My friend and I were on our way to buy some fresh fruit when we were warned by a nice man who works in our building “Get your fruit and get back all hell’s gonna break loose.” He predicted the truth. The protests came to an ugly head today and sadly, I witnessed it. I have never seen anything like it and I’m still in shock as I write this.
Apparently, much of the world lives like this. Protests, strikes, and demonstrations. There is the ongoing hippie commune camp-out and then there are specific strikes that are scheduled, announced well ahead and everyone plans accordingly. It’s all organized and for the most part, the protesters themselves practice crowd control and keep things calm. That’s just life. The most recent 48-hour transportation strike, Tuesday through tonight was the biggest yet.
At 2:00 this afternoon as I headed to class, everything was normal. When strikes are called, I simply avoid the Syntagma Square area and life goes on as usual. In the heat of the rallies sometimes anarchists come in wearing hooded sweatshirts and start breaking up stuff. The police then start shooting teargas and the bad guys start throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at the police. The police shoot teargas. The crowd disperses. Protest over. Some people even believe the anarchists are planted by the police, government or both to discredit the peaceful protests. I have seen the results of a few protesters gone awry with some beautiful marble broken into crumbles. Some people just don’t get it. For the most part the protesters have simply camped out in the square, held rallies, and preached their message. It looks like a small hippie commune adamant about remaining peaceful while making a bold statement to the government that they cannot endure any more financial hardship. They even clean up after themselves.
As I left class today at 4:00, I rounded the corner and the street below me was filled with people all looking toward Syntagma. This I’d never seen before, two full blocks of people spilling out from the square. I was curious, but came up to my apartment and stepped out on the balcony to see what I could. Shortly, Adnon, a friend from Iraq was walking down the street and I called down to him. He was wearing a surgical mask but had it pulled down around his neck. My stoop being perfectly safe distance and the crowd appearing perfectly benign, I ran down to talk to him. He reported that the Square was full of protesters and the police were shooting teargas everywhere. Surgical masks were being handed to everyone who wasn’t wearing his/her own gas mask. All day I’d been seeing people with masks and white paint on their faces. I thought it was a war paint kind of thing, but it actually lessens the effects of teargas.
We inched closer and I took a few pictures. The crowd was mostly young. Lots of couples holding hands, straining, standing on tiptoe to see. People were standing on anything available to get a higher view. Periodically, the crowd would cheer. I could smell the teargas and the air was full of smoke. There was a feeling of excitement and emotions were running high. I ran into my friend Maria and two of her friends. My fried from Iraq sadi “this is nothing.” They assured me we were safe and we all stood watching. They explained to me how these young people have little hope of ever making it financially unless something drastically changes here. I thought perhaps things were getting out of hand when a guy ran down my street and picked up two huge cinder blocks and went running off stopping to smash them into rocks, weapons against the police. Peaceful protesters took the blocks away from him and set them aside. At this point, I was getting leery, but across the street was a coffee bar fully seated, all tables on the sidewalk mind you, with folks having their afternoon Greek coffee. It’s the darndest thing. The street was packed with people wearing gas masks with painted faces and people are walking to and fro or having coffee as if nothing was going on.
In an effort to drive the crowd out of the square, breaking up the protest, the police were rushing in our direction shooting teargas. It sounded like a machine gun going off and scared me to death. The crowd came running and I retreated to my front stoop. Here’s something fascinating, when the crowd began to disperse, a few people ran and others would slow everything down dispelling panic. A few folks were working at busting concrete with hammers. My friends continually told me we were okay, but after about the third time the crowd rushed in our direction, I decided I’d had enough excitement, waved to my friends and retreated to my balcony.
The crowd seemed to die down. They must have advanced back into the square and I watched horrified as 3 guys turned over the huge potted plants in front of the beautiful 16th Century Greek Orthodox Church on my corner. Dirt and plants went everywhere. At the same time, a girl and two guys pushed the industrial sized dumpster that houses our trash into the street and set it on fire. Across the street, people were turning over plants and breaking the pots to throw at the police. All the trash cans were on fire and people were busting things and throwing them. I just couldn’t believe it. I just stood there watching in shock. Then, just like that, it was completely calm. We could hear the ruckus off in the distance. Still can. I think this may go on in some form all night.
We did venture out for a quick bite to eat, but almost everything was closed and shop owners were standing guard to protect their property. There was an eerie silence and everything was a mess. A few people were walking about, most wearing masks. Only the Japanese restaurant and a fresh fruit and veggie store were open with a few customers.
We didn’t waste any time going back in and we shut our windows and turned on the air conditioning because of the smell and the gas was burning our eyes. We didn’t go down to look, but I think the door may have been torn off the church and someone was ringing the bell over and over and over. Tomorrow will be another day and it will probably be back to life as usual. But tonight . . .
All Hell did break loose.