I had trouble getting to sleep last night. As rest eluded me, I lay awake for what seemed like hours, staring at the ceiling with anticipation. It was late when I finally drifted off, and quite early when I awoke. If I was tired, I didn't notice.
As the day began, I felt very much as I did on the morning of our departure, certain that I was setting out to do something exciting, and very possibly something that I would never do again. Outside the quiet of Miwa and Sergei's apartment, I imagined the people of Athens felt the same.
At 11 o'clock, workers the city over would join together and march the streets in a rare and historic general strike. We would be there, not to oppose the austerity measures recently enacted by their government, but to document the occurance.
I have been elated about this opportunity all week. There are few things more compelling to me than people acting with real conviction. Whether the things they do are inane, or of great consequence is unimportant. I simply have a deep appreciation for genuine intension. Today, I imagined the streets would be overflowing with it.
We left around 10AM to make our way to the assembly point with two cameras, two lenses, and a field recorder in tow. It was a crisp, clear day and the streets were filled with music blaring over loudspeakers on nearly every block. There was a distinct air of tension and excitment as we approached the square where the demonstration was meant to begin.
Protest signs were stacked and ready to be distributed, there were megaphones and drums to be carried, and people everywhere were handing out flyers we regrettably couldn't understand. As we walked, snapping photos, I commented several times to Tara how lucky I felt that we were here to witness this.
Our new telephoto zoom was easily my favorite tool of the day. With it, we were able to capture several candid interactions between protesters with ease. Later in the demonstration, it would allow us to document some very violent ones from a safe distance.
Before things really got going, I scaled the side of a building to take some pictures from above the crowds. With my zoom, from such a high vantage point, I felt like I was in a spy movie.
At street level, Tara took a picture of this dog who was dutifully carrying a banner calling for the death of capitalism:
When I came down, it quickly became apparent that there wasn't one organized protest, but rather several marches occuring simultaneously by various groups. So, we took to the streets, walking among the people and trying in vain to make sense of the signs and banners they wielded. So far, all was peaceful.
Throughout the day we passed many other photographers:
Not everyone in the city was marching; there were families out shopping, people carrying bags of groceries and others out for a run. Some people passed as if they didn't even see the march happening, while others stopped and stared for a few moments before continuing on.
Early in the demonstration, a group of masked men rushed in carrying a long piece of canvas. Several of them then roughly grabbed a large banner affixed to a nearby fence and began fiercely ripping it down. One of them yelled not to take photos. When I tried to talk to him about why, he turned his back to me. Since we (and many others) were taking photos of everything, I began to photograph them anyway.
At this point, Tara wanted to leave and I should have listened to her. Just moments later, there was an incoming fist which I barely noticed in my periphery. It landed, glancing off my forehead and nose to connect with my left cheekbone. I wasn't hurt but I was furious and it was very difficult to contain.
As Tara hurried us away, a woman who was presumably with the thugs explained that they didn't want the police seeing their faces. A little futher on, a man ran over to us and apologized for his comrade's behavior, saying "We're not all like that!" I was still pretty angry and found it hard to care, but Tara thanked him.
After our brief altercation with what we later learned was an "urban guerrilla group" of anarchists, we talked a bit about our safety. Tara was understandably shaken up, and I felt foolish for having put myself in harm's way in the first place. Refocused on steering clear of anything even remotely resembling conflict, we continued on down the street where the crowds really started to pick up.
Soon the roads were fully flooded with masses of bodies, organized into mobs by people with megaphones shouting in Greek.
As the day progressed, we began to notice that many of the protesters had gas masks on.
We walked the entire length of the march more than once, from the park near Miwa and Sergei's apartment to Syndagma Square where the Parliament building is. At first, we were surprised by what appeared to be an astoundingly small police presence. We had been warned that the strike was very likely going to be a volotile one, and were expecting to see tons of them.
Everything seemed to be going peaceably, and we couldn't understand a lot of what was happening, so eventually we decided to go home. On our way, we rounded a corner and encountered a line of police in riot gear that stretched on for several city blocks.
As the police marched down the sidewalks, we saw one very antagonistic protester in a gas mask madly waving a stick and yelling, almost asking for a confrontation with his taunting. As best we could tell, the police didn't even acknowledge him.
As the mob continued down the street, things really started going haywire. It seemed like there was an inverse relationship to the age of the protesters and the amount of yelling going on.
Suddenly, we heard a loud crashing sound further down the block and the crowd briefly came to a halt. We were disoriented when a large group of people appeared around the corner of the side street we were on. The crowd, including a few photographers and a newscaster, came rushing right towards us. When we saw what looked like chunks of concrete flying through the air behind them, we backed further down the road and took cover with them.
After a bit, things seemed to settle down so we creeped back to the line of protesters, making sure not to get between the police and the mob. Moments after we reached the intersection, we heard a series of massively loud BOOMS. Before returning to cover, I glanced to the right and saw some familiar-looking masked thugs smashing a building about a block away. I snapped a few quick photos and we again took refuge on the side street.
As we watched from afar, we saw the masked men hurling rocks into shop windows, into the crowd, at the police, and even at an old man! In just moments, the calm atmosphere of the demonstration was gone, instantly replaced by fear, panic, and violence. Watching the scene, it was easy to see how a riot could be started by just one or two angry idiots in a crowd.
As the assault ensued, a group of policemen took cover from the civilians, raising their riot shields to block the incoming chunks of broken wall and sidewalk. Then, they unleashed a volley of tear gas. As the caustic substance filled the air, our nasal passages began to burn painfully and stinging tears involuntarily rushed from our eyes. We were more than a block away from the brunt of it, and still it was incredibly potent.
As we retreated further, we tried to make sense of what we had just witnessed. We were both having a very difficult time reconciling the point of it all. Doing things with conviction is good and well, but not when it brings harm to others. I was saddened by the senselessly violent, irresponsible, and counterproductive actions we'd seen. We both agreed we'd had enough for the day.
As the dust cleared on our walk back, shop owners meekly came out of their buildings to inspect the level of damage they'd have to repair. City workers came up to sweep the mountains of trash, wash paint off walls, clean up shards of broken glass, and fix vandalized buildings. What a waste.
As we talked about what had occured on our way home, our disappointment with the violent anarchist movement in Greece became disgust as we saw the scope of the mess they'd left in their wake. Tara was especially upset about this bookstore window, saying disdainfully, "YEAH, FUCK BOOKSTORES!"
We passed several smouldering trash fires:
A shattered phone-booth:
And one torched car:
Safe and sound at Miwa and Sergei's quiet apartment, we were completely drained, somewhat depressed, and fairly disgusted with humanity in general.