16 October 2014

Events here in Athens are not always accurately reported in the international press. With that in mind, I sent a report to stateside friends Sunday, following the worldwide peace marches. The report, slightly edited below, was based on watching 5.5 hours of live coverage on the second state channel, NET. I also taped the second 'disruption' noted below.

Although not as exciting as being in the actual march, watching the raw TV coverage gave an overview of the event, its proportions and the immediate journalists' reaction to events as they occurred. I did not attempt to be colourful in this report, merely to set down events as I saw them.

Athens
15 February, 03

By police and media estimates, about 150,000 people gathered about noon, on a very chilly day, for just over two hours of speeches and music. The program was followed by another 3 hours of march.

In perspective, that's one of the largest demonstrations here in the past 30 years, and there were parallel events in 20 or more towns around Greece. The crowd included a good number of senior citizens, people who had lived through and fought in WWII here. There were also a number of children with their parents and, of course, many students and working people.

The mood was positive and determined, and the rhetoric restrained. The signs and banners were 90% simple statements of 'no to war, yes to peace' and a lot of the 'no bombs' stop-sign types. There were a few Iraqi flags, carried by Iraqi students at university here, and a few Palestinian flags.

Anti-Americanism was held to a minimum. I observed one American flag with a white swastika on the field of blue in the back contingent of marchers (students), and one or two other placards with mildly anti-US themes. There was a larger number of anti-Bush slogans. Still, the overwhelming majority were simply 'pro-peace'.

The central organization had been carried out by the national labour federation, whose president, Polyzogopoulos, gave one of the keynote speeches. Mikis Theodorakis and veteran politician, Manolis Glezzos, also spoke. With some variation, the theme was:

# war is an outdated solution to international problems,

# 500K non-combatants killed or injured and 1 million homeless is criminal,

# war for oil or regional/world domination is nobody's right,

# Saddam is not a good guy, but this is not the legal or humane way to remove him

# Iraqi citizens have a right to enjoy democracy as we do, and we should encourage that

# an attack on Iraq will only put American citizens in greater jeopardy by galvanizing more enemies,

# peaceful solutions are the only acceptable ones if we are to call ourselves civilized.

This theme was repeated for the official voice 'vote' and, of course, received a thunderous approval.

The march then moved, at about 2:30, toward the American Embassy, to deliver the message, so to speak. Altogether this walk takes about 15 minutes. As an indication of the size of the crowd, it was past 5 p.m. when the last of the marchers reached the embassy.

Two 'incidents' of disruption occurred during the 5+ hours.

Incident 1. A small group of hooded youths torched a car and broke windows near the Ta NEA/Vyma news offices just off Syntagma. A molotov was also thrown into the newspaper office, doing minor damage. With 'minimal' (TV commentator's term) tear gas, the band was dispursed by police, and fire engines rolled in to put out the fires. This was at about 2 p.m. and took about 5 minutes. I saw about 10 with hoods; one TV reporter estimated up to 20.

Incident 2. Later, about 4 p.m., hooded youths showed up near the Embassy, which was protected by a line of police buses and two cordons of cops, regulars near the buses and tactical squad on the front line. This skirmish took place on the near half of the boulevard in front of the Megaro Musikis (concert hall) and in a small park next door. It took about 15 minutes to contain. During this time, the march was broken while the rear groups waited for the way to be cleared.

Rocks and wooden batons were thrown at the police. The police chased the disrupters about and returned little violence. According to TV commentators, the police were under order to assist the march and the peace theme, so they tended to 'dance' with the disrupters rather than to break heads.

As the march began to move ahead again on the opposite side of the boulevard, the disrupters started up again, and a fair number of marchers became frustrated and surrounded them. At this point, the cops moved in and arrested the ones they could lay hands on. During this skirmish, one of the hooded youths managed to set fire to an American flag, right in front of the rear march contingent so it showed well on TV. He did not receive any applause. A local news source states the number of disrupters arrested as 24, of whom 13 will face charges.

On the evening news, the disruptions were shown as well as the more positive moments of the march. Unfortunately, if this is the perspective that makes international news broadcasts, you will see 60 seconds of march and 60 seconds of disruption. In fact, the proportion is 5.5 hours of march and 20 minutes of disruption. Interestingly, the marchers, who must have been popcicles by 4 p.m., did not run off in panic or disgust, but waited patiently to complete their route.

I later checked the CNN (from Reuters) online report and found, as expected, a mildly different slant on things. The principal differences are:

1. crowd size set at 50,000 by CNN. Original local estimates were 200,000, which was reduced to the 150,000 noted above.

2. the phrase 'violence erupted': Wrong. The march was peaceful. The disruptions outside the march were staged by a small group of hooded youths.

3. the assertion that the violence occurred in Syntagma Square

Not exactly. The first incident occurred a couple of blocks below the Square. The disrupters ran up toward Stadiou St (which runs into the Square) where a contingent of marchers was formed up. The police routed the disrupters in front of the old Parliament building (statue of Kolokotronis). The outside marchers formed a chain of hands to prevent non-marchers from infiltrating their ranks and the contingent was turned into a side street to avoid police activity in Stadiou St.

4. the portrayal of the 'disrupters' as 'protestors who splintered off':

They were not part of the march. It is often the case here that ancillary to major demonstrations where police are present, a gang of hooded 'anarchists' appear to do battle with the riot squad. These young men may or may not have been 'anarchists'. In any case, they operated near the march, not as part of it.

5. the claim that tear gas thrown by the police 'sent shoppers scurrying':

By 2 p.m., when this first incident occurred, most regular shoppers had avoided or left the area. Everyone knows that when a massive demonstration is going on, buses and taxis are not available in the central streets and Metro train stations are crowded with people headed for the demonstration. It is true, however, that marchers near the incident in Stadiou were affected by the teargas, as were people in the Metro station near the Megaro.

6. the statement that 'gasoline bombs' were thrown at the police:

Bomb? Sounds like a 5-gallon can, doesn't it? There were some 'molotov cocktails', i.e. beer bottles with gasoline and rag wicks. These accounted for the car that was burned at 2 p.m. One or two were also thrown toward the police vans in front of the embassy. They missed and were quickly stamped out.

7. the quote that 'no one was injured or arrested':

I do not have information on injuries. If any occurred, it is more likely to be among disrupters and police. There were, however, 24 arrests as noted above.

Street marches are a frequent occurance in Greece. They are used for political rallies, for supporting humanitarian causes and for protests of all types. A good march is loud and showy and gets media attention. In addition, it totally snarls up traffic and helps the average citizen 'feel' the heat of the issue. Consequently, Greeks have ample experience with demonstrations. People know where and how to join, or how to avoid them if they prefer.

The usual demonstration is non-violent. Occasionally, tempers flare and scuffles break out.

At the same time, it has become 'traditional' for large demonstrations to be attended by hooded disrupters, ready to take on the police. They may be anarchists with an antipathy to the police (agree or not, there is some historic basis for the feeling) or just football hooligans without a match. In any case, as was shown Saturday, most organizers know what they're doing and demonstrations are not easily thrown off track by minor incidents. Such incidents are sidestepped, and the message of the day is carried forward.