Living in Greece

A practical guide to moving, living, working & traveling in Greece, plus musing and misadventures from an American in Athens

Scandal, strikes and senseless violence

Greek rioter in Athens
Photo from the Associated Press

*Note that this post is from 2008, and my Guardian commentary “Athenian democracy in ruins” appeared the next day.

The last days have seen another scandal surface and a spike in crime that includes kidnapping, hostage taking, protests, riots and a shooting in the Greek capital. Add to that a general strike come Wednesday, and there’s good reason to dread the upcoming week without it even being Monday. It’s just another day in Greece.

Unrelated events started Wednesday night with arsonists damaging the Bosnian Embassy and an ATM in Halandri (northern suburb of Athens); an explosive detonating at a luxury car showroom in Alimos; and a bomb exploding at the Agence France-Presse (AFP) office in central Athens, an act claimed by the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire.

On Thursday, arsonists used explosive devices to damage Ministry of Environment and Public Works offices at different locations in Athens (Panoromou and Exarcheia) within 25 minutes of each other. In Thessaloniki, Diavata Prison Governor Constantinos Tsourelis was beaten by assailants who stormed the lecture hall at Aristotle University, one of many incidents involving professors and lecturers being assaulted at several universities around Greece.

The pace picked up on Friday, with a group of Athens Medical School students holding Deputy Health Minister Giorgos Constantopoulos hostage for a half hour. Why? He refused to discuss reforms that would result in graduates working the first six months of their careers without pay. (Boo hoo! Meanwhile, students worldwide serve as unpaid interns in exchange for valuable real-life experience, usually after paying for their own education and going into serious debt). It also came to light in yet another scandal that a nun from the Emmaous Monastery defrauded customers, and a doctor in Varkiza was robbed and kidnapped.

Saturday started innocently, with a peaceful climate change rally around noon by a large contingency showing support for a serious issue. Forecasters predict life in Greece will eventually resemble north Africa based on uncontrolled construction, large highways and tourism, combined with wasting natural resources and lackluster measures to reuse, recycle and create renewable energy.

At dusk, a riot by asylum seekers broke out when a man fell into a canal after authorities announced that further applications would not be accepted — similar to the incident that occurred in October when a man was killed. Although the British National Party blame migrants for the unrest, this riot lasted only a half-hour, it fizzled, and there were no injuries.

We all know what happened after that. Instead of a busy night of gift-giving and celebrating the many people named after St. Nicholas the pious Wonder Worker, Saturday was marked by a group of teenagers who may have attacked a police car, an innocent boy being shot and killed, (this is the video) and the youth of Athens using a lull in rioting to recruit more rioters through the Internet, which escalated and spread violence throughout Greece, even as the government pleaded for calm.

Now it’s Sunday, and the violence continues. Buildings are on fire, livelihoods are in ruin, tear gas makes it difficult to be on the street, and there have been electricity and telecommunication cuts. But that still isn’t enough — we’re about to enter our third day.

Have any of these self-proclaimed “anarchists” hooligans/hoodlums/youth stopped to think about the ‘why’ behind their actions? Were any of these youths, both policemen and protesters, taught logic and reason by their parents? What has violence accomplished? And more importantly, what’s the point? I understand too well the feeling of hopelessness and disconnection — because unlike many expats, I live a typically Greek life and earn a Greek salary — but mass destruction is not the answer and two wrongs don’t make a right. It is a senseless tragedy and my condolences go out to the dead boy’s family, but more violence solves nothing and will not bring him back.

People sell Greece as a safe country, yet stats show that incidents of kidnapping, bombing and violent crime are on the rise. People claim that residents in Greece “work to live” and have more entertainment options than those in the United States, Australia and Canada. But if that’s true, why do the majority appear bored and use that time to sloth around, shop and consume, nurse a drink/coffee for 4 hours, not exercise and use any excuse to riot? If only people put as much time into critical thinking, productive work and implementation as they do into hypocritical complaining, grandstanding and destruction.

Violence of any kind has a domino effect on Greece’s economy. It starts with the innocent mom and pop businesses that can’t stay open during an organized march or strike; or worse, have property vandalized, damaged or burned to the ground during a riot. Profits go down, expenses and insurance rates go up, rent doesn’t get paid, costs are passed to the consumer, consumption goes down, the business cuts back or closes, conglomerates owned by the rich get richer, unemployment goes up, more people fall below the poverty line. the symbols of capitalism so loathed by these youth only grow more powerful at their hands.

And when Greece makes international headlines with mass strikes, wildfires and violent protests, this affects tourism’s bottom line and puts a lot of people off for different reasons, which in turn harms the Greek economy and creates more challenges for everyone who lives and works in the so-called cradle of Western civilization. That’s where it ends — in bigger ruins than this country already suffers.

* P.S. Greece can kiss entry to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program goodbye for a couple more years, but of course the United States will be blamed yet again for being anti-Greek.

Warning

If you are in the center of Athens or any Greek city besieged by violence, be aware that tear gas and pepper spray can linger for several hours and cause irritation to your nasal passages, eyes and throat. Please do not be a ‘riot tourist.’

From the blogs

“Senseless” — EllasDevil (no longer archived)
Anarchy is a dead Greek f@g
Greek riots: It isn’t all about the economy, stupid
Rioting in Greece
Thugs riot all across Greece
Protesting war by making war
Behind the riots: A hidden Greek tragedy

In the news

Greece’s riots: They do protest too much” — The Economist
Greece’s riots: When nettles go ungrasped” — The Economist

Related posts

Kidnap, Inc.” – Forbes
On strike: A quintessential part of Greek life
Unhappy urbanites, in and out of Athens

78 Comments

  dwain wrote @ December 7th, 2008 at 19:39

I feel so out of touch with the reality of Athens. I spent last night at a party, oblivious to the insanity brewing downtown until I got onto CNN.com this morning and saw a small headline that has grown throughout the day.

I’ve been scouring news stories a large part of the day trying to find out more about the shooting and whether or not there’s any justification. Something tells me, though, that the people in the streets lobbing stones and molotov cocktails would be doing it regardless of the reality of the incident. What in the modern Greek psyche leads to this sort of reaction? Is civil disobedience something entirely foreign to them, or is peaceful protest not something they consider effective? Has the 20th century seen so much violent revolution in Greece that the new generation thinks it’s the only way to bring about change? I’m searching for an excuse here for the thousands of numbskulls who are endangering their lives, the lives of hundreds of police officers, unconnected people, and the general well-being of their nation.

I cringe a little bit at your sarcastic use of ‘cradle of Western civilization,’ but you’re completely correct to use it. Little of what I’ve seen here adds up to ‘civilized’ as I understand it.

Kat Reply:

Dwain — Many countries make the mistake of repeating history, but this is the only one of 36 I’ve had a chance to know personally that refuses to acknowledge weaknesses, make even a half-hearted attempt to change, and goes backward. I’m not saying the country is backward; I’m saying the government is too mired in cronyism, corruption and egoism (fame, profit, wealth) to think for its people. These riots are exposing its many weaknesses to the world.

  YooNoHoo wrote @ December 7th, 2008 at 20:55

Kat, as I read your blog entry today from Los Angeles, I dread having to come back to Athens in the coming week. I honestly enjoy living in Greece for the most part, but every trip back to the USA makes me question why? Living in Greece, it’s easy to get caught up in the typical scare mentality that America equals crime, but the reality is that the things mentioned in your article just don’t seem to happen in Orange County (county bordering Los Angeles).

Kat Reply:

YNH — People often believe that crime is rampant in the USA because they watch TV programs like CSI or old movies. It also doesn’t help when footage of the Rodney King beating (1982 1992), New Orleans looting and America’s Most Wanted play over and over. The difference is, authorities come down hard on the guilty, and many crimes are thwarted every day with cooperation and coordination behind the scenes. It does not continue for days, and professors, government officials and businessmen are not taken hostage or kidnapped.

  Barbayiannis wrote @ December 7th, 2008 at 22:24

Now, I’m not saying Justinian was right, mind you, but …

  Bel Ludovic wrote @ December 7th, 2008 at 23:24

Sigh. Any excuse for a bit of molotov-cocktail-throwing in Exarchia.

I really don’t understand why the actions of these anarchists are tolerated. Their near-daily activities are not ‘anarchic’ in the true sense of the ethos, but nihilistic – and, to borrow an excellent line from a Bond film, ‘appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season’.

If there was the political will to deal with the problem, it would be dealt with. But it seems that in Greece most people just regard it as letting off steam, which I just don’t GET.

I don’t know any other developed country where gangs of anarchists can just invade universities and terrorise rectors and students whilst in session – repeatedly – but I guess that’s the price you pay for having one of the stupidest pieces of knee-jerk legistlation ever drafted (that which forbids the police from entering university buildings and campuses. Although the police are seemingly so inept that perhaps the law isn’t as stupid as it first appeared.)

I am a diaspora Greek but have no desire to live there. I go there for holidays and to see family, enjoy the good stuff, and then get the hell out. I doubt I would not be enormously bothered on a daily basis if I were to live in a country where school building exteriors are smothered in graffiti – which, in my view, tells you everything you need to know about Greeks’ attitude towards education, the environment and the rule of law.

Kat Reply:

Bel – The violent death of a boy at the hands of a police officer who was unprovoked is something to be angry at. But his death was not necessarily “any excuse to throw Molotov cocktails.” I’ve heard many youth of present and past say that protesting is a rite of passage, a way to let off steam. There’s nothing wrong with protesting, but there is something wrong with extended periods of rioting without real cause and seeing this as the only way to let off steam.

Many Greeks come to this website to tell me off and how there’s so much more to do in Greece, that it’s “very free” here, that people enjoy life more than us boring idiots in the USA, Canada, Australia and other EU countries. That’s bull. What I see is people with too much time on their hands, and parents who did nothing to discipline or stop their children, likely because they were raised the same way.

  Nikos wrote @ December 7th, 2008 at 23:30

I don’t think the “so-called” was very appropriate there. But admittedly, the best known trait of cradles is that they house babies.

As for dwain, don’t forget that out of the west world, Greece was the only country that had a civil war after the WWII and a junta. I mean, that should say something about us. By the way, I’m fully greek.

Kat Reply:

Nikos – Hello, welcome and chronia polla a little late for your giorti sou. Please understand that the “so called” reference is my way of expressing doubt based on the rioting, rudeness, racism and lawlessness I’ve seen. It’s not an insult. I just don’t believe this is how a civilized society conducts itself. (The CEO of Sprider, which had its three-story building burnt to the ground, said: “This doesn’t happen in a civilized society.”) Please visit and comment again. It’s refreshing to hear from Greeks who are openly critical of their country. Casting light on darkness is the first positive step toward change, reform and progress.

  photene wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 02:16

Take care of yourself Kat!

  rositta wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 02:35

Kat, thanks for explaining the reasons for these riots. It wasn’t completely clear on our news stations. Makes our almost coup et tat last week almost civilized by comparison although it aint over yet.
You know how I feel about anarchists generally but I have no advice as to how the country can rid themselves of this plague. I love to visit but I’d never live there. I’ll be surprised if you don’t get a lot of hate mail for telling the truth…ciao

  Tauros wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 11:44

Well-done post! A few comments:

If one subscribes to the philosophy that “in a democracy, people have the government they deserve” then it is also the case that people have the police they deserve. Greeks do not generally subscribe to either, preferring to believe that everything is somebody else’s fault; certainly not their own. Thus, the senseless violence will continue and will be generally condoned – despite some rhetoric to the contrary here and there – as it has been in the past.

It’s appropriate that you qualify the term “anarchists”, as I doubt that few if any of them have any idea what anarchism really is, much less are they able to hold a decent discussion about it and it’s many variations. Personally, I think the most appropriate description for them is hoodlum.

I think it important to note though that in Athens alone, several thousand people were on the streets Sunday evening with the hoodlums being only a small part of the mostly-youthful protesters. We will likely see even larger demonstrations today, with a great many high school students from throughout Attica joining in. Unfortunately, the hoodlums will continue their BS as well, with the police essentially paralyzed at this point — even more so than usual — from controlling them to any significant degree. If at some point in the future we start to see large numbers (several hundred thousand?), including middle-aged people joining the youths in peaceful protesting that refuses to tolerate the violent/criminal shenanigans, it will be a significant indicator that the Greeks have started to get serious about changing things in this country. Until then, it’s basically “same s**t, different day”.

Kat Reply:

Tauros – As usual, very insightful and intelligent commentary. I agree with your comments about democracy. There were two quotes about democracy in which I’d like to call attention.
a) Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos said, “The loss of life is something that is not excusable in a democracy.” This to me implies that those in charge (of this society in which all people are guaranteed safety 24/7) are then at the mercy of those willing to die for a cause (terrorists, rioters, etc). This is not democracy.
b) The Kathimerini called the rioting, “the worst Greece has seen since the restoration of democracy in 1974.” That makes one wonder if democracy still exists in the country of its birthplace, doesn’t it?

The current maladministration and the people feed off each other — both are out for themselves, everyone is looking to break the law, there is no enforcement and no personal responsibility. It’s like you said, when something goes wrong, sweep it under the rug or blame “the other.”

You’re also correct about not categorizing these youth as “anarchists.” Most people don’t even know what anarchy is. We should call them what they are: Thugs, bullies, hooligans, bored rich kids, misbehaved children (of all ages) with a mob mentality often seen causing the same kind of violence at football games.

  Cheryl wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 12:53

Again, I’ve been in my bubble and had no idea what was going on until this morning. I was in Kozani Saturday and was beautiful and peaceful. Didn’t turn on the TV until today and read the news online this morning…after I received emails from friends and family. It’s unfortunate. I had work to do in the city today…not going. It’s always the few that ruin it for the the rest of us. Stay safe!!

Kat Reply:

Cheryl – It’s sometimes nice to be off the grid, instead of in the middle of it.

  A wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 17:34

This is sad. This is the type of thing that happens when university is free and it is not a police state.

Kat Reply:

A – It is sad, especially for the innocent people who lost their property, business, livelihood and job. Insurance does not cover acts of terrorism.

  melusina wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 17:44

Bravo, Kat. I agree with you 100%. It was a post I contemplated making but my general frustration over the violence made it too difficult.

It is just sad the the initial incident – the terrible death of a boy – is lost in all this violence.

There has to be a way to deal with these anarchists/leftists, or else they are going to end up taking over. It is times like these that I am glad we moved out of the city.

Kat Reply:

Mel — He wasn’t a martyr who died for a cause, but he was a child and it’s sad nonetheless when a young life ends prematurely under any circumstances.

  Sameer wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 18:12

Hi Kat – thanks for this post. I am in Athens right now, looking at heading to Syntagma to take a look. The video you mention, is it online yet? I run the Hub, which is a human rights focused website – http://hub.witness.org – and if you have the video, you or others could upload it there… s

Kat Reply:

Sameer — I do not encourage people to be riot tourists. The video was shown on TV and is unfortunately very blurry, but the boy’s family has ordered a separate private investigation and autopsy.

  Jeri wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 18:25

Thanks for such a good description of what is happening. It is so hard to find balanced journalism on what is happening in the world, especially if one does not have time to do lots of internet searching. In fact, I had no idea this was happening. Thank you for being a portal of understanding.

Take care of yourself as your journey continues…

  Kev wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 22:28

“People sell Greece as a safe country, yet stats show that incidents of kidnapping, bombing and violent crime are on the rise. People claim that residents in Greece “work to live” and have more entertainment options than those in the USA, Australia and Canada. But if that’s true, why do the majority appear bored and use that time to sloth around, shop and consume, nurse a drink/coffee for 4 hours, not exercise and use any excuse to riot? If only people put as much time into critical thinking, productive work and implementation as they do into hypocritical complaining, grandstanding and destruction.”

That was a piece of poetry Kat. So well put.

And I also ask what the difference is between these protests, other weekly/monthly riots in Exarxeia, and football hooligan violence in Greece. Same crap under a different banner of the week.

Let’s face it, this a huge social problem plaguing this country; a culture, in its modern form, cornerstoned on whining and complaining.

People learn it at a young age as they get spoiled by parents and grandparents who do every favour for them and cater to their every whim. They learn to EXPECT. And when you criticize this system, you get a response in the name of so-called nobility. “Εδώ στην Ελλάδα, είναι δεμένη η οικογένεια, όχι σαν το εξωτερικό (as if the εξωτερικό is one country with a common conspiracy against Greece) που τα διώχνουν στα 18.”

Interestingly, to add to this xenophobia, notice that the “εξωτερικό”, always refers to Western developed democracies, never to cultures with similar eastern traits like, say, Saudi Arabia where it is also standard procedure to spoil your kids rotten if you have money. It’s as if the modern Greek thinks that he’s the only one in the world with this family system, unlike perhaps, all of Latin America and the Arabian world.

The program “To Kouti ths Pandoras” once described Greeks as ανατολίτες χωρίς φόβο (or Eastern people without fear.) in a program about the modern Greek psyche.

In other words, among positives, they also have all the negative traits of eastern culture at heart (i.e. loud, egotistical, chauvanistic, persistence in opinion, etc..), but because they find themselves geopolitically in the West, under the umbrella of Western liberalism and tolerance, and freedom of speech, they have no fear of any consequences for their actions by any despot. So these 2 elements create an explosive mix.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mskQOs-_zrY&feature=related

(Fast forward to 6:23)

The youtube excerpt talking about this observation lasts from 6:23 to 7:23.

I think this explosive mix is what we’re witnessing not only these days, but also the wider societal problem of these riots, whining and complaining, people talking at the same time and aggresively on the news, etc…

All of these phenomena have to be interrelated and rooted in a common vice.

Kat Reply:

Kev – I did write this post with the intention of showing that there are indeed many serious issues in Greece not being given attention, and it’s starting to affect people’s everyday lives (at least in cities).

The mentality that it’s better to insult, hate, backstab and destroy those who are successful rather than find the balls to raise themselves up is indication of cowardice. In most cultures, you see people helping each other; I too often see Greeks trying to rip each other down, or resort to trickery (including marriage) and deceit to show how clever they are. Where is the integrity and glory in using connections, corruption, bribes, sex and the like to get something? That’s pretty much an admission that this person is a hollow shell with no real talent.

It also ties in with what you said about kids being raised with a sense of entitlement. Because of that, many feel that there’s no need to study, work or even think. I had a boyfriend like that once — I told him that the world does not revolve around him, and his response was, “I don’t even know what that means.” It wasn’t a language barrier; he was the only child of a rich shipping magnate, and all he could think about was me, me, me. These same people covet the majority of powerful positions in Greece.

And to answer your question, there is no difference between football hooliganism and these riots. It’s the same.

As always, I value your commentary and readership.

  chris wrote @ December 8th, 2008 at 22:33

I read your text.
Please dont’ afraid about the young people killed by the police. There is people, poor people or not. Normal people.

It’s normal they are hungry ! police killed people !

We paid all around the world the américan politic !
War on Irak, War on Afghanistan, social war, Wall street & capitalism’s crisis, misery and anti-social politic all around the world.

We paid the absurd américan philosophy ! Destruction of the planet and so on…
One million civils murdered by the United- States of américa in Irak !
Criminal american government and politic against the people. All the people.
Very Richies’s war against people. Poor people or not.

Privatisations of the nation’s propriety & misery everywhere : The great américan politic as at New -Orlean !
The Katrina’s politic all around the world against people.

Do you know the european reality and soon an identic américan reality ?

American people is not hungry ? It’s true ? Really ?
After subprimes crisis and bigs gifts for wall street ? Yeah ?
OK- Wait & see. Be careful friend !

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