The repeated blows with a folding metal baton on the body of Alexandros and the screaming of passers-by for the unprovoked police violence in the square of Nea Smyrni was fortunately recorded by witnesses’ mobile phones. These images flooded the internet and prevented any disinformation attempt. There is still some breathlessness in his voice. He spent the night at KAT General Hospital and the morning at the coroner.
Alexandros, 29, a postgraduate student at the polytechnic school, a contract worker in the Municipality of Athens and a member of the Open Assembly of residents of the area [editor’s note: of Nea Smyrni and other southern suburbs of Athens], provides us with his account of what the cameras did not record in person.
He recounts the twisting of his right wrist by the police, the threats: “the fines will be the last thing that bother you when we take you in [to detention]”, the fear that took hold on the other side of the clash inside the HPHA [editor’s note: the Athens police headquarters], but also the optimism that arises from solidarity.
Can you describe the events of Sunday?
In Nea Smyrni square there were a lot of people, sitting on benches and on terraces. They were relatively spread out and not in large groups. Suddenly, four motorcycles of the DIAS squad [editor’s note: a special police force that ride motorcycles] appeared. They stopped by two benches and for 10 minutes they argued with the people there. There were cries and arguments from the people who were being questioned, mainly mothers with children.
Then they started giving out fines. After 10 minutes, as a group of four or five people, we spontaneously went to protest, expressing our solidarity with the family that was being given a fine of 300 euros.
The police had told them that “it is forbidden to sit on the bench”. The women replied: “We walked two kilometres and we wanted to rest for a while”. The fines were given out anyway. We went there to show our solidarity with the family as well as to make a public protest that it is not right to fine people who just sit on benches […] It was a spontaneous action in the moment to express our solidarity with some people who we considered to be unjustly penalised.
People can no longer withstand the quarantine and the psychological burdens of being locked-in. The police asked us for our travel certificates [editor’s note: Every citizen that is outside has to carry with him/her some proof (mainly in the form of an SMS) that he or she has a reason to be outside]. As we showed them our travel papers, a police officer noticed that a girl had started filming with her mobile phone. He rushed over to her, along with another, shouting for her to “delete it” and threatened her too. Tensions rose and they pushed away two more people, who fell on the ground. They immobilised one person on the ground by putting their knees on his back.
We asked them: “Why are you doing this? Is it forbidden to stand here and protest against the fines given to some families?” They replied: “Go, now”.
As this was going on, I kept speaking: “Is it not allowed to be in the square? We have our travel papers, why are you creating tensions?” Then the second policeman came forward and started targeting me. He pulled me by my jacket. I said: “I have not done anything”. They started beating me more heavily then, kicking me all over my body.
I have bruises and cuts everywhere, on my ankles, shins, thighs, buttocks, back. They put me in a headlock so that I could not breathe, my neck was pulled upwards. And the highlight of it all was that they hit me with the metal, folding baton, which they used upside down and hit me on the back of my head with the handle. There the pain was unbearable. Three to four policemen carried me away from the square.
In order to stop me resisting, one of them turned my wrist somewhat very skilfully, pushing it inwards without being visible to the people around, creating an unbearable pain. I repeated “I’m in pain” again and again. I even told them that I would walk by myself to the car in order to make him stop twisting my wrist.
What was going on around you at that time?
We realised that by now a lot of people around us, as well as from the surrounding balconies and passers-by, had taken out their phones and that they were recording. People also came out to their balconies and shouted against the practices of the police, but also passers-by who were just in the square stopped and said: “Why are you doing this, why are you beating people?” The ladies from the families who protested strongly at the time and saw the incident unfold, played a crucial role. So there are some credible testimonies from third parties involved.
In the video we see you talking calmly to the police and then there is a specific police officer who comes and grabs you. Why did this happen?
I think I had spoken to the leader of the squad, who at that time was not saying anything specific to me. I was asking them to “tell me which law forbids us to be here, why do you push us and forbid video recordings in a square?” To be honest, I think they were annoyed that I was bothering them with my verbal objections to their behaviour. Therefore, I was probably more targeted as I was one of the first two or three people who talked directly to the leader of the DIAS team.
At the time of the events, the headlines on most of the news websites were as follows: “30 insurrectionists are attacking the police?”
Only later, at the HPHA at 6pm, did I find out what the reactions were. We understood this from the attitude of the police there. Those who had arrested us became extremely worried as time passed, they said “there are videos …” They understood that the conspiracy they wanted to set up would not be accepted. When they saw a girl recording a video, they immediately tried to get hold of her mobile phone, threatening her to get her to delete the video. This is because they know that they have immunity from the media – most of them at least – which normally enables them to cover up any unreasonable actions, as well as the political responsibility that comes from the Ministry of Citizen Protection.
When you were expressing your solidarity – because it was indeed solidarity – did you imagine that this would end up like this?
We did not expect such a violent reaction. I expected that they would simply ignore us, tell us that it was their job and then we would leave. But even the simplest expression of dissatisfaction about what they do bothers them a lot. It is a sign of how emboldened they are by the excessive powers they have to impose fines.
The ability to fine gives them the “right” to give you a 300 euro ticket if you do not move along. It is no coincidence that all the detainees were fined, even though we were all carrying our papers and our SMS confirmations and said that we could show them to them. Indeed, they fabricated more fake news by stating in the infringement certificates that we did not show the necessary travel documents.
They told us: “We have orders to give you fines”. In the neighbourhood there was a strong police presence in the Grove [editor’s note: a local park next to the square], which was targeted because it was supposed to be crowded.
It bothers them because some people with tires and resistance bands are working out in the park. Mayor Tzoulakis locked the Grove after 3pm, and I do not think this is unrelated to the announcement he made, which took equal issue with the police and the citizens who were in the squares.
Today (yesterday) a non-paper from the government was distributed. Then the New Democracy MP, Konstantinos Kyranakis, made your name public, claiming that you are a member of a specific collective. How do you comment on that?
They are trying to change the conversation from the fact that there are currently uniformed police in neighbourhoods, who will not hesitate to beat up anyone who speaks against them.
Simply speaking out in a public place is criminalised and a prosecutable offence […] I have never been a member of any political collective, organisation, party or group. Nevertheless, I am very active in some contexts, for example in the protests of the education community [editor’s note: recent protests by teachers and students] or in protests that take place at the neighbourhood level. I have always participated in my student union and in assemblies of residents and in the Association of Hired Technicians, of which I am a member.
Kyranakis and the New Democracy party are now trying to quickly “dehumanise” those arrested and all of us who were beaten after the outcry. They are trying to make the case that we are not people like you, who could be like you.
This is something that moves us away from the course of democracy as it exists in Greece since 1974 [editor’s note: the year the military junta (imposed in 1967) was overthrown]. We return to an era where militants, but also ordinary citizens are targeted, simply because their behaviour is not liked by the police or the government. Kyranaki’s statement is unacceptable and I reserve my right to take legal action aganist it […]
There have been unfounded allegations from the government and the police that you tried to take the policeman’s gun! How do you comment on that?
They have probably seen a lot of American movies, and they like these stories. This is the scenario they came up with to justify the excessive police violence that was captured in the videos. It was a narrative they came up with in order to justify such actions taken by the police. I did not approach them at all, I just wanted to talk to them without having to shout at them from a distance. I wanted to be present [at what was happening], not too close to them, at one or two metres distance.
Within 24 hours you were beaten up, you went to the KAT, you were arrested, you were singled out by name. Do you regret your intervention, do you think “why did I get involved”?
There is definitely a personal cost for me and the other detainees. However, our reaction was completely logical and self-evident. Ultimately, there should be a limit imposed as to what citizens must be expected to tolerate from the government. We shouldn’t get used to fines being arbitrarily given out and families being bullied.
I think that the hypocritical stance of the government when it comes to the pandemic, with the lack of protection measures in various large workplaces, on public transport, in the funding of hospitals and primary health structures, is essentially trying to pass the burden onto every citizen. We are expected to undertake an individual responsibility, for which we are obliged to follow the instructions to the letter.
Anyone who witnesses something unjustified, can stand up and protest, instead of leaving or just being a passer-by. If the people realise that they have the collective power not to let these outrageous acts take place before their eyes, the oppressiveness will collapse like a tower of cards. As long as we do not remain spectators.