Wednesday, March 10, 2021

What happened (again) in Nea Smyrni? Part 2

 

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.

There seems to be a major disconnect in this institution, this part of the government. And they have failed to realize that it’s not working, and something’s got to change. Leaders should be the driving force for positive change, for re-examining values, together with their citizens, reassessing policies and creating a climate where true change can come about.

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?



 

Monday, March 8, 2021

What happened in Nea Smyrni?

  


Greece is currently experiencing a third wave of the virus, with daily cases rising to all-time highs (about 2,000 new cases reported each day) with new, more contagious strains of the virus escalating, and capacity in ICUs in Athens reaching dangerously high levels.  

We are in the fifth month of lock down, there is a 9pm curfew on weekdays, and on weekends there is a 7pm curfew. Masks are mandatory everywhere. Retail shops are closed, cafes & restaurants are closed (take out & delivery are allowed).

We can only leave our homes for six official reasons, ranging from going to/from work; going to the supermarket, pharmacy, medical appointments; going out for exercise (walking, jogging, cycling etc).  Before leaving home, we must send a text message (including reason for going out, name, address) to 13033 (Civil Protection Agency), and receive an immediate reply, which verifies the request.

Last week, new stricter measures were announced, essentially limiting shopping and exercising to a 2km (1.2 mile) radius of your home.  Failure to comply with measures will result in a €300 fine.

Nea Smyrni is located in the southern part of greater Athens, 4.5 km (2.7 miles) from downtown Athens’ Syndagma Square, and has a population of about 73,000. Nea Smyrni has one of the largest squares in the Athens area, its main square is pedestrianized and lined by many shops, cafes, fountains, etc.  The size of Nea Smyrni’s main square is over 20 stremmata (about 5 acres).  There is a large park (alsos) near the square, which is 50 stremmata (about 12 acres).

I have been living in Nea Smyrni for over 20 years.

The main square is a 2-minute walk from my apartment, and I pass through the square on a daily basis. Since lock down began in November 2020, the square has always been busy. People of all ages, from families with babies in strollers to the elderly, are always out and about in the square – walking, rambling, taking in the sun, getting take out coffee and sitting on the benches, low walls and steps that line the middle of the square, around fountains and shallow pools of water.

I have a favorite spot myself, at one end of the square, where the sunlight hits just right during that certain time of day, where I like to sit on the steps (away from others) and enjoy the warmth, the sound of the gurgling fountain, and take down my mask to sip my takeout coffee. A much-needed respite from the pandemic, a brief escape into pretending everything is normal, before I walk back to my apartment and resume lock down life.

Small rituals like this – it’s something that people in Nea Smyrni, in Athens, in Greece, people everywhere, have been doing since the pandemic began, to help us cope and retain our sanity.

Yesterday, Sunday March 7, was like other Sundays – many people out and about in the square and in the park (including me), walking around, getting a breath of fresh air and feeling like we’re going ‘somewhere’ and ‘doing something’ even though we’re just literally wandering around in circles.

When I walked through the square around 2pm, there were a few policemen on motorcycles in the middle part of the square, where people are usually sitting all around on the benches and low walls. However, this middle part of the square was emptied out – no one sitting around. So I assumed the police were trying to keep people moving, and prevent people from sitting around the square and congregating. Until now, this was something new. Because for the past five months, people have been sitting around the square even when police have been present, patrolling or just standing in the square.

Around 3pm, an incident occurred in the square. I was not present when it happened, but there have been countless videos posted online, from eye witnesses who were there.

First reports by police stated that policemen were attacked by a group of 30 young people, they called for backup, scuffles ensued and 11 were detained.

Then, dozens of videos began to emerge online from witnesses who saw police talking (calmly) to a young man, when suddenly a policeman starts grabbing, pulling, beating the young man while other officers look on, while the young man shouts that they are hurting him, and people (visibly upset) are telling the officers to stop.

Many eye witnesses have come forward to explain what sparked the violent incident. A family, including two children, were sitting in the square when officers approached to check their IDs etc and tell them they must keep moving and not sit in the square. The statement from this woman, who was in the family group (with the children) that was approached by police, details the exchange (1:00’), which I have translated below:

“We were sitting and three officers on motorcycles stopped in front of us, and they gestured to us, in a very rude way, for us to ‘leave, right now’ and we stood up and asked why. They said ‘give us your phones, have you sent the required text? You are out for no reason’ and I replied, telling them we’ve been out walking and just stopped here to rest a bit, and then he said he has to give us a ticket ‘I’m giving you a ticket and you can send your complaints to Hardalias’ [Deputy Minister of Civil Protection]. He told us ‘I’ve been ordered to give tickets’ and I asked him to stop shouting, he has frightened the children, to which he replied ‘We don’t care about the children’… And then one of them took out a club and started hitting the young man for no reason. I took out my phone and began to video the incident, they were hitting him for no reason, people were shouting. An officer told me ‘give me your phone right now’ and I replied ‘don’t touch me, I’m not giving you my phone, you have no right to demand it’ and he tried to grab the phone from my hands.”

The efforts of law enforcement to clear the area, or prevent people from congregating seem to have backfired, as the incident resulted in hundreds of citizens gathering in the square in protest, walking through the streets past the Town Hall, to the police station and back to the square. Videos of the protest and march have emerged as well, showing riot police throwing stun grenades into the crowd and spraying tear gas.  Helicopters were also dispatched over the area.

Important to note that although the square was filled with people when the initial incident occurred, there are no eye witness videos (or any witness accounts) of the group of 30 young people who the police claim attacked them.

The incidents on Sunday sparked a national outrage, with people declaring that unnecessary force was used, arguing that police brutality took place, that authorities attempted to spread fake news to cover up the incidents and many even demanded that government officials step down.

By Sunday evening, the chief of police stated that an official inquiry into what happened in Nea Smyrni will be conducted. And by Monday morning, an Athens prosecutor ordered a preliminary hearing to determine if any punishable offenses were carried out by the officers involved. 

 What is also important to add is that such clashes between police and citizens is not an uncommon occurrence in Athens. If Sunday’s incident had happened downtown, and/or in an inner-city area, public opinion might have been swayed in the other direction (‘just another protest, people getting out of control, same old troublemakers’)…and the incident might not have gained such attention.

But the fact that it occurred on a Sunday afternoon in Nea Smyrni (which is considered an upper-middle class suburb) has made people pay closer attention; has raised awareness on the reality of uncalled for and unnecessary force; has influenced public opinion (some might even say ‘dangerously’ influenced public opinion); and has put things in a clearer perspective. It also raises the issue of double standards in society and the ‘uncomfortable’ conversation around class differences.

The incidents that occurred in Nea Smyrni on Sunday spark many questions and concerns. It goes beyond party lines, beyond left and right – it is an issue of human decency and faith in the very foundations of a democracy, such as the agencies which are tasked with protecting citizens and public health.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

a theater of memories

 

Athens under Nazi occupation

My parents grew up in a rural village in the Peloponnese - during WWII, the German occupation and then the Greek civil war. I grew up in the US, and my childhood consisted of playing kickball with the neighborhood kids, as we waited for the ice cream man to come so we could get snow cones.

My parents never really said too much about their childhoods. I got random bits and pieces of their memories – my mother and her family, together with most of the women, children and elderly in the village, hiking up the steep hillsides under the cover of night, to hide in caves as Nazi soldiers advanced. She offered no other details. Just the facts. But that’s all I needed to get her message. We endured unspeakable circumstances. We survived.

As a teenager, I visited the village of my parents’ birth, I stayed in the house where my father was raised. I slept in the upstairs bedroom, flaking blue paint on the faded walls, creaky metal-framed bed, wide window sills with strange holes here and there. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. Just another detail of decay, like the broken door handle to the closet under the stairs, which always came out in my hand whenever I tried to open the door. But the little holes in the windowsill by my bed were useful. At night, I’d take off my earrings and put them there for safekeeping.

In my twenties, my college years, I came to Athens to study. I read, I wandered, I explored. I learned about the war years, visited museums, listened to lectures by professors – a few of them had lived through it all as children, and had lost siblings, parents, loved ones.

After college, I moved to Athens. I began to pay closer attention to all the worlds that existed here before me. The ruins, the remnants, the signs, the marks, the stains, the scars, the wounds, the holes – and there are many. The city and its walls began to speak to me in a different voice.  

I noticed buildings in downtown Athens, and some in my own neighborhood, with pockmarked facades, and came to realize that they are not a result of urban decay, or of disinterested owners, unable to maintain their properties.

 

***

 

Back in 2012, during the financial crisis and the rise of far-right extremist groups in Greece, I wrote about a book presentation I had attended:

The author, an elderly man with white hair and beard, was seated at the front. There were only about 12 people in the audience. He spoke about his book, which chronicles the years during World War II, when Greece was under German occupation. The book is his personal account of life in occupied Athens where the Nazi flag was raised on the Acropolis in 1941 and flew over the city until 1944.

My parents also lived through the war. But they hardly ever spoke about what they had witnessed and experienced…

And so I found myself at this book presentation in Athens, talking about such memories with a group of strangers. An elderly woman wearing a flowered dress stood up to speak. She held onto a wooden cane with an unsteady, bony hand and described how as children, she and her brother were forced to stand at attention and salute the Nazi flag at gunpoint.

During his talk, the soft-spoken author paused. He tried to compose himself but tears gathered in his eyes and his voice became hoarse. I sat there among my parents’ generation, listening to their personal stories, my eyes wet and raw, as people outside on the sidewalk stopped to look through the glass at this curious gathering. They would come a bit closer to examine the book display in the window, and perhaps once they realized what the subject was, they walked away, their interest fading.

Afterwards, the author signed a copy of his book for me. I thanked him for telling his story, and added that there is much I don’t know, as my parents could never share their own stories with me. I asked him his opinion about the financial crisis in Greece, the rise of the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn; the violence against immigrants; the ultra-nationalist sentiments. He commented that he believes things will only get worse. There were others waiting to speak to him so I thanked him again and slipped the book into my bag and left.

I walked through Syndagma Square towards the tram. City workers were still cleaning up after the latest scuffle. Another incident with members of Golden Dawn trying to set up “Greeks only” food distribution stalls, where the needy can receive food only after showing their ID cards as proof that they are Greek. Police get involved, TV crews show up, desperate people shout, immigrants cower, Golden Dawn members dressed in black pants and black t-shirts with swastika-like logos bellow into the camera. 

I made my way onto the crowded tram and managed to get a seat by the window. I took the book out to read the author’s inscription. I looked down at his thin, scrawled handwriting:

I hope you learn what your parents suffered.

 

***

 

The author of that book was right. Things did get worse. And through the years, I began to learn more about what my parents, and their generation, suffered.

In my wanderings around Athens, I learned that many of the pitted building facades were the result of bullet holes from WWII, from the Nazi occupation, the resistance, the civil war. Physical reminders of battles fought, of triumph and loss, of life and death.

I joined a group, led by a professor, and went on walking tours throughout Athens, learning about what happened during the Nazi occupation in Athens.  

Here is where resistance fighters were gunned down by Nazi soldiers; during the winter of 1941-42 there was a famine, (40,000 Athenians perished) and here is the building which was the city morgue at the time, where wooden carts would dump the bodies of those who died of starvation in the front garden, because the morgue inside could hold no more. And here, 4 Korai St, this building served as German headquarters, there were offices above, and below in the basement is where prisoners were held and tortured by the Nazis.  

Part of this building has been made into a memorial museum.  I descended into two of its basement levels, with the professor leading the group.

Here are the cells where the prisoners were kept. I looked around at the walls which were covered in etched graffiti, writings – their names, messages of resistance, last words to loved ones. The warm, stale air pressed on me like a lead weight. I lasted less than ten minutes down there. All I could do was search for the exit, find the stairs and scramble back up to the light, the fresh air, the street level, the city noise, to normalcy. But the feeling of simply being present in that space, is a feeling I will never forget. From that day on, I saw Athens in a different light. I watched closely and listened.

Look. The bullet holes. See? Here, and here. This building, this street corner, this cell, this basement. This is what happened here.

 

***

 

In the neighborhood where I live, a public library opened a few years ago. Housed in one of the few remaining neoclassical buildings in the area, it was beautifully restored. It was built in the early 1930s and the wealthy Vernikos family lived there. It was one of the very few “villas” of the time that had central heating and a boiler room in the basement.


But as I learned, this basement also had another story to tell. During the Nazi occupation, in that basement, in that boiler room, the Vernikos family hid a Jewish family, from August 1943 to October 1944. Sam Modiano and his family lived in the basement boiler room of that house for 14 months and survived the Nazi occupation of Greece.  During the Holocaust, 60,000 Greek Jews perished.

boiler room 
 

In 1985, members of the Vernikos family [Nikos Sanikos and his wife Ellie (Vernikos) Sanikos] were granted the Righteous Among the Nations honorific, given by Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during WWII, German Occupation and the Holocaust. A total of 355 Greeks have been honored with this title.

The grandsons of the Modiano (L) and Vernikos (R) families reunite in the house-turned-library.

 

***

 

Yesterday, (Oct 7, 2020), the largest trial of Nazis in Europe since Nuremberg took place in Athens. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was found guilty of being a criminal organization, its leaders found guilty of murdering anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, and guilty of a string of additional charges. The trial had begun in April 2015.  Yesterday, none of the 18 Golden Dawn members appeared in court to hear their verdict.

Golden Dawn was founded in the 1980s. During the financial crisis and the resulting austerity measures which left many Greeks destitute, Golden Dawn gained supporters. They targeted immigrants (and anyone who opposed them) and carried out violent, racist attacks.

In May 2012 elections, Golden Dawn won 21 seats in the Greek parliament. In June 2012, one of their MPs physically assaulted two female politicians on live TV. In January 2013, Shehzad Luqman, a Pakistani immigrant, was murdered by two Golden Dawn members. In September 2013, Golden Dawn member Giorgios Roupakias, fatally stabbed anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas. In 2014, Golden Dawn won three seats in the European parliament. By the 2015 elections, Golden Dawn were the third strongest party in Greece, with about 7% of the votes and 18 seats in the Greek parliament.

Currently, they hold zero seats in the Greek parliament and two seats in the European parliament (although the two Golden Dawn MEPs declare themselves as “independents”).

And today, October 8, after yesterday’s verdict, we await the sentencing in the Golden Dawn trial. The guilty will go to jail, but is this really over? For Greece? For Europe? For everyone, everywhere?  Fascism, neo-Nazi ideologies, white supremacy still exist.

The rise of neo-Nazis happened, they were voted into parliament as lawmakers in a country like Greece, where the visible and invisible signs of WWII’s Nazi occupation still remain. In the country where the ideals of democracy were born, the rise of Golden Dawn serves to remind us that democracy itself remains fragile.

But yesterday, with the momentous guilty verdict, and forthcoming sentencing, has democracy been strengthened? Are we rid of extreme ideologies? Are we so sure this will never happen again?

Video of the announcement outside the court. 



Just moments after the triumphant, landmark ruling was announced, the joyous crowd of over 15,000 people who had gathered peacefully in the streets around the court, were teargassed and water cannoned. The celebration turned into chaos, as people gasped for air and tried to get away, eyes stinging and vision impaired.

 

***

 


Have I learned what my parents suffered?

By the time I went back to the house in my father’s village, years later, I had learned a bit more. In the upstairs bedroom where I stayed, I looked closer at those ‘details of decay’ -  the holes which once stored my earrings each night, were bullet holes. I still don’t know how they got there. During WWII, Nazi soldiers had occupied the house, and slept in the very bedroom where I had once slept. The closet under the stairs with the broken door handle is where my father and his siblings would hide from the soldiers, where he had held his little sister tight, his hand over her mouth, so she wouldn’t give them away.

On walks through the surrounding hillsides, I’d look up at the caves among the rocks, among steep inclines and thorny shrubs and wonder, is that where my mother and her family hid?

I still don’t know much more about my parents’ childhood. The bits and pieces that I have discovered through the years, I have come to realize, are enough to understand.

The walls and buildings in Athens, in my own neighborhood, in my parents' village - still speak to me.   

Look. Here, and here. See? This place, this cell, this basement, this bedroom, these hillsides. This is what happened here.

Filtered through time and generations, I am surrounded by a theater of memories, marked by their scars.




 

 

Magda Fyssas, the mother of Pavlos Fyssas, hears the verdict in court.