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We choose to be free. Keep your money.’

Troy Mathew | Monday, February 13, 2012

ATHENS — Media coverage of the demonstrations taking place in Athens often includes footage of anarchists throwing Molotov cocktails, riot police releasing a sea of tear gas and widespread chaos. Needless to say, I was a little nervous when my friends and I decided to head to Syntagma Square during a scheduled demonstration.

The Greek Parliament Building is located in Syntagma Square, making it the epicenter for Athenian protests. Tensions were especially high Saturday, as Greek Parliament prepared to vote on another round of austerity measures. If passed, the new regulations would curtail laborers’ collective bargaining rights and lower the minimum wage, among other mandates.

Many groups, such as the Pan-Hellenic Fighting Front, were unhappy with the stipulations. The groups often congregate somewhere in the city at a scheduled time and march to Parliament as one massive, indignant crowd. The demonstrations typically start peacefully, but have the potential to erupt into occasional violence. Just the day before our visit to Syntagma Square, protestors smashed the sidewalk and threw chunks of marble at riot police.

We arrived at the Parliament building before the groups started to congregate, so the crowd was relatively sparse. I soon realized a lot of the people there were like me, curious bystanders wanting to witness an event of worldwide relevance. The square had an unexpected atmosphere. There were food vendors selling bread, souvlaki and coffee, and the ever-present stray dogs were lounging as if nothing out of the ordinary was occurring. Greek music was blaring, interspersed with protestors yelling over the speakers.

I found myself directly in front of the Parliament building, less than five feet from a row of stoic Greek riot police. They each had full body armor, shields and gas masks at the ready. A few Greeks approached the line of officers and screamed insults at them with particularly incendiary Greek insults.

The mood of the crowd became uneasy as rows and rows of protesters filed into the square. I noticed everyone around me had some kind of face coverage, whether it was a scarf or a painter’s mask, in anticipation of tear gas exposure. Some sprayed their own faces with a white mixture of Maalox and water to combat the gas, giving much of the crowd the appearance of a child dressed as a vampire on Halloween. People carried signs and chanted. Eventually, a couple of my friends and I felt like a taste of America and got lunch at a nearby McDonald’s, indoors and in view of the ongoing protest.

The protest turned out to be uneventful, as the crowd gradually dispersed without any violent skirmishes.

The same could not be said Sunday night, unfortunately. Greek Parliament voted to approve the austerity measures, and Syntagma Square erupted into violence. Luckily I stayed away from the square that day, but the explosions of Molotov cocktails and stun grenades could be heard from Pangrati, the neighborhood where I am living as a student this semester.

Many followers of current events might believe everyone present at the protests is ready and willing to destroy their city and throw rocks at police. Relatively small factions of people are present at the demonstrations that make it their mission to start violence, and once they do, the crowd descends into chaos. Further, these potential riots are by no means spontaneous. The more volatile demonstrations are planned in advance and are avoidable for those wanting to stay away.

On Monday, my teachers were absolutely devastated by the damage done to their city square, where flames consumed at least three historic buildings. The Greeks are a very proud people, who are profoundly dissatisfied with their government and crippled by harsh austerity measures. Although recent measures prevented Greece from defaulting on its loans, the future of the country’s government is anything but certain.