‘people’ who attempt to spread hatred (‘as they did in the past’)? Who is trying to encourage division? How?
Who is forcing 'us' to turn back? Who's the 'us'? And to turn back from what?
I sat there listening to the PM, as chaos ensued, literally outside my door, and I wondered who exactly is this address to the nation intended for? The government’s enemies? Their political rivals? The boogeyman?
In a moment of such destruction and outrage, with the nation watching violent incidents happening live on TV and online, the PM’s remarks did little to create the atmosphere of unity, level-headedness and security that he so strongly states he is striving to uphold.
Did the incidents on Sunday involving citizens being violently accosted by the police not serve as enough of a wake-up call?
Self-control and composure most certainly must prevail. When law enforcement is called in to bring order to a situation that has become violent, they must act to diffuse the crisis instead of inflaming it. In such circumstances, do they, in fact, act to diffuse or do they act out in blind rage?
Young people should be destined to create and not destroy. But when they turn to destruction instead, shouldn’t the government question what has caused them to turn their outrage into violence? And what can be done to inspire real change to stop this path of destruction? I also add the question, what are the men and women in law enforcement destined to do? Do they play a role in all of this?
The various intricacies of what happened – the various opposition groups (with their own agendas) who were also present at the protest; the unlawful groups of people who acted viciously, who came to Nea Smyrni with the intent to cause destruction – these are also realities, for sure. And it’s upsetting that the actions of this minority have overshadowed the majority of people who showed up to the protest to make a point about non-violence and unnecessary use of force by the police.
For me, this goes beyond party lines and left-right divisions. In a broader perspective, it’s about how a democracy views law enforcement practices, how a government carries them out, and the affect it all has, in the end, on the citizens they are attempting to keep secure and protect.
The Greek ombudsman has reported that complaints of police brutality have significantly increased since the pandemic. The government has also been criticized by human rights groups, the Greek branch of Amnesty International and the Athens Bar Association for excessive use of force and a sharp rise in incidents of police brutality.
These sentiments are not only directed to the current government but to all political leaders and members of parliament who are tasked with creating laws and policies that must serve the well-being of all citizens.
This year, Greece celebrates its bicentennial anniversary of the 1821 Revolution against Ottoman oppression, which led to the creation of the modern Greek state. Some might say that today’s leaders are still displaying the same clannish, political in-fighting and squabbling which plagued the founders of the early Greek state, 200 years ago.
What do we want our democracy to look like, after 200 years of independence?
In the country where democracy was born, is this the best we can do?