On December 6th in Athens and London demonstrations are being held to commemorate the murder of 15 year old Alexis Grigoropoulos by a policeman in 2008 and to show support to Alexis’ friend Nikos Romanos who is on the 26th day of hunger strike in prison - protesting against the decision to refuse him the prisoners’ right to study leave. Details of the London protest are here. Romanos’ hunger strike has sparked huge demonstrations, riots and occupations in Athens and in other towns in Greece.
Journalist Maria Margaronis writes in the Nation in an article covering the two hunger strikes of Romanos in prison and of the Syrian Refugees camped in Syntagma Square : ’
The dark thread of Romanos’ story begins at the moment when the crisis erupted in Greece. On December 6, 2008, an auxiliary police officer shot and killed his friend the 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos, while they were out celebrating Romanos’s nameday—two middle-class boys from the suburbs hanging out downtown. The shot broke a tidal wave of frustration and pent-up rage: thousands of young Athenians who saw no future in their parents’ rotten world walked out of school and blocked the roads and set Athens on fire for weeks. Not long afterwards, the ratings agencies downgraded Greece for the first time: it had begun to smell to them like a failed state. Romanos gave a statement to the police, saying, “My friend was executed in cold blood.” He helped to carry the white coffin at the funeral. Then he disappeared.
He surfaced four years later on Greece’s TV screens, his face retouched to hide the swollen bruises inflicted by police. By then the crisis was in full swing: jobs lost, salaries slashed, families broken, lives aborted. Police brutality, on the streets and in the cells, had become routine, targeting protesters and immigrants. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was riding high, beating up dark-skinned people with impunity. Few people had much faith in the state, the police or the justice system any more.
Romanos was arrested with three other young men in northern Greece for armed robbery, possession of heavy weapons and taking a hostage. Like a modern Gavrilo Princip, he confessed to the weapons, the hostage and the robberies (in which no one was hurt), and declared his political motives—“We are urban guerillas”—while denying membership in the terrorist organization Nuclei of Fire. In prison awaiting trial, he married his girlfriend and passed the national exams for Greece’s technical colleges.
The power of Romanos’s story is as a parable of the crisis, the social and personal breakdown so many Greeks have lived. For his supporters he has become an almost mythic figure, the hero of a real-life Hunger Games. A boy with his life ahead of him derailed by a bullet from a policeman’s gun—a bullet that shattered a country’s sleep in a shower of splintering glass. A white, bewildered face that disappeared for years to resurface battered and bruised as a dark Robin Hood, armored now with an angry ideology. A boy who swallowed the sanctioned lawlessness and chaos of the state and mirrored it back again like a rogue Robocop. A young man whose hunger strike echoes the many suicides of the last few years, but in slow motion on the public stage. A young man easily assimilated to the Greek left’s pantheon of young men murdered by the right, the state or the police.
Romanos says he won’t eat until victory or death. The government is under pressure from all sides—the lenders, the left, its gaping internal splits—and has waited too long to back down without seeming to bend to blackmail. It’s the eleventh hour, the eve of December 6—the anniversary of Grigoropoulos’s death. Athens will be in lockdown for the Turkish prime minister’s visit; there will be protests and thousands of riot police blockading the city center. At the moment, it looks like a stalemate.