Greek riots: Ritual outlet for frustrated nation

A stun grenade exploded in the hand of a Greek riot policeman, severing a finger. Police and demonstrators ceased combat and scoured the debris-strewn street, uniting in a frantic search for the missing digit.

They found it. The finger was rushed off in a wet towel to a hospital, where doctors reattached it to the injured man.

The brief scene of solidarity, witnessed by an Associated Press photographer, was one of many twists in a wild drama on the stage of central Athens this week.

On one hand, Greece delivered an image of rage and rift to the world with the battles around parliament, where lawmakers approved an austerity bill in an attempt to avert a default that could inflict financial mayhem across Europe and beyond.

The ferocious display evoked a society unhinged. There were staccato booms, flashes, sirens, the roar of police motorcycles, drifting smoke, flimsy barricades, smashed glass storefronts and jeering youths with cloth draped over their faces, and clubs and marble chunks chipped off building fronts in their hands.

About 300 people, nearly half of them police, were injured over two days. But the main battleground, Syntagma Square, buzzed with traffic on Thursday. Tourists patrolled with cameras, recording the debris and idle riot police.

Greeks had indulged in another contained eruption, heavy with choreography and symbolism, to convey disgust with their political class. The culture of protest and violence by a hardened minority is now a routine form of collective therapy.

It turns out there is a framework to the chaos, and even police play a part by blasting away with tear gas that riles up the crowd, but doesn?t make it go home. Both sides usually act with a degree of mutual restraint, in contrast to the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, which have often elicited bloody crackdowns and even warfare.

Greece does have a dark history of military dictatorship, terrorism, political assassination, and anarchism. And modern-day protests don?t always follow a script. Last year, three clerks died when their bank was torched by rioters.

Much of the current protest is about extreme gestures that are, fortunately, grounded only in performance. At one noisy protest, a young man made eye contact with a policeman in silence, then drew a finger across his throat in a slitting motion. Another agitated man plucked a few grimy euro banknotes from his pocket and waved them at police lines.

“Here, you want my money? Take it!» he fumed sarcastically before pocketing the money again.

The anger is real, and so is a fear of the unknown as Europe and international lenders struggle to help Greece dodge a bankruptcy that could inflict new turmoil on global markets.

Elina Makri, an Athens resident, said she started going to protests because she couldn?t «stand it anymore,» a common sentiment among Greeks who blame state mismanagement for harsh spending cuts and tax increases that are stripping away a life of relative comfort. Beyond that, Greeks feel their lives are stalled or in freefall, and protest is the only way to release reservoirs of boiling emotion.

“I have been a lot of times, just to be a part of what?s happening,» Makri said. «It?s history that is being made here for us and, who knows, for Europe as well.» Greece?s ancient glory is evident in the ruins and museums that recall its contributions to civilization. But a sense of uncertain destiny now grips Athens, where the bizarre paired with the mundane this week.

A Greek Orthodox priest in black robes chugged on a bright red motorcycle through a melee; protesters lobbed rocks near other protesters who jigged merrily to a drum beat; and an early shift of municipal workers swept debris after a day of riots, just in time for another day of riots and fresh piles of debris.

One feature of Greek protest pageantry is a long, passionate monologue by protesters who park themselves in front of police, dehumanized figures in their helmets and gas masks, and rant, almost in private rapture, about Greece?s misfortune. It draws on the full range of Mediterranean-style expressiveness.

There are the young street fighters who strut and preen in a kind of mating ritual that, if successful, goads police into an inconclusive charge.

The Greek capital has seen worse unrest, notably in December 2008 when the fatal shooting by police of a teenager set off a month of citywide rioting. The latest round of violence centered on a small downtown. Elsewhere in Athens this week, thousands of athletes with mental disabilities were participating in the summer games of the Special Olympics.

The Greeks, it seems, are as committed to normalcy as they are to periodic convulsions in the streets.

One night, as police and protesters sought to outmaneuver each other in gas-soaked alleyways, a nervous restaurant waiter approached a pair of diners at an outdoor table and asked them to pay the bill before they finished their meal.

“Just in case you have to leave suddenly,» he said apologetically.

Adding to the ritualistic atmosphere is the white gel that demonstrators daub on their cheeks and foreheads. It is designed to treat stomach ailments, but also, it turns out, takes the edge off the sting of tear gas. The processions of ghostly faces, many obscured by surgical masks or filter masks used for painting, evoke the feel of a carnival.

As perceived instruments of the state, the police absorb an avalanche of abuse. Many come from low-income backgrounds and are happy to have work as unemployment climbs. This week, they operated in small numbers, possibly aware that a heavy show of force could trigger bigger protests and a flood of rhetoric that Greece is becoming an authoritarian state.

Crowds bellowed «pigs» and «murderers,» and clapped in sarcasm at passing convoys of motorcyclists in uniform.

But unity flickers in the Greek conflict. In a recent street scene, a stern riot officer clasped the arm of a woman to steer her away. She launched into a withering diatribe at the expense of her armor-clad escort.

“Do you want a kiss?» the policeman joked. Rage turned to laughter in that instant. [AP]

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