Greek riot deaths: a black day for the cradle of democracy

Thursday, May 6, 2010
By Paul Martin

Philip Pangalos
May 6, 2010

The fire brigade were dousing the last flames from the bank building when I arrived on the scene. Three engines and an ambulance were there and you could smell the smoke mixed with teargas and pepper spray.

Twenty yards away stood two women in their early twenties. They seemed to be deeply shocked and one fell to her knees as she recounted the rumours that three people had died in the fire. Her friend tried to console her and both wept as Greece’s financial crisis produced violence on the streets of its ancient capital.

A distraught woman in her late fifties or early sixties arrived screaming “my child, my child”, in a vain search for news about a missing loved one who worked in the bank. It was not immediately known whether her son or daughter was a victim.

Later Andreas Vgenopoulos, the chairman of Marfin Investment Group, the parent company of the Marfin Egnatia bank, came solemn-faced to visit the normally busy Stadiou Street branch accompanied by bodyguards. A small number of protesters jeered and shouted insults while someone threw stones. Riot police intervened with more teargas.

I have seen a lot of demonstrations in the 13 years that I’ve covered Greece. Many have been much larger, including the mass protest when President Clinton paid an official visit to Athens in November 1999, and many have been more violent and destructive. But I’ve never seen the tragic loss of life that I witnessed in the cradle of democracy yesterday. The victims — two women (one of them reportedly four months pregnant) and a man, according to unconfirmed reports — were working only a few hundred yards from the Greek parliament.

A young woman who works in a bookstore across the road told me that a group of protesters had broken away from the main demonstration before smashing the bank’s windows and tossing petrol bombs inside. The three-storey neoclassical structure was soon engulfed in flames.

“Two women workers from the bank came out on to the second-floor balcony and were screaming for help,” she told me. “It was horrific. There was nothing we could do. The fire brigade came relatively quickly, as streets in the area had been closed off for the demonstration, but I hear that innocent working people have died. These people are thugs. They are murderers.”

A couple of hours earlier, I had watched as tens of thousands of largely peaceful demonstrators opposed to the Government’s latest wave of cutbacks and proposed pension reforms marched towards parliament.

As often happens in Greece, the largely peaceful but vocal crowd soon turned violent. Small groups of mainly young men, some wearing hoods and scarves, others with crash helmets, mingled with the protesters and launched attacks against riot police outside the parliament. Some threw rocks, stones or chunks of masonry; others hurled petrol bombs. Riot police replied with teargas and pepper spray.

The majority of those causing the violence, who were a small minority of the mass demonstration, appeared to be aligned to extreme left-wing fringe groups. There were also self-styled anarchists and anti-establishment protesters. Some had sledgehammers or iron bars to smash windows. Others used sticks or concrete as projectiles against riot police.

One group of about 200 protesters, some of them apparently aligned to the communist PAME union, even tried to storm parliament as MPs were debating the austerity measures. Riot police fended them off with round upon round of teargas and pepper spray.

The area around Syntagma (Constitution) Square, across from parliament was littered with broken glass, chunks of brick, rocks, pieces of marble. Rubbish bins around the square had been set ablaze and many were smoldering. The windows of dozens of shops and banks had been smashed in the surrounding area and anti-establishment graffiti scrawled on walls or the shutters of businesses that chose to close early.

One read “Torch the ministries”, while another said “December was the start” — an apparent reference to the destructive riots that gripped the Greek capital after the killing by police of a 15-year-old boy in the Exarchia district in December 2008.

Some protesters even started a fire in the middle of the square. Other demonstrators, passers-by and tourists rubbed their eyes and coughed as the acrid mix of smoke and teargas engulfed the area. A small number of holidaymakers in the centre of Athens looked on at the destruction. Some took pictures to show back home.

Someone even told me that they could smell and taste the teargas as they disembarked from a metro station train several levels underground. Metro station employees were telling passengers, who were coughing as they got off trains, not to use the main exit.

The violence and the tragic loss of life tarnished the otherwise peaceful mass protest against the austerity measures. For democracy it was a black day that most ordinary Greeks condemn.

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