GREECE: Universities suffer in violent riots

Four universities and a number of historic buildings across Greece were damaged last week during the riots that followed the shooting by police of a 15-year-old youth in Athens. The National Library, a neo-classical building housing invaluable and irreplaceable books in the centre of the capital, caught fire as did the National Archaeological Museum - both were saved at the last minute by the timely arrival of the fire brigade. But the law school library at Athens University, home of important legal documents, was completely destroyed and university Rector Christos Kittas resigned in protest, unable to find words to express his frustration and anger at the carnage.

Several buildings in the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki were set on fire and the Senate House, headquarters of the university's administration, was in danger of being completely destroyed. Rector Anastasios Manthos appealed to the rioters to let the fire brigade in the university campus and the fire was put under control.

Similar scenes were also reported from other provincial towns where rampaging youths attacked police stations, broke shop windows and banks, set road blocks and fire to rubbish bins, tore pavement stones to use as missiles and threw Molotov cocktails against the police who replied with tear gas and CS chemicals

Nearly 500 shops were destroyed in Athens alone. Valuable merchandise which their owners had stocked in readiness for the Christmas period was destroyed or looted. Many elderly people and children were taken to hospital with breathing problems from the fires and the chemicals enveloping the city; it was a small miracle there were no more fatalities.

Visions of the Paris riots were rising in the minds of Greeks who were following the events, unable to understand what fuelled the atrocities committed before their eyes.

The unprecedented violence erupted around 9pm last Saturday week when 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos was shot dead, killed in cold blood by a special forces police officer - a 37-year-old father of three children.

Grigoropoulos and a group of similar-age schoolboys had earlier taken part in a demonstration for the environment. The police officer and his partner in a squad car drove past the group who allegedly threw insults and a plastic bottle at them.

The officers parked the squad car a hundred metres further down the road and came back on foot to confront the children. An argument developed and the officer was seen to take out his gun, take aim and fire three shots. Grigoropoulo fell to the ground, severely injured in the chest.

The officers turned and left the scene while bystanders were trying to help the unfortunate youngster who died a few minutes later.

News of the killing spread through the city like an electric current with the help of SMS messages and the internet. Despite the lateness of the hour, thousands of schoolchildren aged 12 to 16 escaped the supervision of their parents and gathered in the centre of the capital to express their indignation, anger and fury.

The killing of their schoolmate at the hand of a lawman who was supposed to protect them released their accumulated frustration for a society which scorns youth, kills their spirit and threatens their lives. A society that shuts them in cells instead of schools, downgrades their prospects, deprives them of dreams and denies them the right to work and a meaningful future.

Out into the streets poured also a number of hooded hooligans, members of anti-racist, anarchist, anti-authority fringe groups (well-known to the authorities who pretend they don't know who they are). These groups indulged in a riot of destruction, breaking shop windows, banks, attacking police stations, setting fire to rubbish bins and private cars, and anything else they could find in their way.

For a long period, the city was in the hands of lawlessness and violence. The government was absent, as were the police who, it appeared, had orders not to intervene to avoid further injuries or deaths among the demonstrators and the rioters.

Their passive stance fanned the violence even further and it was amazing there was only material damage and no more lives were lost.

Out into the streets came also the poor, the homeless and the immigrants who started looting the broken shops of whatever they could carry away: clothes, electronic equipment, jewellery, cameras, mobile telephones. Several of these unfortunates were arrested and no doubt the state and the public will exhaust their fury on their heads, making them the scapegoats for the sins of others.

Grigoropoulos was not the first victim of police brutality and flying bullets. In November 1985, ironically in exactly the same place. Another 15-year-old, Michael Kaltezas, was shot dead by policeman Athanasios Melistas.

In the decade to 2003, more than 70 young Greeks were shot dead by police for one reason or another, according to a parliamentary report. No police officer has been brought to justice and no-one was punished for such incidents.

The usual excuses are always brought forward: the officers had no intention of causing bodily harm. A stray or a ricochet bullet was to blame, or a faulty gun which went off at the wrong time.

Maltreated prisoners in police custody had fallen down the stairs and hurt themselves, pavement slabs had risen and hit the prisoners on the face. Immigrants had denigrated themselves, subjecting themselves to self-torture in order to discredit the police.

Any excuse is good enough but the public knows that within the police there is a handful of ignorant and seriously disturbed people who have the wrong idea of their role and their mission in society they were appointed to protect.

Grigoropoulos' death was a very sad event, a tragedy, a failure of the police, a failure of the government, a failure of democracy which is unable to protect the most vital and creative. Sadder still is the realisation that the police and the government - in perfect harmony with a decadent, decayed and declining society - managed in an instant to turn young, innocent, intelligent and sensitive children into the next generation of hooligans.

Worse still that a number of fringe political forces, anarchists, right-wing extremists and sundry hooligans of unspecified colour and persuasion, failed to respect the pain and agony of the schoolchildren for the loss of their comrade, failed to realise their dumb grief, suffering and heartache, failed to show any pity or compassion for the tenderness of their age and their inexperience

Instead they grabbed the opportunity to rise for their own nefarious reasons and incite the children to mindless acts of violence.

The unprecedented destruction around the city and the rest of the country was not caused by the demonstrating children but by these elements which used the children and their grief for their dead comrade as a shield for their own acts of brutality and violence.

Well-known to the police, used by the state and the police for their own purposes in times of crisis, these groups after a night of riot, destruction, burning, looting and terror in the city, barricaded themselves in the universities, in the knowledge they could not be pursued or arrested.

Greek universities enjoy a rather peculiar form of sanctuary, similar to that of an ancient temple. It was established during the colonels' junta in 1967-1973 to protect academic freedom of speech and academics from arrest, prosecution, torture, incarceration and often exile to a desert island.

The police and the security forces are not allowed to enter university areas without the express permission of the rector or the senate committee, who in such cases are in continuous session ready to deal with any emergencies that may arise.

These groups of marauding hooded hooligans abused the academic sanctuary and injured the function of the university. They taunted the police and the security forces from the safety of the university buildings, threw Molotov cocktails, stones, furniture and anything else they could get hold of and set fires which proved very destructive.

During a similar event some 10 years ago, the historic central building of the Technology University was burned to the ground and was only recently restored at a huge cost.

The damage to the universities is even worse because the public believes the hooligans are students and that the university condones and encourages such actions.

Already over the wreckage of a wounded city and a wounded democracy, the government is trying its absolute best to cover the horrible, hideous, horrid event. Already the mechanism of a cover up is at work; already they are avoiding the issue which is the murder of an innocent boy and are talking of a ricochet bullet as though it would make any difference.

They are trying to excuse the behaviour of some Rambo-type police officers who without provocation drew their guns and shot several times in the air to terrorise youngsters who were going home peacefully after attending the funeral of their comrade last Tuesday. I know, I witnessed it with my own eyes.

In the aftermath of the rioting, a faltering, floundering government, unable to manage the crisis and having lost public support, is making weak noises about compensation to those whose business suffered damage thus promoting the sacred right to 'property' as though life, and particularly the life of a young schoolboy, is less sacred and is practically worth nothing.

Politicians of every persuasion drop crocodile tears in front of the cameras expressing their hypocritical distress in an undisguised attempt at political capital. The Home Secretary offered his resignation but this was not accepted by the Prime Minister who is exhibiting a distinct lack of leadership.

Education Minister Evripidis Stylianidis was absent throughout the crisis. He was severely criticised for going to a night club shortly after the killing of the schoolboy and attending a football match the following day instead of trying to do something to defuse the situation. It took Stylianidis more than 48 hours to make a statement expressing his sadness for the tragic death of the schoolboy.

Now, days after an unprecedented outbreak of fury and violence, after a spontaneous eruption of suppressed feelings and frustrations and after an eruption of not so spontaneous intentions and designs, the city licks its wounds and ponders.

The death of the young schoolboy should not pass once again as an isolated incident to be buried in official jargon and inactivity. It should not be swept under the carpet of officialdom, be forgotten and be allowed to gather dust. It should be the beginning of a new approach, of deep thought and consideration about education, about the role of the police in a democratic society, about eliminating the inequalities which injure society and more often than not give rise to mindless violence.

Incidents such as the killing of an innocent boy should not be allowed to happen again. No youth should ever have to face the barrel of a gun - particularly the barrel of a gun held by a police officer. No youth should ever have to lose his life again. Only then will Alexis Grigoropoulos rest peacefully in his grave.