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Surviving a Protest in Greece

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The silence before the protest...

One of the main streets in Thessaloniki, blocked off so the people can march!

One of the main streets in Thessaloniki, blocked off so the people can march!

Chanting filled the air and people filled the streets.

The wall of noise matched only by the wall of banners marched down the street. Footsteps and voices all in time. In Aristotle Square we stood with our coffees expecting to watch the masses chant and march past us, filling the air with the sound of liberalism before, perhaps, we grabbed something to eat and headed home.

The sea of people stopped still outside the front of the US Consulate. It is 17th November in Thessaloniki, 2019. Just 45 years ago in the capital city, Athens, the students of Athens Polytechnic University rose up against the ruling military junta. This march is in memory of those students but has also become a voice for the left-wing parties.

Flags raised, streets full, chants loud

Flags raised, streets full, chants loud

My Greek is nonexistent,

I have been here two weeks and a combination of being lazy and starting with trying to learn the alphabet means that I haven’t got far with understanding anything, but, with a little research before we headed down, we were able to understand the basis of what was going on.

We sipped our coffees and stood on the pavements while the road became flooded with people. A huge white banner, filled with writing, marked the beginning of the procession. We had our phones out, taking videos and experiencing the whole vibe. The atmosphere was serious but in no way threatening. People chanted passionately, locking arms with those next to them, forming an impenetrable group. Some hand fists raised in the air and they delivered their message to the US Consulate.

The white banner began to move, but the people stayed.

A chant began to build, louder and louder. All at once the chant seemed to climax and off the march went again, almost at a running pace to catch up with the banner. The air filled with adrenaline as they set off again, either that or my coffee kicked in at a very coincidental time. As the sea of people flowed past us, we continued filming, attempting to grasp some concept of the number of people marching for what they believed.

Chanting and stamping before the charge onwards!

Chanting and stamping before the charge onwards!

Suddenly, as if turning the page in a book, or flicking a light switch, the people walking past seemed to change.

The banners turned from white to red, showing pictures of fists and…yep…there it was, the communist sickle and star. A new group of protesters were moving through. A hand came up, pretty close to me and a voice in Greek said something I didn’t understand. I put my phone down and stopped filming, as did several people around me so I can only assume that was the aim of the man approaching me. Not five minutes later a more friendly hand appeared, a wave from a friend who was in the march. We hopped off the curb and joined them in the street. By this point the crowd was much sparser with plenty of room to move about. We seemed to have caught the tail end of the communists marching. I have to be honest; I did not think the first protest march I would be involved in would be one calling for communism and chanting against the US and NATO but, here we are. Don’t get me wrong, this was not me expressing my political view any more than me celebrating my Caribbean roots when I dance in the Notting Hill Carnival, but what better way to understand culture than to embrace it. We did not chant, we weren’t even really marching, it was more of a relaxed saunter along the main street in the evening whilst one of our friends explained the significance of the march and the different groups who had shown up.

We eventually reached a corner

where the masses took a moment to organize a right turn. We stepped out of the group and stood on the pavement once again. The people began to gain momentum again after this tremendous hurdle of a corner. At that moment, out of the corner of my eye I saw a much more solemn sight.

Riot shields and helmets, gas masks, tear gas canisters and what looked like full armor. Watching the police approach, I could almost hear the sound of stormtroopers falling into formation in a Star Wars film. They seemed to line the streets either side and I soon understood why. My focus had been drawn from the crowd to the police by their sudden arrival but, looking back at the crowd I saw once again it had shifted. The communists had been and gone and the Anarchists were marching through. Dressed head to toe in black, the majority held their heads high, still holding banners, still chanting loud. Throughout the crowd my eyes were drawn to those not standing with their heads held high, my eyes were drawn to those that you could not see; the hooded ones, the ones with balaclavas over their faces, holding the black flags. These people chanted too but seemed to duck around the crowd as if to become lost in the masses.

Individuals carry bike helmets for, what I hope was, self defense. This march has a reputation for ending with degrees of violence.

Individuals carry bike helmets for, what I hope was, self defense. This march has a reputation for ending with degrees of violence.

We found ourselves on the street once again,

a street now lined with riot shields that moved along the road as we did. The chanting was louder now, more passionate. We followed the march around another corner, turning back on ourselves, and down another main road. My alertness had definitely been taken up a gear and I found that I was watching the police as much as the people around me. The atmosphere was not threatening, but it did feel more tense. From back home you hear things and read things about police forces abroad so I wasn’t sure how much it would take for something to kick off. Nevertheless, the march continued; the longer it went on, the more relaxed I became. The street was still filled with people and the air still filled with chanting. The march came to a stop at the Arch of Galerius and people began breaking off in different directions.

We took a left and strolled up towards the Rotunda under the assumption that that would be it. My stomach grew slightly tight when I realized that the only other people that seemed to be walking that same way were those with balaclavas on. As we reached the Rotunda that group took a left turn and headed up the hill in a different direction to our route.

Our group paused to discuss where to go, apparently a lot of people usually end up at the University, so we were thinking of heading there.

Suddenly, a loud clap filled the air.

There was no chanting anymore; shouting and confusion had replaced it. Another loud clap and a bright flash caught my eye. I looked up the street that the balaclavas had disappeared up. Smoke filled the street; an object flew into view from a side street before a third clap and more smoke began dissipating throughout the area. Black shapes hurried frantically from the crossroads.

A bang suddenly pulled my attention to the opposite side of the street where two men dressed all in black were pulling up street stones and slamming them on the ground to break them up. People, ordinary people, were ducking into shops and cafes who were, in turn, pulling down their metal shutters. My heart skipped a beat. We were in a street, a small street, with a wall of smoke at one end, a group of people building up behind us at the other end and shops all protected by metal either side.

We moved to the side of the street as there was another clap. This one was behind us. The police had moved in from the other end of the street too. A small flash but no damage, just a loud noise, instantly sent the accumulating crowd scattering. The wall of riot shields moved up to usher people away from downtown. Large groups were being split up and we made our way up a street towards the old town.

My heart was pounding, my black jeans and dark grey t-shirt probably didn’t make me stand out quite enough from the Anarchists for the police to distinguish. As a group we moved up towards the next main street.

We were still trying to get to the University

but it seemed the police had blocked off most of the routes. We weaved through some more side streets to see if there was a way in.

We were at the foot of the old town and, even from a distance we could see the police forming another wall of shields at the entrance to the University. The police were taking no chances, as you would expect. We stood, pretty much just twiddling our thumbs for a while, chatting, whilst a few of the group made decisions about our next move. Perhaps they hadn’t blocked off the street lower down in town to the University? That was where we headed.

Funnily enough that street was blocked off too; there was no way into the University, and we were later told that only about 15 people had made it. These people had set a fire in front of the University but had otherwise very little to show for their achievement. Once again, we stood, twiddling our thumbs on the pavement. Three vans full of policemen drove past us and through the blockade, they received a few half-hearted shouts from people standing in the street, but it was apparent that there was no way past.

After what seemed like an age

we decided to call it a day, or an evening I guess, and headed back home. We meandered up a variety of side streets, which during the day are filled with impressive artwork and beautiful buildings, in order to get to the foot of the old town once more. The roads had been reopened to cars and the atmosphere seemed to have once again relaxed. It felt like everything was over.

My thoughts on this seemed to be confirmed when, as we approached the location of the police wall I mentioned earlier, we ended up strolling peacefully past a plethora of heavily armored policemen sitting side by side on the wall, each leaning casually on their riot shield, helmets either in hand or placed on the floor. One policeman had already lit up a cigarette as another held what looked like a bracelet or beads of some sort. Our night, and the tension, was definitely over.

© 2019 Antony Pilkington