Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Saturday, 2 July 2011 12:04 UK

The 'rituals' of the Greek riots

Protesters amid tear gas

By Justin Rowlatt
BBC News, Greece

As protesters continue to take to the streets of the Greek capital over the government's tough austerity package, police are turning to more drastic measures to stop the demonstrations which have now become an everyday part of Athenian life.

Within two hours of arriving in Athens, I was in the midst of the riot.

I was coughing and spluttering, my eyes in agony as another cloud of tear gas blew over me.

Protesters in tear gas
Riots and tear gas are becoming the norm

I blamed the taxi driver.

He had dropped me on the wrong side of Syntagma, the central square and the focus of the protests here.

He insisted that, with so many roads closed, the shortest way to my hotel would be to walk.

Well it might have been the shortest way, but it certainly was not the quickest.

As I walked with Antonis, a PhD student I had got talking to, I felt a tickle in my nose. I sneezed.

"That's the tear gas," he told me.

He had just begun to explain that the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, when we heard a volley of explosions and turned a corner, right into a raging river of protesters streaming away from a black knot of baton-wielding riot policemen.

The more time I spent in Athens the more I realised the riots had an almost ritual quality

I had never been tear-gassed before, but the white mist billowing down the street signalled that was about to change.

Tear gas is not actually a gas but a very fine powder so, as your eyes water to clear the irritant, more and more of the stuff sticks to your face.

Wipe the tears away and you only rub more in. And it is painful, very painful.

It feels exactly like what it is - acid.

Antonis, a typical Athenian student and therefore very "experienced" in these situations, helped me stagger blindly away.

I felt someone grab my hands. A creamy liquid was poured onto them.

"It is Maalox, an antidote to the gas. Wash your face and eyes with it," urged Antonis.

Riot policemen scuffle with women during a 48-hour general strike in Athens
Protesters have learnt to use white-coloured Maalox to counteract the gas

I did as I was told and immediately the stinging pain began to ease, and my vision began to return.

Antonis led me down a side street and within a moment all was calm again.

That vertiginous contrast, the vortex of violence on the square and peaceful normality just a few streets away, was to strike me again and again.

The more time I spent in Athens, the more I realised the riots had an almost ritualistic quality.

It is not something you would pick up watching the dramatic footage on the TV news.

Visible identities

But both sides seemed to be acting out well-rehearsed roles.

So much so that walking away from Syntagma sometimes seemed like walking off a Hollywood film set.

In the pavement cafes on the sun-dappled streets around the square, you would see riot police in their space-age Kevlar body armour sitting enjoying a coffee and a cigarette.

At the very next table there would often be young protesters, their faces still smeared with the white residue of Maalox.

There was no obvious antagonism, but do not conclude the protests are, therefore, a charade.

The important thing is who is involved, and here Maalox - which is actually an indigestion remedy - comes in handy once again.

Protesters I spoke to, and many of the pundits and politicians, believe Greece has been bullied, blackmailed even, into signing up to these cut-backs

Only those who have been gassed dab the stuff on their faces, and there was an incredible range of people with the tell-tale white marks.

Mostly young, yes, but lots of older people men and women, too.

I spoke with a group of a dozen or so middle-aged ladies who had travelled from all around Greece to be in the square, and asked why they had come.

"Take a walk around this city," Katerina told me, real venom in her voice.

"You will see families going through the rubbish looking for food."

She looked me straight in the eye.

"This is a European country, how can this be happening in a European country?"

Domino effect

She and all the other protesters I spoke to, and many of the pundits and politicians, believe Greece has been bullied, blackmailed even, into signing up to these cut-backs.

When I asked one trade union leader how Greece would cope if the lenders cut off their cash, he laughed wickedly.

Greece's government is going through the ritual obeisance of the austerity bill

"They won't do that," he told me with confidence. "They are terrified of what would happen if we go down."

And he is probably right.

Greece is a small country and bailing it out is relatively cheap.

What the International Monetary Fund and the European Union are frightened of is "contagion".

They worry that the turmoil in Greece could spread into Portugal, into Ireland, and here is the doomsday scenario, on to Spain and Italy, with much bigger debts.

If bailing out Greece means the world economy can avoid another crisis, you can be pretty certain the money will be found, regardless of what the country's politicians do or say.

So, Greece's government is going through the ritual obeisance of the austerity bill - which no-one really expects will be implemented in full.

And the ritual of violence being played out on the Athens streets is part of that.

People do get hurt, but very few ever seem to be arrested, and the Greek government can point to the mayhem and say to its lenders: "Surely you can cut us some slack?"

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