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'Riots' in Athens by 'Anarchists'

riots, athens, greeceYesterday was kind of eventful. I had planned to go out in the country with Dennis Kokotas to eat something called provatina which is mutton, or old lamb, a dish you sort of have to search for because its one thing to cook it and it is another to make it so it tastes good. There are a couple places outside of Athens that Dennis knows about, one in Malakassa and the other in a small mountain village on the island of Evia which sounds far but you can be there in a little over an hour. But when I got home last night from downtown there were news reports of some kind of craziness going on in central Athens. We had not seen anything out of the ordinary and had spent the day in Metaxourgio, a supposedly up-and-coming neighborhood that either has a long way to go or we were walking down the wrong streets. We went to Gazi for coffee and then to this small cafeneon on Olymbia Street for ouzo and mezedes and finally to an Italian restaurant called Claudio's in Koukaki, before taking the metro and a trolley back to Psyhiko. It was not until we turned on the TV that we knew anything was going on and not until the next morning when I went on-line and saw a CNN report of riots in Greece, sparked when the cops shot a 15 year old boy, apparently from my neighborhood. I called Pandelis Melissinos who told me that they had burned down a big building across the street from his shop on the border of Psiri and Monastiraki. He said they had burned down some other buildings in the area and broken windows and looted some stores on Ermou. I decided to go downtown and see how much of the neighborhood they destroyed.

riots, athens, greeceA little background first. There is an area in Athens called Exarchia, behind the Polytechnic University of Athens which is a radical hotbed and home to many left wing political organizations as well as some clubs, cafes, restaurants and some really great used record and CD shops. Its also where the 'Anarchists' hang out. An anarchist, which comes from the word anarchia, which means without archons, or leaders is defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics as "a cluster of doctrines and attitudes centered on the belief that government is both harmful and unnecessary." But our anarchists are just guys who are pissed off at the world and like to fight with cops and burn and destroy property. They taunt the police, throw rocks, bottles, petrol-bombs (or maltov cocktails) and try to lure them into traps in the neighborhood which is made up of small streets. Often they will take part in demonstrations by other groups who have a more peaceful intent, and then hijack it and smash up cars and burn down stores. There is another group that follows the anarchists, who have no political beliefs, but use the chaos of the demonstrations turned riot as a cover to smash shop windows and steal things. But these are special occasions like the anniversary of November 17th 1973 when the government used tanks to put down a demonstration at the Polytechnic University or when President Clinton came for a visit  a  few years ago. Normally its just groups of 'anarchists' who are mostly kids with stones and petrol bombs, fighting with police in riot gear and tear gas grenades. These are not spontaneous battles that break out because of some incident or a dislike of government policy. This is stuff that happens on Friday and Saturday night when their parents think they are at the movies or out drinking with their friends. Like when I was a kid there were these other kids who used to throw rocks and trains. It was not because they didn't like trains. They were just aggressive and frustrated children and this is how they expressed it. In other words this is what some people in Athens do for fun. If you think that they are just spontaneous expressions of discontent with society then I suggest watching video clips and see the police being pelted with rocks and then go to downtown Athens and try to find a rock.

riots, fires, athens, greeceSo apparently (according to the police) some kids attacked a police car and one of the policeman shot a 15 year old boy. Whether he was part of the group that attacked the squad car or was just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, I don't know. But because of our wireless technology in a very short time there were demonstrations which turned into what the news called 'riots' but was more like people who wanted a fight being given an opportunity, and a cause. They formed in a couple areas and the cops tried to keep them hemmed in apparently with not much success judging from the damage on Ermou street, Athens main shopping district. The news is full of people arguing about what happened and who is at fault; the kids, the police, the government or the entire society but for me the facts are pretty simple. The so called 'anarchists' use their hatred of the police, or the government or society, as a reason to ruin the lives of their neighbors, destroying their cars, their shops, their livelihoods. To me there is nothing political about it and even the killing of an innocent teen does not justify rampaging through the streets of Athens burning and looting. If you hate the government go attack the Parliament building. If you hate the police then go throw rocks at the police station if you dare. Maybe the teenage boy who got shot was an innocent victim. But so were the people who lost jobs and businesses because their shops or the place they worked at was destroyed by a mob that cared about nothing except destruction. If they want to destroy the state they won't accomplish this by destroying private property. They just give more power to the state because more people will turn to the state for protection from the chaos the 'anarchists' attempt to create. Anyway I must be getting old. I am no fan of the government either and like any former pot-smoking teen I have a fear of cops even when I am not doing anything wrong. But when I see a capital A with a circle around it the word that comes to mind for me is not 'anarchist'.

riots, athens, greeceHaving gotten that off my chest... I took the metro downtown. As soon as I got to Monastiraki I could smell the fire. Its not like a house burning down in the US which has a sort of organic smell almost like chestnuts roasting on an open fire, since most building in my part of the country are made of wood. But when a steel, concrete and plastic five story building burns it is not a nice smell. It smells like something that will kill you if you smell it too long. The building on lower Ermou by Monastiraki which had a bank in it if I remember correctly, was still smoldering and surrounded by police and fire trucks. Pandelis was open, his shop full of a group of young American kids buying sandals, two who were Delta hostesses, who the night before had come through the area while walking home from Gazi. The 'rioters' had already come and gone and they were told they were in no danger and they could pass through. It was their first night in Athens but they did not seem too traumatised by it. It was all part of the adventure. I walked around Psiri but none of my favorite hangouts were damaged and it seemed like just another morning in downtown Athens. Then I walked up Ermou and could see where the 'rioters' had gone, smashing every display window, burning a store here and there and an entire restored neo-classical building by the small Byzantine church of Kapni Karea. It was a shame. It was one of the most beautiful old buildings in Athens and had just been completed and it had a small cafe in a glass arcade that I had been meaning to try. Supposedly Greek insurance does not cover stuff like this because it is defined as 'terrorism'. It looks like the 'demonstration', if you can call it that, just petered out by the church. I was sending Andrea text messages about all her favorite shops which were damaged or destroyed. She was worried about the church and its priceless icons and frescoes. But these 'anarchists' are not 'anarchist' enough that they would attack a church. To them that would be an unforgivable sin, bringing down the wrath of God, their parents and their deceased ancestors upon them.

Giorgos Gavalas, bass player, street musician, athens, GreeceThere were crowds of people who came downtown to shop in Monastiraki or sit in the cafes on Adrianou street, who had detoured to inspect the damage, many, like me taking photos and videos. It was a beautiful warm sunny day, more like September than January and I went to Diodos Cafe for a coffee. Then I walked into Thission and along Apostoli Pavlou, the pedestrian avenue that goes around the Acropolis where I had a remarkable experience. There was a man sitting on a wall playing guitar for money. He had a tambourine on each foot and a kazoo and was playing through a small Crate amp. But he didn't sound like some homeless tourist playing 'Needle and the Damage Done' for airfare back to America. He was really good and I stopped and listened for an entire song, something I rarely do. When I walked closer to put some money in his hat I saw that he had about a dozen CDs for sale, each one different. His name was Giorgos Gavalas and I asked him about his history because clearly he was a musician who had one. He named someone who he had played with and that sounded familiar. Then he mentioned Dionyssios Savopoulos who he had played bass with for four years. "Wait a second," I said. "Did you play at Kitaron with him." He had. "And did you play on Vromiko Psomi?" He was really happy that I knew of it and yes he had. "Oh my God. I know who you are. I love that album and you are the world's greatest bass-player." I meant it. We used to go to see Savopoulos and Giorgos Gavalas was to us, on bass as Yannis Spathas was on guitar. In the song Mavri Thalassa (Black Sea) he uses a wah-wah, the bass being the main instrument in that tune and as a teenager I used to be amazed at the sound he got and the way he played. For me it was like finding John Entwhistle playing on the street and being amazed that nobody else knew who he was. He had been playing in this spot below the entrance of the Acropolis for the last ten years or so, finding it more fulfilling and financially rewarding than playing in some dingy club. He played all original songs, a mixture of folk and jazz, using the kazoo for intros and solos and the twin tambourines on his feet were his drums. He was a good guitar player too, very rhythmic and fluid and if you spent more than ten seconds listening you knew he was or had been someone special. I spent about half an hour talking to Giorgos between songs. People passed by, some dropping a euros into his guitar case and an Italian family who stayed for a couple numbers while their son danced on the street. I bought two CDs. But it got me thinking that here was one of these great musicians from the early seventies, playing on the street. It's as if thirty years ago you would have gone into a cafe and there was Tsitsanis or some other old rembetika hero, just playing, for himself and a few friends.

riots, athens, greeceI wandered up on to the rock below the Acropolis, which is closed because somebody who works up there is on strike. Then I walked down to the Plaka and stopped at Byzantino to talk to George. Plaka was quiet. Some shops did not even open because they were afraid of the riots but there was really nothing going on there. I walked over to Fantasy Travel and George has this big metal screen that covers the entire front window and entrance. It was like going into Superman's Fortress of Solitude. He was watching TV but there was little about the riots except for some talk shows screaming about how it was the governments fault. Syntagma was empty. There was hardly any traffic downtown. As I walked up Fileninon Street the Happy Train which carries tourists around the Plaka came up the road and it was the only vehicle in sight. The metro was packed. Dorian was sending me messages that the riots had started again and his neighborhood was in flames. Andrea was sending me messages to come home because it was like a war. So rather than go all the way to Panormou I got off at Ambelokipi which was right at the main police station where supposedly demonstrators were going to march to. As soon as I got off the metro I could smell some kind of chemical and when I got to the top of the escalator my eyes were burning. There was a smoky haze on Alexandras Avenue and a handful of people waiting at the bus stop, but they were trying to flag down taxis since any bus would have been coming from where tonight's rioting was going on. The police had blocked off the road but there was no signs of battle, just that chemical smell and the burning in my eyes. I walked home from there, stopping to see the violence on television which was taking place just down the road. I had the same feeling I had on the 16th and 17th of November in 1973 when the students demonstrated downtown and they sent in the tanks and we were under martial law. Sort of a feeling like being in a war zone, though I never felt like I was in any danger. It was just something going on somewhere in this big city. In fact the main thing on my mind was where we would go for dinner tonight.

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