The Smell Of Rebellion
By Chelsea Murray
A person’s sense of smell is an incredible thing. It can aid in recalling past memories, stir up hunger for certain foods, and make someone sick to their stomach. I have taken in many smells in my life, but I will never forget the smell of a Greek riot. The potent mixture of burnt rubber, tear gas, and sweat from protestors and police smacked me in the face as we stepped into the center of it all on the night of December 9th.
Two days earlier, on a side trip to Ireland, I had been checking my e-mails inside a Dublin hostel when the news of the Athens riots popped into my inbox. “STAY INSIDE” was the subject of the email from the director of Student Affairs at the University of Indianapolis Athens campus where I am studying abroad for the year. I clicked on it and read with disbelief about the crazy events going on just down the street from my apartment in Athens. I learned that a teenage boy had been shot and killed by a police officer in the Exarchia neighborhood of Athens. This traumatic incident ignited a powder keg in the youth and anarchist groups of Greece, and violent riots and protests began hours after the shooting.
The response was so quick it seemed like the students and anarchists were waiting for a moment like this to justify going insane and attacking the government, the police, and capitalism in general. The night the teenager died, youth in Athens went on a rampage burning down businesses, banks, government buildings and even the Christmas tree in the center of Syntagma Square, the central gathering point in Athens.
While all this was going on I continued to explore Ireland with my boyfriend, Matt, and wash down our days with a pint of Guinness, not too worried about Athens. We were positive that the violence would blow over before we returned. I was glad to be safely out of Athens, but the journalist in me wanted to be closer to the action. I have been studying in Greece since September and it was strange to see that the neighborhood I lived in for the past three months was now the scene of the biggest news story on the planet.
Just before we headed back to Greece we met up with other students living with us in Athens, who were also exploring Ireland. One of them, Peni, started nervously rattling off what was going on in Athens and how it had taken a turn for the worst the night before. She told us stories that other students back in our apartments had shared through e-mails. There was a possibility that we might not be allowed back into the country because the Prime Minister was on the verge of declaring a state of emergency, which would shut Greek borders to foreigners. My mind raced, and now that we were away from the Guinness, I realized that this riot was really serious. We all decided to board our Ryan Air flight from Dublin to London and then assess the situation on the airport Internet once we got to England. Each one of us sat in disbelief as we clicked through article after article, pictures, and YouTube videos of charred buildings, students getting tear gassed, and police officers getting pelted in the head with rocks.
We were flying into chaos. Each of us had dozens of e-mails and Facebook messages from family and friends back home concerned for our safety and wanting to know first hand accounts of the riot in Athens. Fortunately, we could say we were safe and sound in London, but we had no first hand knowledge yet. We all talked about whether we should board the plane to Athens or sit tight in London. We talked to our families, and to each other, and decided to get into Greece and figure out our next move from the airport.
The Greek directors of our abroad program kept calling one of our phones to tell us the city was in flames, it was a terrible situation, and even claimed the Parliament was on fire (which turned out to be false). Instead of freaking ourselves out, we just stayed calm and prepared ourselves for entering a potential war zone. Greece seemed eerily different the second we stepped off the plane, even the airport seemed a bit off. We went to the bus counter outside the airport to purchase our tickets back to Syntagma Square. ? “You don’t want to go there,” the man selling the tickets said to us, “find another hotel or place to stay.”
“We have to go there.” I said. “So if the bus goes there, we go there.”
“You can’t get into Syntagma,” he said. “It’s closed off. The bus does not even run there. But take it to the end and make your way to your home.”
We got on the bus and started creeping closer and closer towards the chaos. It felt like we were in a movie and hurtling ourselves into a scene of destruction. I started to get nervous and excited. This would be an experience. As we sat on the bus an older man started speaking Greek and Peni, one of my fellow students, conversed with him in fluent Greek. Just that day he had received his certification to be a riot police officer and was headed into the mayhem. He held up his certificate proudly and showed us. He then started probing Peni with questions about where we were going and why we were in Athens. She told him we were Americans studying abroad in the Syntagma area and were just trying to get back to our apartments. A worried look came across his face. He shook his head and told her that we should stay as far away from Syntagma as possible, and said it would be very dangerous. He offered his services to help us get back to the apartment safely.
The rest of us were skeptical of a Greek rent-a-cop, but decided to go along with the situation since he was our only option. He had us get off the bus at the next stop and hop into the underground metro. The line we were on went right through Syntagma and during the course of the ten-minute ride, we decided to get off and survey the situation. If it wasn’t too bad, we were going to sprint as fast as we could through the square and get back to our apartment.
Our small group followed the policeman up the stairs and into the Syntagma metro station. That’s when the smell of the riot smacked me in the face. My cavalier attitude about charging through the square started to dissipate as we got closer to exiting the station. We got right to the bottom of the stairs that led to Syntagma and were stopped by police officers saying that no one could proceed any further. I peered into the darkness above to see what was going on when suddenly a loud crack sounded and a stampede of 50 pierced, rebellious, teenagers dressed in a sea of black came charging down the stairs right towards us. We turned as fast as possible, splitting up in the process, and bolted back down the stairs.
I felt like the scene in the Lion King movie when Simba was chased by a stampede of wildebeests. A young man grabbed me and carried me down the rest of the stairs, apparently my feet weren’t moving fast enough for him. Our whole group managed to swarm together into a corner in the metro station as the sea of anarchists charged back up the stairs as quickly as they had arrived. My heart was pounding so hard it nearly leapt out of my chest.
Getting chased by a mob of rioters is the wildest adrenaline rush I have ever experienced. Afterwards, I felt like jelly as we stumbled down another flight of stairs and piled back onto the metro train. We opted to get off a few stops away from the action and try and pick our way back to our apartment. The streets were quiet and scary, and we felt like someone was going to jump out from behind every tree, or darkened alleyway. We walked a real haunted house past burned mattresses, broken glass and charred buildings. We were all relieved when we made it safely back to our apartment.
A few hours later we decided to go out as a big group and have the students that had stayed in Athens during the riots give us a tour of the damage. The city was dead quiet when we stepped out again. There was not a single protestor in sight. We walked through streets where every other building was a burnt carcass of a once flourishing business. The other students in the program had been caught up in the biggest night of the riots when it looked like Athens was going up in flames. They said they saw anarchists throwing petrol bombs into upscale clothing stores, government buildings, and robbing banks.
As they made their way down the burning streets they said they saw people running into electronic stores and looting piles of expensive items before it went up in flames. The rioters had no remorse for destroying businesses, but they did seem to make sure no one was inside before they did. One building that had been attacked was McDonald’s, the symbol of American expansion in the world. It made me smile to see that it had closed its doors, but it was depressing to walk down the streets that had become part of our lives these last three months and see burned buildings and charred cars.
It turns out that rioting is a rite of passage for Greeks. We have our own ritualistic rites of passage in the States like getting a drivers license, or turning 18, but the Greeks are more extreme. The Greeks love to strike and protest things that they feel are unjust. Since we have been in Greece there have been over 100 strikes ranging from the transportation workers to students in elementary schools. It’s an extremely raw system of democracy where the people strike and protest to get their voices heard. The government does not necessarily listen to them, but the strikes and protests are allowed.
This riot was fueled by anarchists and youth fighting against the police and government for oppressing them, and the shooting of the young boy gave them a reason to finally rise up. But burning buildings and pelting petrol bombs at police is going too far. Paula Dirksen, a student studying abroad from South Dakota, feels as though the protestors started out with a decent argument and point, but now “they have lost their meaning and are destroying property that should not be touched.”
Jim Maneris, another student in the program who is a Greek-American, is disgusted to see the proud Greeks destroying their own country.
On our second day back in Athens we re-entered Syntagma Square in broad daylight to observe a national strike that was gathering in front of the Parliament. We were told it was going to be a peaceful gathering, but that information was wrong. The police closed in the square from all sides and after a few minutes there was no way in or out. We were trapped. The fear from the previous night rushed back into my body and I started surveying the area like a doe during hunting season. The rioters still wearing all black, with their faces covered with masks and cloth, ran down to the sidewalks and ripped chunks up with their bare hands. The sidewalks in Greece are made of hard granite and marble. We watched the rioters run up to police and pelt them in the head with these huge chunks of rock. The police fired tear gas into the air and my throat itched and started to burn. My face and eyes felt like a mix of jelly fish sting and wicked sun burn. For 20 minutes there was no way out of the Square and we had to find a spot that was safely away from the police and rioters so we didn’t get caught in the cross fire of rocks and tear gas.
Overall it seemed like an orchestrated show because all of a sudden it all stopped and everyone went their separate way. While it’s powerful to see people standing up to their government, violence is not the best way to protest. Whether you approve of their tactics or not, though, the Greek rioters had their voices heard around the world.
It was also very powerful to see the Greek police be so restrained in their response to the rioters. They mostly took defensive positions and used shields to deflect rocks and other projectiles. Some police did retaliate, but really who could blame them, they shouldn’t just have to stand there and take it.
As I sit safely in my apartment Athens has quieted down, but that charred, burnt rubber smell that slammed me in the face in the metro station that night will stay with me forever. It was the smell of rebellion. It was the smell of challenging the government. It was the smell of fear and excitement mixed together. It was the smell of raw democracy in action. You can’t learn about riots and anarchy from a textbook. It is a smell and an experience that you must have first hand to truly grasp the events that took hold of the world for a few days in early December.
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