29 April 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# war is an outdated solution to international problems,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.