As I have written before, Athens is like a city under occupation. People go about their ordinary everyday life, drinking coffee in cafes, walking the streets and doing all the ordinary, normal things, that ordinary, normal people do, while at the same time, police stop people in the streets demanding papers, rounding people up and take them away chain-gang style. Although there is vague interest whenever a roundup of the migrants occurs for most of the time people turn a blind eye, pretending not to see, not wanting it to happen, but equally not wanting to get involved for fear of becoming a police target themselves. Outwith major demonstrations, the only indication from ordinary people that something may be slightly strange about this city is that they frequently carry dustmasks and mallox around with them as protection against getting caught up in an unexpected teargassing.
To an outsider, the sight is surreal. We ask how Nazi Germany happened and insist that people must have known what was happening, but it is only since coming to Athens that I understand how state terrorism takes a grip. People here fear the police, and for good reason. On attending the demonstration against austerity last week, I asked about legal support and how I would get instruction on what my legal rights were should I have problems or get arrested. The group I was with just laughed, and said that in Greece your legal rights were whatever they made up at the time and there was no point in teaching people about the law because the police didn’t follow it.
Seeing lines of riot police, in full protective clothing, complete with guns, teargas canisters and riot shields, moving about the streets, particularly at night, is not an unusual occurrence You hear rumours of what is happening – a raid on a flat, an attempt to enter the autonomous area, an attempted breakup of an antifa meeting, but quite often these rumours come second or third hand and you are never really sure what the truth of the matter is. What is for sure is that they are not welcomed.
It is impossible for people living in functioning societies to fully understand what it is like to live in a society where the police operate as a quasi-military force, and this understanding is not helped by the lack of coverage of the situation in Greece and in Athens in particular. The people of Greece – all of the people living in Greece – need international support and solidarity in the face of the threat that they face, for the government here rules with no mandate from them, but only on the back of the international support that they can command from organisations which protect the interests of the wealthy and the powerful.
On Friday night, as I walked home, a line of riot police moved toward lower Exachia. Being of the inquisitive persuasion, I followed them at a safe distance, relying on a narrative of “lost tourist” to save me should I get challenged. I was unable to get close enough to tell why they were deployed, but they were situated at all four corners of a block, riot shields out and guns drawn. On returning to Exachia the following night, one of my migrant friends mentioned that he had seen me following the police the previous night. He told me that he was going to come over to warn me that these were riot police and that what I was doing was very dangerous, but that as he watched, he figured that I knew what I was doing, and I told him that I wanted to see for myself what the police in Athens did, and tell people about it.
Later that night, drinking in a bar, my companion warned me that there were molatovs and riot police being deployed on the streets and that I should not go outside the bar. I shot out immediately and followed where the police were going. He chased after me angrily, telling me that he had told me not to go out, it was dangerous just now, and that I should stay in safety inside. I explained quickly that I had come to Athens for a purpose, that I knew that it was dangerous but that I wanted to do this, I wanted to see it and I wanted to tell people about it. Again, walking round, riot police with guns drawn were situated on four corners of a block, I was unable to see in any great detail what was happening, as the people who had been on the streets retreated to the safety of nearby bars.
On returning to my companion, he remonstrated with me angrily, telling me that I did not understand. That the police here do not ask questions, they do not care who you are or what you are doing, but that if you get in their way they will just beat you with sticks. That four years ago the police shot and killed a young boy just down the road from where we were standing, that he would show me the plaque and videos of what happened when the police attacked. I explained that I had seen those videos and that I knew about the murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos and that it was this which had drawn me to Athens, because other people needed to know what was happening here.
He looked thoughtful for a time, then said that although he didn’t like it, and that he worried about me, he understood. In his work, there was always danger – he tried to make himself as safe as he could but that he appreciated that there were risks and that he took those risks regardless. If that was what I chose to do, knowing the risks that I was running, then that was a good thing, and that he respected that choice. We walked down to the plaque of Alexandros Grigoropoulous, murdered at fifteen by the police and soberly looked at the picture of the smiling teenager who would now be nineteen if he had lived.