Οn Tuesday afternoon I made my way to the Monastiraki area in Athens to attend a demonstration taking place in solidarity with imprisoned anarchist Nikos Romanos, who has been on hunger strike since the 10th of November, demanding that he be allowed to attend university from prison. 21-year-old Romanos was arrested last year after a failed attempt at a bank robbery by him and a few of his comrades.
When I arrived at the demonstration’s meeting point I was a bit disappointed. No more than 100 people had gathered. But a little later the scene had changed completely. It wasn’t just anarchists but also representatives of most leftist fractions, men and women, young and old, who had joined together to support Romanos.
The march began at 7pm and a crowd of over 7,000 people, made its way to Omonia. As we walked on Stadiou street, the riot police made an appearance. “I’m afraid the riot police will use tear gas without any provocation, just to break up the protest”, said a girl who was marching along with the anarchist bloc.
The aim of the march was to pass by Syntagma Square. More than 200 Syrians have been holding a protest in the square for the last couple of weeks, demanding that they be allowed free and legal passage into the EU. The Syrians have also been on hunger strike since last Monday.
With a bust up between the left-wing protest on the cards, the Syrians began to organise themselves to hold onto their spot. “We aren’t leaving here, unless the police decides to move us by force,” said Khaldoon.
“We aren’t afraid,” said Khaled, who has been on hunger strike for the past nine days. “We know that the demonstration is in is solidarity with Nikos Romanos, who has also been on hunger strike. We know his story. We don’t understand why they won’t allow him to go to university. But we stand beside him. It is a matter of humanity.”
As soon as the march reached Syntagma Square, squads of riot police closed the street in front of the Grande Bretagne hotel. The protesters shouted slogans in solidarity with the Syrian refugees, while the Syrians cheered for them. “You see, they support us,” said Khaled.
The demonstrators decided to get all sarcastic at the riot police. They shouted, “Do you want a bottle of water guys?” and “aren’t you stealing any water bottles today”, referring to the night of the 17th of November when a rally marking the 41st anniversary of a student uprising against the junta turned violent. That night, riot police had got the gas out after someone chucked a bottle of water at them.
The march ended in the middle of Panepistimiou Street. Most of the protesters rolled up their banners and many left from the nearby streets. However, a few of them headed towards the Athens Polytechnic University, which has been occupied for the last couple of two days by students holding general meetings about what should happen at another demonstration planned for the 6th of December – the anniversary of the murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos a 15-year-old gunned down by police in 2008.
Trouble soon broke out on Solonos Street. Luxury cars were turned upside down, bank fronts were shattered, and trashcans were set on fire by protestors. As I headed down Stournari Street, tensions outside the Polytechnic began to escalate. The doors closed. Everyone started to panic. We knew that any moment now police would start the tear gas party.
A groups of protesters that stood on the side of Stournari street stopped an empty bus. As soon as the driver got off it safely, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the bus setting it on fire. Rubbish bins were set on fire and were used as barricades to prevent the police from approaching. A tear gas canister was thrown into the university, just one meter away from where I was standing.
Inside most people weren’t wearing helmets or masks. Everyone was coughing and in tears. The air was stifling. Riot police surrounded the building from the outside and the tensions continued until the early hours of the night. There were reports of beatings, detentions and arrests.
As I entered the auditorium to attend the meeting, which started at 10pm, I heard Nikos Romanos’s fathers say: ” The prosecutor has rejected our requests for Nikos to be granted leave to attend technical college”, he said. “We will wait until tomorrow to see if there is any change.”
“What does Nikos intend to do?”, asked a student.
“Nikos is determined to fight to the end,” Romanos’s father replied.
When I left the auditorium a few hours later, the situation had calmed down somewhat, but there was a hangover from the earlier chaos. The smell of tear gas was lingering in the air and I could feel it in my chest. Fire fighters were trying to put out the remaining fires outside the University. I wondered if Tuesday night was only a small taste of what will take place this coming weekend, which marks the six-year anniversary of Grigoropoulos’s death.
Note: this article originally appeared on VICE Greece