ATHENS – Nicolle Barber and Mark Leach, two young tourists from England, arrived in Athens in mid-June, when Syntagma Square was a happy, hippy tent city of anti-austerity activists singing and playing drums. The couple flew to the Greek capital despite pleas from friends and family that the city was just too dangerous. After all, wasn't it all blanketed by riot police, Molotov-cocktail-wielding anarchists, and pissed-off mobs who screamed "thieves, thieves!" and beat up politicians?
When I met Barber, 20, and Leach, 23, they were sunburned from a day at a nearby beach and enjoying an impromptu evening concert at the square by a skinny, bearded young man playing the Cretan lyre. "I tell everyone back home that this city is not a war zone, that the Greeks are cool and chilled out," Barber said. "But they believe the pictures and the TV reports that say the whole city is on fire. It's a story that's become a stereotype."
I wondered what they would have thought of Syntagma this week, after the parliamentary vote on June 29 supporting new austerity measures sparked clashes between anarcho-leftist militants and riot police that devolved into indiscriminate violence. Although that violence was limited to the area around Syntagma, and just a few blocks away people were hanging out at cafes and restaurants, it was also fueled by stereotypes.
First, the police are known to left-wing Greeks as "pigs" and "murderers" because of the force's oppressive role in the 1967-1974 military junta. Many young activists who rose up against this totalitarian regime were then students at the National Technical University of Athens, then known as the Polytechnio, and they weren't unlike the bright young idealists of today's Tahrir Square. Today, the aging Polytechnio activists either are embedded in Greece's hopelessly dysfunctional political system or are professional protesters who call Prime Minister George Papandreou's democratically elected government a "junta." But hatred of the police is deeply ingrained in those Greeks whose families still hold grudges from the brutal 1945-1949 civil war here between the communists and conservatives. This enmity also sparked violence in December 2008, when young Greeks rioted for weeks after a police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old boy in Exarcheia, a neighborhood in central Athens near the Polytechnio.
Many Greek police officers are badly trained and barely out of their teens. At demonstrations, the angriest protesters call them fags, retards, and monsters, and wish them the very worst. "I hope you and your whore wife and all of your bastard children die!" a man in a Che Guevara T-shirt screamed Wednesday at a police officer with a peach-fuzz mustache. "And I hope your mother dies too!" The officer got angry, and a fellow officer had to hold him back.
When I've talked to police about their views of the protesters, especially the hard-core ones, they too reach for a stereotype -- champagne leftists from rich families who spend their days throwing petrol bombs at working-class police officers (while protesting on behalf of the working class) and their nights drinking fancy wine at fancy suburban restaurants. "They riot, we arrest them, and then their rich parents bail them out of jail," one officer told me after a recent protest.
It's true that some self-styled anarchists, including the ones who sent the mail bombs to foreign embassies and world leaders last November, do come from upper-middle-class families. But the police's reliance on this stereotype is dangerous, especially lately.
After the anarcho-leftists began their usual rock-and-gas-bomb throwing routine on Wednesday, the police seemed to lose all sense of who was a militant and who was one of thousands of regular Greeks who just wanted to vent by marching, chanting slogans, and throwing the odd container of yogurt at the politicians they don't trust. They tear-gassed everyone repeatedly, including a 72-year-old grandmother I was interviewing, a first-time protester who tried to shield her face from the burning gas with a flower-embroidered handkerchief. By evening, as fires burned in garbage bins and broken pieces of marble from storefronts littered the streets, motorcycle cops chased a journalist friend of mine who fled on foot. "They saw every single person trying to get to Syntagma as an enemy," said my friend, a father of two who looks like Paul McCartney in his "Yellow Submarine" days, not a black-clad, club-wielding militant.