Just as in the UK, in Athens there are different levels of police. Police that may be seen in UK include your ordinary copper, those dressed in protective clothing as may be seen at a high level demonstration, and riot police deployed in significant disturbances. Armed police in the form of SO19 are rare, although are becoming more common with their recent deployment at a standoff in London and a small NHS protest.
In Athens, armed police are the norm. Even the basic level of police are armed. Relatively unthreatening they are most likely to be spotted standing on street corners, or hassling groups of people on the street. The next step up is the more tooled up cops. Dressed in a uniform that looks quasi-military, they wear significant levels of protective clothing and can again be seen on street corners sometimes with their weapons drawn in response to no clear threat. They travel around in blue buses with grills over the windows. The fortification of their transport adds to the military feel, complimenting the khaki of their uniforms. And then there is the MAT, the “Robocops”. Now these are scary – straight out of a sci-fi novel there is a sense of unreality as you see them in their gasmasks, taking up military positions and firing tear gas canisters.
Policing in the UK tends to be obtrusive, yet quite understated. Seeing police on the street is not unusual, but they are usually either actively engaged in something, or passing by. Unless there is a definable event – a rally, a sports game, a traffic incident, it is unusual to see them “deployed”, and their role when deployed, generally preventative rather than reactive. In Greece the opposite is the case. Police of both the first and second types are a common sight on street corners, yet major political rallies and marches go unpoliced and even with no obvious stewarding. At the same time, however, police wait in the wings, down side streets and in vans ever ready to react.
The police are not welcome in Excharia. If they enter they are chased by locals and it appears to be one of the safest areas in Athens, with people who have experienced violence coming there to be around people seeking safety in numbers. Unlike many other areas I saw no violent confrontations in the square, nor prostitution, and although I still picked up a level of anti-immigrant sentiment, there were a vast variety of nationalities participating in square life. It was also where the largest violent confrontation happened while I was there – with a burning road block, missiles and smoke bombs being hurled at the MAT before they charged straight into the middle of the crowded square causing everyone to run for safety, while the anarchists retreated to the sidestreets until the MAT withdrew.
The calm that surrounded the event both before and after was very strange. Had that been the UK, it is likely that some attempt would be made to clear the area, and ensure the safety of those around – at least you would hope. But then it is difficult to imagine people sitting relaxing in cafes while masked up anarchists hurl smoke bombs from behind a burning barracade watching with vague interest, retreating on immediate danger, then returning to their positions within the hour once the danger had passed. The police are not upholders of civilian safety, but threats to it. Rumours of fascist infiltration are common, while innumerable stories of unprovoked attacks and beatings of both activists and immigrants abound.
There is no consent for the policing in Athens, and never before has the police as the violent face of the state been so explicitly demonstrated to me. When I met the man in the square who had been beaten as he slept, it didn’t even occur to me to ask him if he had been to the police. It seemed like a daft question. And similarly when lost on the streets of Omonia late at night, seeing a policeman would have made me feel far more threatened rather than less. Those in the strip between the museum and the polytechnic gravitated towards the bottom end, penned in by a busy main road, away from the police deployed at the top end, rather than seeking their protection, despite the obvious threat of violence. Those designated to enforce the law in Greece are seen as the enemy of those that the law is supposed to protect. With the police, so too the politicians. Proportedly there to uphold the will of the Greek people, and create laws to reflect their interests, they routinely ignore popular feeling.
One makes the law, the other enforces it. Neither appear to have any respect, consent or mandate.