15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot by a policeman in the center of Athens. His death called the Greeks to the streets for demonstrations, sparked riots all over the country. It radicalized his best friend and changed Greece forever–it still changes Greece to this day.
By Mareike Nieberding, Maria Feck
It must have been a rubber bullet. It must have been. It must. This is the only thing that Nikos – slightly too short and skinny for a 15-year-old, but a born leader – can think about at this moment. Bang, bang! it went. And Alexandros, his best friend for almost 10 years, his skate buddy, his one-on-one opponent on the basketball court, collapsed a few meters in front of him.
Nikos runs over to his friend, grabs him by the right shoulder, another person takes the left and together they carefully pull him back, the heels of Alaxandros’ worn-out Vans slide over the ground, away from the shooter, into the safety of their street, the street where they hang out almost every weekend, Mesologgiou in Exarchia, the left-leaning university neighborhood in old Athens. They had just raised their beers in a toast to Nikos’ name day, and had been meaning to go to the birthday celebrations of Alexandros’ girlfriend afterwards. Now Alexandros’ head lies in Nikos’ hands, his dark brown curls framing his face, while blood runs out of his mouth.
It must have been a rubber bullet. It must, Nikos thinks. Rubber bullets had already been used on occasion when they had targeted the boys. But a policeman wouldn’t fire live ammunition, would he?
He looks at Alexandros, who is taking shallow breaths. His eyes are open, but he makes no sound, not even when somebody rolls up the Jack-Daniel’s t-shirt underneath the black and blue stripes of his hoodie. “There’s a hole, there’s a hole!” someone shouts. “A doctor! We need a doctor!” screams another. “You fucking cop! What have you done?” yells a third person.
If this were a film, the camera would now zoom out: We see the victim Alexandros, who is fighting for his life, and his best friend Nikos, who doesn’t want to let him go. Two men in midnight blue uniforms appear. They are holding their pistols at the ready, then slowly put them back in their holsters, turn around and leave. The policemen Epaminondas Korkoneas, 37 years old, and Vasilis Saraliotis, 30 years old, they are the shooter and his accomplice.
From a nearby café, a doctor rushes into the intersection. He massages Alexandros’ heart. When the ambulance arrives, the boy is loaded onto a stretcher, the doors slam, the flashing blue light comes on, the van drives off. Nikos stays behind.
Alexandros Andreas Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old private school pupil and son of a respected Athenian family, dies on 6 December 2008 at around 21:10 on his way to the hospital. The bullet had hit his heart. On the black-and-white photos of the forensic pathologist the entry hole is perfectly discernible, two centimeters in diameter, three centimeters to the right of his left nipple. In Alexandros’ pocket the medics later find a paper bag the size of a cigarette pack. In it there is an orange suede pouch and in that there is a red heart on a black leather string: the birthday present for his girlfriend. That very evening, he had wanted to give her his first “I love you.”
Every country has its dead: victims who write history because their death ignites something in their compatriots. They are matched by their perpetrators. Those who attract the anger of the masses, those in whose acts the conflicts of society as a whole are mirrored: the state against its citizens. The monopoly of violence against the need for protection.
Crimes like these can accelerate political movements; sometimes they make society break a new path. Just like the death of student Benno Ohnesorg (1967) and the subsequent violence of 1968 turned these years into a symbol of the young revolting against the old in Germany, 6 December 2008 made its mark on Greece. The murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos radicalized his best friend Nikos Romanos, it politicized the young, unleashed the citizens’ ire towards their government. It transformed an entire country and continues to do so.
In highly politicized Exarchia, where Greek students and intellectuals took to the streets against Church and state more than 100 years ago, the news about the shooting of Alexandros spread from phone to phone. Radio and TV channels began their coverage; within a few hours the whole country knew. On the streets of the neighborhood parents, elders and students gathered. That same evening thousands of people marched peacefully through Athens, their chants demanding “Justice for Alexis”, when nobody had ever called him Alexis. His friends called him Gregory.
Later at night masked men torched 20 cars, set light to seven bank branches, destroyed and looted more than 30 shops. Athens burst into flames.
In the following days and week, there was an eruption of anger; anger of a kind neither policemen nor politicians had reckoned with:
On Sunday, 7 December, 11 buildings on Syntagma Square were set on fire. By the evening, 26 other Greek cities reported demonstrations and protests.
On Monday schools and universities across Greece were occupied, ten days later 600 schools and 150 universities could be counted.
On Tuesday Alexandros was buried.
On Wednesday the Greek unions mobilized around two million people to take part in nationwide protests. That is almost a fifth of the Greek population.
On Thursday Amnesty International accused the Greek police force of mass brutality.
By Friday, December 12, the Greek police had fired 4,600 tear gas canisters.
“You give money to the banks and bullets to the youth!”, screamed the protesters in these first few weeks. The bullets aimed at Alexandros hit a weakened country.
He was not a refugee, not a Roma, not an anarchist – those who often fall victim to police brutality in Greece without engendering any protest – he was a Greek boy from a “good Athenian family”
Only twelve weeks earlier, Lehman Brothers had gone bankrupt, and many Greeks sensed that a financial crisis was upon them. Since the foundation of the Hellenic Republic in 1975, the alternating ruling parties, the social democratic Pasok and the conservative Nea Dimokratia, had pumped up the state with bureaucrats and created a gigantic system of dependencies, in which loyalty could be obtained with bribes and lucrative posts in politics and business could simply be bought.
The introduction of the Euro in 2001 had brought cheap money and debt-fueled welfare; the summer Olympics of 2004 added new tourists. But these days of bread and circuses were only hiding the construction flaws of the political system. As early as 2006 students at universities had gone on strike for a fairer education system. The phrase “Generation 700 euros”, denoting those who had little more than that sum each month, was already well established.
The protest had the desired effect because it had a new face: that of a blissfully grinning 15-year-old with a Sex Pistols t-shirt, henceforth printed on posters and sprayed on house walls across the country. His fate united the protesters because this boy was inside all of them. He could have been their son, their brother, their best friend. He was not a refugee, not a Roma, not an anarchist – those who often fall victim to police brutality in Greece without engendering any protest – he was a Greek boy from a “good Athenian family.”
Politics reacted quickly. The President of the Hellenic Republic and his conservative Prime Minister apologized to Alexandros’ family in the night of the incident. The Minister of the Interior and his deputy offered their resignations. Wealthy families like that of Alexandros had formed their backbone for decades. Yet even the first few days showed that this deed would push the Greeks not only to the streets, but to the ballot box.
Even Alexandros’ funeral three days after his death, on a sunny Tuesday in December, evolved into a protest. Almost 10,000 people were squeezed between the tombs of the cemetery in Palaio Faliro and down the winding street until the next crossing. Among them was Alexandros’ best friend Nikos Romanos. Together with other friends, he was now shouldering the small white coffin which was richly decorated in layers of white flowers. Behind him walked Alexandros’ mother, Jina Tsalikian, supported by two companions, the eyes covered by black sunglasses, the face nothing but a scream of pain.
Almost ten years later, on a hot Tuesday in May 2018, Jina Tsalikian, upright as if held by a string, enters a run-down court room in Lamia, 212 kilometers away from Athens. The judge, who has been chairing the proceedings for the past two hours, falls silent. All eyes turn towards the tall, slender woman in her black lace shift dress, the lips perfectly made up, the brown hair long.
The only one who does not look at her is the perpetrator. Epaminondas Korkoneas, 46 years old by now, sits with his back against the door and the audience. He keeps his head down; his hair is flattened by a peculiar head piece made from felt; in his hands he holds a blue cardboard file in which he makes notes every now and then.
Tsalikian sits down diagonally behind him and naturally chooses the first row, which is usually reserved for members of the court. Nobody stops her. Would she mind taking off her sunglasses? is the only request of a policeman. Her eyes are yellow.
The first trial against the policemen Epaminondas Korkoneas and Vasilis Saraliotis ended with a conviction in October 2010: Korkoneas was found guilty of murder and sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. It was the longest prison sentence ever for a Greek policeman, committing a comparable crime. His accomplice Saraliotis received ten years for being an accessory to murder. But since he was allowed to work in prison, which meant that every day counted for two, he has been living in his hometown, Drama, since 2013 and now works as a waiter in a cafe.
In the autumn of 2017, the appeals process began. All 39 witnesses have been heard again, all pieces of evidence inspected again, all stories of that night told again, and some even in a new way.
Korkoneas hopes that this could lead to a milder punishment and an early release from prison.
Alexandros’ mother, Jina Tsalikian, expects an answer to the question that has been left open until today: “Why did Alexandros have to die?”
During a break in the appeal proceedings in May 2018, Tsalikian sits in the court’s cafe, anxiously dragging on a cigarillo. Next to her, her daughter, Alexandros’ older sister Areti, 27 years old, a student teacher who lives in total seclusion since her brother’s death. Alexandros’ father, Jina’s ex-husband, an aeronautical engineer, died of cancer two years ago. Tsalikian says, “It is very hard for me to go through everything once more. The witnesses don’t remember precisely anymore, but who would remember precisely after so long a time? They have their own lives, their own problems. For me, however, every detail of that night counts, every minuscule detail.”
When does the past end? Presumably when forgetting begins
When does the past end? Presumably when forgetting begins. And for Alexandros’ mother that means it will never end. Jina Tsalikian has tried to continue living her life as best she could. After the first judgement, she started to work again, at the jewelry store which she (a lawyer by training) had been running with her family for three generations. Together with her new partner, and at the age of 51, she had a second son, whom she named Philippos. He is now 5 years old. In Greek history Philippos is the son of King Alexandros. Once a year, she invited family friends to commemorate Alexandros’ life and death.
This year, there was no invitation. She sold the shop, which Alexandros was supposed to take over, in 2018. She can’t bring herself to do it anymore.
She finds it difficult to speak about her dead son. She rejects any further meeting. She says she isn’t ready yet. Instead, two days later, she sends a cardboard box with items from Alexandros’ room to the lawyers, in order for them to be able to get an idea of who he was. Items which she could cling on to these past years: his school notebooks, his skateboard, his football and his electric guitar, in the corresponding sleeve there still was a box of strings, ripped open. Nikos and Alexandros had formed a punk band in the summer before his death.
After the break in court (the mother had already taken her seat again) Panaretos Korkoneas, a grey, chubby man with thick glasses, the father of the perpetrator, testifies. He demands the immediate release of his son; he has three children; he is needed at home. His son listens with a lowered head, seeking eye contact with his lawyer every now and then.
Prison has changed Epamonidas Korkoneas. The somewhat round cheeks of the first trial have now fallen inwards, his beard has turned grey. Round his neck he wears a braided cross. He is supposed to have found God in prison; he lives as a vegan.
“How did you hear of the act?” Tsalikian’s lawyer asks Korkoneas’ father.
“I saw it in the news. I know that bottles and stones were flying around. These kids, they were not brought up well; they had the bad habit of throwing things about.”
“Do you then mean to say that your son was fearing for his life?”
“Of course he was scared! Imagine how dangerous it all was!”
That Korkoneas actually had to fear for his life is hard to imagine, if one knows what happened that night according to the judicial records:
On Saturday, 6 December 2008, Epaminondas Korkoneas and Vasilis Saraliotis are on patrol together in Exarchia. Korkoneas is at the wheel. Whoever is at the wheel is in command. Before joining the police, Korkoneas had been a paratrooper in the army; at the age of 28 he transferred to the special forces of the police and moved to Athens with his family. He and his colleague Saraliotis are so-called “special guardians”: they wear the same uniform as their colleagues and execute similar tasks, but they have not gone to police academy. Men like these are the grunts of the Greek forces. Trained in two instead of three years, paid worse, without significant chances of promotion.
At 20:45 they receive the command to deal with a mis-parked car over the radio. They ignore the command. It would have meant an immediate U-turn. Five minutes later they come across Nikos and his friends. Alexandros is just arriving; he had been playing water polo with his friends. Korkoneas and Saraliotis drive past the youngsters at walking speed. In the rear mirror they see how some of them pick up stones from the street and throw them after the police car.
The officers are asked once more to deal with the mis-parked car. They do not react. Instead, they drive around the block once (because of the one-way streets), park their vehicle at the end of Mesologgiou Street, get out and start insulting the teenagers, who are about 40 meters away. Korkoneas yells, “Come here, you pussies! We’re gonna fuck you over!”. One of the boys answers, “You fucking cops, piss off!”
Then the two police officers climb back into the car, drive around the corner and leave it in front of the headquarters of the Pasok party, which a police bus guards day and night. They leave the car. They do not tell any of the at least ten fully armed special forces agents what they were planning to do. They do not ask for reinforcement, but walk back 89 meters in the direction of Mesologgiou.
Alexandros and Nikos are chatting underneath an overhanging roof, there’s a drizzle, both have a bottle of beer in their hand. They do not expect the policemen to come back.
Korkoneas and Saraliotis need one minute and five seconds for the stretch from the car to the crime scene. That is what a judicial assessment concluded afterwards. One minute and five seconds are long enough to reconsider any decision made, to dissuade the other one from acting. Just before reaching the pavement they stop and throw a flash grenade (which they should not have with them when on patrol). A bang of up to 180 decibel and blinding light should make the opponent lose his orientation.
The bang drives the painter Lito Valiatza, then 33 years old, onto her balcony on the second floor. She grabs her camera, which happens to be lying on the windowsill, and presses the “record” button.
Valiatza observes how the policemen take their positions on the pavement, as if following a choreography: They stand with their legs apart, stretch out their arms and lift their weapons. In Valiatza’s video, one of the most important pieces of evidence, the two men can be seen standing on the street, while cars drive past and people sit in the café.
Alexandros, Nikos and an unknown third person make a few steps towards the policemen in those very seconds. Alexandros walks ahead, without any fear, without any apprehension of what is about to happen. He forms the apex of the youthful triangle and throws a bottle in the direction of the officers; it doesn’t hit anyone.
Saraliotis doesn’t pull the trigger.
Korkoneas shoots twice.
One of the bullets of his Glock 17 will never be found. The other (according to the ballistic assessment) brushes a concrete pillar turns minimally downwards and hits Alexandros’ chest, because he stands a bit lower on this sloping street than Korkoneas. Nikos stands diagonally behind him, next to him another boy, behind them at least five further teenagers.
The Greek police is forbidden from firing a shot into any crowd. It is also forbidden to leave a crime scene after having fired a shot. By law the police should dial 166, i.e., the emergency doctors, inform the headquarters, give first aid and wait for the ambulance.
Korkoneas and Saraliotis, by contrast, return to their car, sit down and report via radio at 21:01 that something had happened, but they do not say what happened. Saraliotis says, “We were attacked. We were attacked by anarchists.” The civil servant at the headquarters asks three times: “Where?”. No response. The word “unspecified” appears three times in the headquarters’ record. Immediately after that Saraliotis returns and this time says, “We are being attacked.” Present tense. At 21.02 they announce their withdrawal. After that, they turn off their radio. Their police station is only three minutes away by car; they are on the move for 14 minutes. Where they went, what they did, who they met with – unknown. We only know that Korkoneas calls his wife and says, “Hello, darling, something came up at work, just start eating with the kids, this could be a late one.”
At 21.16 they reach their police station. Shortly after midnight their weapons are confiscated, at three o’clock they are arrested.
During the court proceeding a dozen policemen were asked what happened in the five hours between the act and the arrest. All of them replied: “I can’t remember.”
What did not happen in these hours? No witnesses are interviewed. Only the police chief of Exarchia with two colleagues make their way towards Mesologgiou, where about 59 people have gathered in the meantime.
The eyewitness Valiatza sees the three officers from her balcony, runs downstairs and states, “I saw the policemen, I want to testify.” The police chief simply puts his arm around her shoulder. To her, this feels like a threat – which is why she does not mention anything about the video for the moment. The policemen take down her details and never contact her again.
Assisted by a lawyer who is a friend, Valiatza obtains an appointment for her testimony herself. Long before that, a friend had posted the video with her permission on Athens Indymedia, a leftist, alternative online forum. From there, it travels to Greek television that same night. By the time Lito Valiatza testifies two weeks later, the politicization of that night is already in full swing.
Alexandros Grigoropoulos has become a symbol. But what is he a symbol of? Ten years after his death, opinion is still divided – both in Greek society and in the courtroom in Lamia.
It is three o’clock in the afternoon by the time the judge adjourns the proceedings. For those who were sitting left of the judge’s chair, for the culprit and his lawyers, it is clear who is responsible for Alexandros’ death: Whoever strays around Exarchia, explained the lawyers in court, is socialist scum and should be prepared for the worst. Ultimately, it’s his parents’ fault; they should have looked after him better.
This reading has been nurtured for ten years: Ever since Korkoneas’ former lawyer published a press statement which stated that the boy had shown “abnormal behavior” and possessed “neither the maturity nor the character” befitting a 15-year-old. That lawyer was subsequently reprimanded by the bar association. That same evening, the headmaster of Alexandros’ school – a conservative private establishment in an Athenian suburb – vouched for Alexandros and Nikos: They had supposedly been two attentive, mature young men who were politically inconspicuous. And still, doubt was sown.
“For the conservative part of society, Alexandros and Nikos were no longer victims, but two troublemakers. Not even the verdict could change anything about that,” says Zoi Konstantopoulou, 41, a tall women with an intimidating power of persuasion. After the hearing she falls into the plush backseat of an SUV. Her driver has prepared an iced coffee. She wants to return to her office in Exarchia.
Zoi Konstantopoulou represents Alexandros’ family together with her 76-year-old father. In the days of the military junta, the father had been tortured in prison for having been a leftist opposition figure. Later on, he had repeatedly defended the victims of police violence. At the beginning of the nineties he was the Minister of the Interior. For both father and daughter, Alexandros is a victim of state violence and a national police infested with right-wing extremists – but above all, he is the victims of two contract killers. The Konstantopoulou believe that someone had to die that night; not necessarily him, but someone. They believe that Korkoneas and Saraliotis had received orders to kill somebody in order to destabilize the government and thereby the whole country. They believe that Alexandros was the random victim of a political murder, possibly orchestrated by the far-right party Golden Dawn, with whose members Korkoneas had appeared in a photo. It is a badly kept secret that the Greek police has a problem with right-wing extremists. When a criminologist gave a lecture at the Athenian Police Academy in 2011, more than three quarters of the audience enthusiastically applauded fascist ideology.
According to Zoi Konstantopoulou, the murder was supposed to unleash protests and riots. It would have been easy to gain political capital; even if only a few had been rioting, all protesters could have been branded as gangs of degenerates; harder punishments and faster verdicts could have been demanded for left-wing radicals.
Even if Konstantopoulou’s theory were to be true, we can now, ten years later, say that the plan of the far right (if it indeed existed), has only partially succeeded. The shooting led to more police violence in the short term, but in the long term they led to the rise of the radically left-wing party Syriza. And it empowered a man whom the lawyer Konstantopoulou has known since her university days, Alexis Tsipras.
In 2008 Tsipras was the head of the Synapsismos Alliance, the precursor to Syriza, which was not even polling at three percent. But in the days and weeks after the murder, Synapsismos became visible. Tsipras’ people helped with the organization of strikes and demonstrations, even if they were smart enough not to put their party stamp on it. This is also emphasized by Konstantopoulou, who also took to the streets in 2008.
She leads us back to her office, which looks as if it had been set up for a TV law-drama (dusty bookshelves, piles of files), and sits down on a green leather chair. “2008 was not about Syriza,” she says. “This protest movement cut horizontally across all layers of Greek society. It was not just leftists on the streets. It was about much more than political parties. It was about our future.”
Across the country a new culture of debate emerged. Neighborhood associations sprang up, citizen assemblies were founded, many of them persisting until today. The school children of Athens organized themselves as an alliance and collectively called for yearly protests on the anniversary of Alexandros’ death. Personally they were driven by fear for their own life – the police officer’s bullet could have hit any of them – while politically, they were driven by the realization that they could only resist the looming financial crisis together. In those times, the tears of gas and grief where thus mixed with hope, above all among young Greeks, that democratic change was coming.
Suddenly everything was at stake: the conservative government of Prime Minister Karamanlis, educational justice, stable pensions, rising youth unemployment; the whole system of corrupt politicians and tax-avoiding industrialists
After 6 December 2008, Greece witnessed a movement against politics, transcending the borders of parties and generations. It was no longer just about police brutality. Suddenly everything was at stake: the conservative government of Prime Minister Karamanlis, educational justice, stable pensions, rising youth unemployment; the whole system of corrupt politicians and tax-avoiding industrialists which had driven the country into a financial crisis. And that movement lasted not only days or weeks; it persists until today.
“The murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos has shaken the Greeks out of their apathy; ever since nobody can be merely a spectator. Answers are expected from politics,” says Seraphim Seferiades, a thin man with a broad sense of self-worth sitting in a cramped meeting room at Pantheion University in Athens. Sefriades conducts research on collective violence. According to him, 6 December 2008 initiated a new era.
Yet even if the murder reconciled parts of Greek society which had looked at each other critically – old and young, peaceful and violent protesters – the shooting also divided Greeks by reducing the country’s complex condition to a single question: who was the perpetrator and who was the victim? Or put differently: is the country killing its children or are the children killing the country?
This social polarization intensified in subsequent years. The state of exception of December 2008 was followed by the state of exception of the crisis. And every economic crisis strengthens the political fringes. It was not only Syriza, but also the right-wing extremists of Golden Dawn who won new voters in those times and entered parliament for the first time in 2012. The fact that Greek society shifted towards the left, not the right, is not merely a historical accident, according to Sefariades, but a consequence of the December uprisings and the politicization that followed. Because the neighborhood associations, communal task forces and citizen assemblies of 2008 later formed the basis for the protests against the austerity policies of the European Union. And those protests were in turn the basis for the electoral victory of Syriza in 2012, when the party became the second-biggest power in parliament with 26.9 percent of the vote.
In the days of bank bailouts, tax rises and queuing at the cash machine, Syriza attracted voters with the promise that in the future they would do everything differently from their predecessors. They demanded the end of the neoliberal austerity diktat, fueled hatred against the Troika, the EU, the Germans and ultimately achieved a historic victory with 36.4 percent in January 2015. Likewise, December 2008 created a power base for two old friends: Alexis Tsipras at the head of the new radically left-wing government on the one hand, and the lawyer Zoi Konstantopoulou on the other. At the age of 38 she became the youngest president of the parliament in history.
In the 2015 election, many voters gave credit to Syriza for not condemning the violence of December 2008 publicly, but viewing it as an expression of civil disobedience instead. But for some, attacks on banks and buildings, supplemented by the election of a new government did not go far enough. They did not only want to see Athens, Thessaloniki or Patros in flames; they wanted the Greek state to burn. One of their most important leaders is Nikos Romanos.
Today Nikos is 25 years old and famous. His face and that of Alexandros are sprayed all over Exarchia in the form of graffiti. Ten years after his best friend’s death, Nikos is something like the prince of Greek anarchy. He has been in prison since the age of 18.
It is impossible to visit Nikos there, but it is possible to read his writings. From the confines of his seven square meter cell, he writes manifestos: page after page of resistance poetry, calls for violence, fantasies of revolution – all of which allies post online on his behalf.
Those texts are all about “scientifically manifested repression and the technocratic ugliness which sullies the beauty of wild instincts and free will,” about “taking the law into one’s own hands” and attacking all individuals “who hold political or economic positions of power.” Every now and again the murderer’s lawyer cites those texts in court in order to declare retrospectively that Alexandros was an anarchist too. For that reason, Jina Tsalikian does not want to have anything to do with Nikos or his family. She finds his behavior unforgivable.
Nikos’ father can only smile at the legal maneuvers of the lawyers. Giorgos Romanos (62) is a hectic man with wild grey hair. He receives guests in his dental surgery in the center of Athens, which looks like anesthetics are not provided out of principle. For Romanos, too, 6 December 2008 changed everything. His only child is behind bars. His wife, a writer, rarely leaves the house except for the visits she pays Nikos twice a week.
The night of the murder was the last one which Nikos spent in his own bed. For just one more morning the son remained the child which he had been before the fatal blow. Giorgos Romanos even convinced his son of testifying to the police, since it was his duty to contribute to the resolution of the crime. But as soon as Nikos had left the police station, he lost himself in the labyrinth of Exarchia. He slept in occupied houses and lecture halls. For four weeks, his father watched him from a distance as he radicalized himself further and further. Giorgos Romanos himself hit the streets of Exarchia during those weeks. He and Nikos often bumped into each other at demonstrations.
Romanos knows what it is like when the spark of violence is mirrored in one’s own eyes. And he knows that protest can be useful. In 1973, he occupied the Polytechnic University of Exarchia. In those days Greece was still a military dictatorship which used tanks against its youth. The occupation of that university was the beginning of the end of that dictatorship. This is why he initially granted Nikos the freedom to do as he pleased. When his son returned home shortly after Christmas, his transformation was complete, says Romanos: “From that day onwards he no longer called me ‘dad’. He calls me ‘comrade’.”
After those weeks of violence Nikos was supposed to return to normalcy. But nothing was normal anymore. Everything reminded him of Alexandros. Everything suddenly seemed meaningless: the girl trouble of his friends, his marks, his piano. Nikos had been an excellent pianist. After Alexandros’ death, he never opened his piano again. Instead, he began to theorize the murder of his friend, framing it in an anti-capitalist, anti-institutional context. “Alexandros would therefore not have died in vain”, says his father today. Alexandros’ death led Nikos into anarchy.
Suitcase full of hatred
It is one of the core principles of this ideology not to recognize the state or its jurisdiction. In April 2010 Nikos should have been an eyewitness in the trial against the murderer of his best friend. He had already attended the proceedings five times, but had never been called to the witness stand. “He wouldn’t have been able to bear that for a sixth time,” says Romanos.
That is why Nikos packed “a suitcase full of hatred,” as he writes in his texts, and went into the anarchic underground, at the age of only 17. Two years later he was arrested. He had wanted to attack a bank with two like-minded friends. But the conviction was for attempted armed robbery and terrorism. Additionally, he took political responsibility for an attack on the former defense minister, Yiannos Papantoniou, who by now has been arrested himself for corruption and money laundering. Twenty-two years of confinement is what Nikos got for all of that.
It was only in prison that Nikos became an icon. He went on a hunger strike. He managed 31 days. That act almost cost him his life. Yet the pictures of an emaciated Nikos Romanos at the window of the prison clinic were in the news for days. His possible death became a political issue, debated in parliament. The aim of Nikos’ hunger strike was to enforce the prisoner’s right to education as officially guaranteed by the state. He triumphed: since then, every qualified prisoner must be allowed to study at university. This year Nikos is finishing his degree in health management at the University of Athens, albeit with an ankle monitor.
Giorgos Romanos says: “I am proud of my son. He defends his convictions in a way which I never attained. That impresses me.” However much Nikos believes himself to be above the system, he is still dependent on the political decisions that are taken outside. The government of Alexis Tsipras has passed a law allowing prisoners like Nikos to shorten their sentence. His father even hopes that it could be cut in half. Nikos has been imprisoned for six years and would like to be transferred to another prison after his graduation. A type of prison where every day counts twice due to the work which prisoners must undertake – that would mean that he could be released next year. Yet in May 2019, elections will be held. Should Tsipras and Syriza lose against the conservatives, the law would probably be reversed. And the defeat of Syriza is more probable than ever.
That is because the story of December 6, 2008 did not end with a political revolution with Syriza’s 2015 victory to which so many great promises were attached for so many Greeks. That night did not only mark the death of a boy, or the death of public trust in the police, it marked the death of trust in any form of governance. Syriza had entered the contest in order to rebuild that trust. They won the elections by propagating a sentiment of “We, the people from below, against the old elites above”. Many felt connected to Syriza as if he were a good friend.
In the very year of their electoral victory, however, Alexis Tsipras’ government agreed to the conditions of the Troika, despite the fact that 61.3 percent of Greeks had rejected a third austerity package in a referendum. The friend became the enemy. The party that had wanted to do everything differently lost not only voters, but combatants: Yanis Varoufakis resigned from his position as finance minister and Zoi Konstantopoulou stepped back as parliamentary president and left the party. Twenty-five other members of parliament and the complete youth wing of Syriza followed suit. Nonetheless, Tsipras implemented the austerity measures under pressure from European, and especially German, creditors.
The deep shock about this is still felt by many Greeks. The 15-year-olds of 2008, the “Generation 700 Euros” that protested after Alexandros’ death in December, have now become the generation of 300 euros, according to the political scientist Seraphim Seferiades. 500,000 young Greeks have emigrated since 2008. Of those under 24 who have stayed, about 40 percent have no job and no independent income. Today’s 15-year-olds are even poorer than those of 2008. They have worse perspectives for improvement and are even more enraged than their predecessors.
On the ninth anniversary of Alexandros’ death, 6 December 2017, that rage finds its way back onto the streets. Even before the scheduled start (12.30) of the first demonstration of Athenian pupils departing from the National Library in the neighborhood of Akadimia, stones fly across the sky at five past twelve. While around 800 young, peaceful protesters chant “Justice for Alexis!” and express their disappointment with Syriza in calm conversations, 30 dark figures in disguise stalk the march like predators. They smash windows, set bins on fire, dig cobble stones out of the ground and throw them in the direction of the police. At six o’clock, the second demonstration starts. The hour in between is used by many anarchists to close off Exarchia with barricades of cars, barbed wire and furniture. They store Molotov cocktails from occupied buildings and wait in dimly lit entrance halls until night falls, until the moment the last demonstration is over and the police cross the invisible border to Exarchia in order to protect its inhabitants. That is when the incendiaries swarm through the air like inflamed red birds, when smoke and teargas make the whole neighborhood go blurry in front of our eyes. Without a gas mask it is impossible to gasp for air.
As early as 23:15 the party office of Syriza on Kallidromiou Street is destroyed. Somebody had lit a fire inside; all pictures have been blasted off the walls, only a portrait of Lenin is still hanging in its place. Thus it continues hour by hour, street by street, until the first masked men set off towards Strefi, the hill above Exarchia.
Like dark shadows, some of them rest on the summit and watch their city burn in ceremonious silence. They look at their oeuvre the way an artist would look at his finished painting. They take off the gas masks and their balaclavas. They are barely older than Alexandros Grigoropoulous when he died. As old as Nikos Romanos when his new life began. A nameless boy says that they do it all for these two teenagers. “We thought everything would get better with Syriza, but everything got worse.” For Syriza there is no way back from their broken promises. For Greece there is no way back to 2008, to the endlessly long moment in which the bullet of a policeman hit the heart of a boy and of the whole country. In the distance, the Akropolis is still gleaming. The sky above the hill is still filled with teargas. Athens weeps.
Photo: Athens, Greece. Cops shot against one 15-16 year old boy, right on the heart, murdering him in cold blood. – © murplejane/ Flickr
Süddeutsche Zeitung (also known from the Panama Papers) is the intellectual, liberal newspaper of left-wing Germany. Together with the FAZ one from the country's major newspapers. The SZ is known for the trinity: tolerance, independence and vigilance.
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