Thessaloniki–Greece was once again the center of violent clashes between young protesters and authorities on Sunday, as thousands marked the first anniversary of the death of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, who was shot and killed by a police officer last year in the Exarchia district of downtown Athens.The killing triggered some of the most violent conflicts in a generation and led to billions of euros of property damage as young Greeks attacked police and government buildings throughout the country.
Thousands of people gathered around the campus of the Polytechniou University in Athens and fought riot police to a standstill with Molotov cocktails, rocks and bottles. Hundreds of motorcycle officers, known as Zitades, tried to break up protests, but they met limited success. Greek TV showed footage of one officer ramming a 55-year-old woman who was later taken to hospital with serious injuries.
The attacks by Zitades fired up the protesters. "The cop bullies who rode their machines into demonstrators should be made an example of," wrote Greek Twitter user Koumdros. The crowd counter-attacked and knocked some officers off their machines while forcing others into a hasty retreat.
The dean of the university was also reported to have been taken to hospital with head wounds after some protesters attempted to enter the university’s administration building. Doubts have been raised about these claims following the publication of pictures in Demotix.com showing the dean with no apparent head wound.
Police have undertaken mass detentions of activists and demonstrators over the last 24 hours, with over 500 taken in for questioning and approximately 40 arrests so far.
In Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, 88 people were detained after being hemmed in by riot squads in the city center. The police fired several rounds of tear gas into the tightly packed crowd from a close range, causing panic and several injuries. At least four protesters were taken to hospital with injuries caused by canisters fired from pistols at distances of less than ten meters.
Officers in charge of "kettling" marchers used batons and shields to beat protesters while on the ground. Twitter user terms of abuse wrote, "As a "peaceful demonstrator who got beaten last year by the riot cops I think we at the same level of violence."
The appearance of TV crews on the scene, however, quickly calmed the situation as authorities hoped to avoid a repeat of events in 2007 when images of undercover officers beating a 22-year-old Cypriot student in Thessaloniki appeared on TV screens.
Most violent confrontations have subsided, according to Greek TV. However, given the severity of the police response, the scene looks set for more clashes between the police and demonstrators tomorrow when thousands of high school students are set to organize marches in memory of the lost teen in cities across Greece. In last year’s riots young teenagers proved to be one of the most volatile elements in the protests, with kids as young as 12 fighting in the streets.
Despite the fall of the previous conservative government and the election of the left-wing PASOK party in October, the problems that led to last year’s uprising have not disappeared. In many respect have grown worse.
Greece’s ailing economy, which relies heavily on agriculture, tourism and shipping has been badly hit by the global economic crisis, with an 8.6 percent drop in tourism alone. Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou faces the challenge of having to cut public spending while raising tax revenue. His efforts could make a mockery his party’s campaign promises.
Anger and resentment are building as Greek society prices spiral, the education systems fails, and corruption runs rampant. Perhaps of most concern is unemployment, particularly among young people. Unemployment figures show that the more education a young person has, the less likely she or he is to find work. Instead, many rely on family and political connections to try obtain a coveted civil service position. Those without such means, or meson as it is known in Greek, are forced into the private sector where regulatory oversight is either weak or non-existent.
As protesters give voice to their frustration, authorities have taken a severe line against them. Mihalis Chrissochoidis, the minister in charge of Greek’s police, said that a "zero tolerance for anyone breaking the law, whoever they are." This policy has resulted in an assault on civil liberties, according to some.
International human rights organization Amnesty International published a briefing on Monday highlighting alleged patterns of human rights violations by Greek police. While the use of force may have succeeded in limiting the extent of damage to shops and offices, the alienation of Greece’s youth population may be far more costly in the long-run.
Despite government claims to have successfully dealt with Sunday’s disturbances, reports are already coming in of clashes in other cities, such as Patra and Ioannina. It is an eerie reminder of last year, when every corner of the country witnessed protests.
In the meantime, the Polytechniou building in Athens still remains under student control while hundreds of schools and campuses have also been occupied.