The Greek riots in December 2008 captured the world’s attention, not only with unforgettable images of damage done over weeks, but also because it spotlighted a teenager’s murder at the hands of a mentally unfit police officer.
It was Day 4 when I wrote this, rioters were fewer and less aggressive, which some attributed to fatigue and the closure provided by Alexi Grigoropoulos’ funeral; the Panathinaikos game temporarily diverted our attention, and shop keepers fought back to protect their livelihood. Their efforts would be in vain as recession soon took hold.
Whatever respite we enjoyed was gone when a 24-hour general strike stopped flights, transport, media and public sector offices. Some hoped protests would be peaceful. Others used it as an opportunity for violence that continued for days as youth set fire to everything from banks, car dealerships and local shops to riot police officers and the Syntagma Christmas tree. It only stopped when near freezing temperatures forced many to take refuge inside.
Photo by Evi Zoupanou, AP
International media did a better job than Greek media in reporting events, but there has also been incorrect interpretation of the ‘why’ behind the riots and little done on the human aspect of participants. Presumably because many foreign correspondents cannot speak or read Greek, do not have an interpreter at their disposal and/or lack the proper contacts, therefore depending on questionable English-speaking sources that may have only a superficial or incomplete knowledge of Greece and the Greek language. Local media have no excuse.
Most photos distributed by the media are those of Greek riot police beating protesters, not of protesters beating, throwing rocks at and setting fire to riot police, which biases the audience.
If I could recommend only one article, it would be “Riots Prove Europe Can’t Overlook Greece” by Michael J. Economides. He deftly sums up everything with historical and factual evidence, not theories and conjecture; and his article supports what I wrote and my readers have been discussing.
As we entered Day 5 with a palatable tension and frustration from rioters, strikers and the general public, I took the opportunity to see the December riots through the eyes of a MAT officer (Greek riot policeman).
MAT Officer — Vasilis, 33
Perhaps the most loathed civil servants of Greece — and the most visible during riots and protests turned violent — Greek riot police officers make up part of a special forces division (MAT-EKAM) that guard embassies on politically charged anniversaries, watch over peaceful demonstrations, and handle riots according to orders passed to them by the government.
* Note: EKAM is a separate, special forces division of highly trained anti-terrorist police.
Kat (K): What made you decide to become a police officer?
Vasilis (V): Well, I did not have many choices. I’m from a village near Preveza, my family has three boys, and my parents could only afford to send my oldest brother to university. His tuition was paid because he did well on exams to win his place, but the university was in Thessaloniki so they had to pay some things.
I did not do well on exams for the subject for which I had interest; it’s not like other countries where you can choose any course of study. So I graduated with a technical degree, but there were no jobs in my area. Instead of being unemployed and taking money from my parents, I came to Athens and went to the police because they had openings, and I would be paid on time.
K: And you signed up for special forces?
V: Yes. It is voluntary to sign up. I’m lucky because my best friend was in the academy with me, we graduated and signed up at the same time, so we had each other (parea). Otherwise, I think it would be very lonely.
K: Why special forces?
V: I did not want to be sitting in a station, and I thought this was a good option. But there are times we sit on a bus or stand outside in the cold/heat, so it’s not that much better.
Greek police outnumbered and cornered by protesters./AFP
K: How was the training?
V: To be honest, I don’t think very good. It’s difficult to say because I have nothing to compare, but I hear from you that police officers in the United States have very rigorous checks, exams, training, shooting practice, scenarios and with the best equipment. Honestly, that would be a dream for us, but I know it will never happen here.
Also, I don’t know if the training I had 10 years ago is better, worse or different than training given today.
K: So you don’t feel prepared?
V: No, but I think the government likes it that way. In other countries, the police have some power. That will not happen here because the government does not want us to have power; they want to keep us down, so they can control us.
K: Why do you say that?
V: For two reasons. Because they are weak, and because they have no respect for us. They do not give us training, they do not give us good equipment, the buses they give us are very old, without AC and heat, and we are not paid very good. If I tell you my salary, you will laugh. Most of all, they do not allow us to have lives.
K: What do you mean by that?
V: Mainly I do not have a schedule. None of us do. We are required to call every day to find what time we are working, so that means we cannot make any plans, except during our vacation. Even if I am told at the end of my shift that I am working at 8 a.m. the next day, it could change to working at midnight instead. Sometimes I work the night, I have a sleep, and then I wake up and find I’m working afternoon, then morning the next day. There’s no way I can even have a good night’s rest. It’s like being in the army, but worse. All of my life is the last minute, and this is not sane.
Btw, I’m not complaining. I’m sure many in the world suffer more than me. I’m just telling you how it is.
K: During a conflict like this, do you work more hours?
V: This is a rare situation, but yes we work many more hours because we are needed and spread out now in many cities, not just one place. This is bad because then we are really tired and irritated and without patience — just as any human being would be — plus we are under pressure and must restrain ourselves under any circumstances. Can you imagine what that’s like? To have 4 hours sleep, stand on your feet all day, have people spitting, yelling, hitting and throwing things at you for 8-10 hours and you can do nothing?
I’m not justifying anything. I’m just saying that as humans we all do the best we can.
K: What about the images and footage they show on TV of the police beating and dragging people?
That happens, yes. But often they don’t show what happened before that. I mean, do they ever show on TV the injuries, beatings and times we are jumped by a mob? Of course they don’t, but it happens a lot.
K: Did you know the police officer who shot Alexi?
V: The guy who shot the boy isn’t someone I know, but his nickname “Rambo” explains it all (Note: The accused officer was part of the special guard division integrated with police in 2008). I don’t want to know a person like this, but policeman around the world probably all know a co-worker who is (what do you call it?) irresponsible and trigger happy. All professions everywhere have bad people.
It is a tragedy, and I understand why people are mad. All the MAT are paying for him, whether he is guilty or not.
K: And how do you feel about your job right now?
V: I didn’t feel good before, but these days I feel worse. On one hand, I can understand that people are mad and want justice, but I don’t think violence is the answer. It just makes things worse. They say they are mad about education, unemployment and job prospects and the government. Fine. I was worried and angry for the same reasons at their age, and I didn’t riot or burn my country in front of the world. I looked at the options that did exist, moved to Athens without even knowing how to cook or take care of myself, but I learned and here I am. That’s life. Plus, my parents raised me better than that, I hope.
But if you want to know what I really think, I think these rioters are better dressed and have better lives than I did when I was a kid and even better than my life now being a hard working person, so it’s just recreational violence.
Regardless of what I think, I am hated for the uniform I wear and used for target practice all day long. People want to kill me. That’s my job, to be a target. Isn’t that great?
In other countries, they have curfews and arrest anyone who violates it. I think the government must stop being afraid to take action and give us the power and call in the army to help bring order back to the country. Greeks look like fools right now, and there’s too much damage to everything — image, reputation, buildings, businesses, jobs, economy. Who’s going to pay for all this? Us. It makes me sick and ashamed. The government needs to stop talking and start doing something, not just with riots but with everything and fix this country. That’s the real reason for the rioting. The country is broken.
Anything else you would like to say?
Yes. I’m sorry for the boy who was killed, but I want people to understand that many police officers are good. People call us pigs and hicks, and yes there are a few. But we’re human and have the same problems as everyone else, and we care about this country.
Thank you for the chance to speak.
* A few things he did not mention. Candidates must pass written and physical exams before enrolling in the police academy, plus undergo psychological testing that is mandatory after the shooting that set off December riots and an incident that killed an embassy guard.
The majority of Greek police officers pay for their own bulletproof vest, which costs them one month’s salary or more; and those claiming financial hardship are given a vest up to 25 years old. Most earn a salary of only 700-1000 euros/month, so any out-of-pocket expense has impact. All police complain that their equipment is horribly outdated and not at all modern, as the media claim.
If you are interested in learning more about Greek police or what it takes to become an officer, go to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, Hellenic Police or Astynomia. Websites are in Greek, with limited English versions.
In the news
“Police to undergo racial sensitivity training” — To Vima
“Some police officers deemed unfit to carry gun after psychological evaluation” — Kathimerini (July 2010)
“70 Questions asked by police & intelligence officers” — Eleftherotypia (June 2010)
“Hoodlums slash & rob Greek police” — Kathimerini (April 2010)
“Five Molotov cocktails thrown at MAT” — Eleftherotypia (March 2010)
“Gunmen seriously wound Greek riot police officer” — Reuters (January 5, 2009)
“Gunmen kill Greek anti-terrorist policeman” — Reuters (June 2009)
“Two Greek policeman shot in Athens” — AFP (April 2009)
“Officers victims of hysteria” — Kathimerini (December 24, 2008)
“Greek police car toppled” — AFP (December 23, 2008)
“Shots fired at anti-riot police bus” — Reuters (December 23, 2008)
“Greek riot policeman: Simply a man doing his job” — Kathimerini (December 19, 2008)
“To police or not to police” — Kathimerini (December 11, 2008)
“Protesters attack Greek police stations” — CBC
“Witnesses tell stories of Greek police brutality” — BBC
“Father to son: If you get good grades, I’ll take you to the riot” — Kathimerini
“Greek riot police ask to be withdrawn after 14-hour shifts, continued injuries” — Kathimerini
“Professional soldiers allowed to join special forces” — Ta Nea
“Off-duty policeman jumped, dragged and beaten by hooded mob” — AP
“Half of policemen voted for neo-Nazi party” — To Vima
“Police chief extorted foreigners” — Kathimerini
“DIAS cops twice as likely to die off duty in moto accident than civilians” — To Vima
“I feel a deep sense of despair, as I watch my country roll down an endless hill” — Kathimerini
“If you have money, you’re innocent” — BBC (Your Stories)
“Who are the protesters?” — Al Jazeera
“Riots erupt outside Athens courthouse during police testimony” — CBC
Vasilis is one of many MAT officers I know, and the interview I originally published above with a Greek rioter chosen at random was removed. I’d hoped to present that interview, along with an interview with an anarchist referred to me by a reader but he never agreed to an appointment or answered my questions via email after I sent a questionnaire.
I would like to thank my readers for their constructive criticism.
I have riot fatigue, so this will be my (next to) last post on the subject. People who know and/or live in Greece understand that strikes, demonstrations and riots are quite common so this is, as one of my readers put it, “Same sh!t, different day.” Yes, the sh!t is worse than normal, but this isn’t something new. It’s part of life in Greece, especially if one resides in Athens.
Because of expletives and name calling, I will once again state that all comments are welcome, but my policy in “Comments, Questions and Contacting Me” will be enforced. People proved me wrong about it being unnecessary to address manners.