April 5, 2012
— The old man, reportedly ill with cancer and exhausted by the agony devouring Greece, just couldn't take it anymore.
His name was Dimitris. And so he walked out Wednesday morning onto the beautiful and peaceful Syntagma Square across the street from the Parliament. And with him he carried the tools of his martyrdom: He carried a piece of paper that was his suicide note, and he carried a gun.
He stood on a patch of grass near a tree in the shade. Then he pulled the trigger.
And instantly, the 77-year-old retired pharmacist became a symbol in this economically desperate nation, where one-fifth of the workforce is unemployed.
News traveled fast, and by nightfall rioters were breaking up marble steps and throwing the chunks of rock at a phalanx of police. The cops returned fire with tear gas as the so-called anarchists with their faces covered attacked the beautiful Hotel Grand Bretagne. They painted the hotel wall with this slogan: Eat the rich.
And that's how I watched despair turn into rage.
"The politicians killed him!" said Iannis Kotaras, 82, a short man whose hands are thick with years of labor, as he stood near the spot of Dimitris' suicide and pointed up at the Parliament.
This was still morning, only an hour after the retiree fired his shot, and already the death was being codified and set into a political framework.
"He killed himself because those thieves up there caused it," Kotaras said. "They're worse than thieves. ... They do not take the crumbs. They take all of the fat."
Kotaras had lived for a time in Montreal and tried to speak English, but we got along in Greek. I said: Old man, is it a sin to use a man's suicide for politics?
"Ordinarily, yes, it would be something unworthy," he said. "But he's the one who did that when he killed himself. He said he didn't want his children to suffer from his debts. He blamed those whores in Parliament."
"He shouldn't have killed himself," said another old man, his hands folded behind his back in the eastern fashion. "He should have taken that gun and killed them (members of Parliament)."
I asked him: Do you think it is so easy to kill people? You just walk up and shoot them so easily? Are you capable of murder?
"And why not?" said the hands-folded man, although his shrug explained he knew what he said was foolish, but by then he couldn't back down.
"Hang them all!" said another. "Traitors!"
I walked away from them, thinking that they were just toothless old men barking empty nonsense. By nightfall, it was clear that young men can bark just as loudly. But these young men had rocks.
It happened this way. As the sun set, the square was filled with university students, chanting, hundreds at first, then at least a thousand, called by social media to mourn Dimitris the suicide.
"We are here to show our solidarity with the people," said one of the protesters, Constantina Tsoukala, a law student at the University of Athens. "There are no jobs. There's no hope for the future for us.
"This morning a man killed himself because of the absurdity."
But then I asked her for a solution to Greece's problems.
"Tax the ship owners!" she said.
Tax the ship owners? Most of their ships are registered in foreign countries. How are you going to do that?
"It can be done," she said, but couldn't explain how.
It went on like that with others, including a 6-foot-6 man mountain who threatened Tribune photographer Chris Walker and told him not to take pictures or else. It would be the first of three times Walker would be threatened by protesters this night. This man was so angry his fists were clenched and his upper lip was trembling. We calmed the mountain down by asking for his opinion on things.
"This wasn't suicide," he said. "This was murder."
But didn't he pull the trigger himself?
"It was murder, I tell you," said the mountain. "He had no choice."
They wanted it to be murder, and so they made it murder. Political murder.
Naturally, it got worse. When the sun set, the anarchists arrived, on bicycles, wearing helmets and face guards. One jumped off his bike and ran up the steps of the Hotel Grand Bretagne, where I was staying. He had a heavy piece of iron and used it to break the marble steps, then grabbed a chunk.
"What are you doing!" yelled another protester, a blond woman in her mid-30s.
"Shut up, you!" said the man, and ran at her.
"Let's not fight among ourselves," said a young woman. It was a nice sentiment, but they were past that. The anarchist disappeared. About 45 minutes later, he returned with dozens of his friends. They had smashed up marble from the square and from other hotels, and had a lot of rocks to throw.
They threw them at police guarding the Parliament. They threw them at the hotel. These weren't pebbles. These were jagged chunks of marble as big as a fist. A hotel lockdown was ordered, and gates came down to shield the hotel from attack. Some of the anarchists tried to hold the gate open. They failed. Then more of the rocks started to fly. The street was covered with broken marble. Then came the tear gas.
Angry street protests — and the tear gas that accompanies them —- have become such a part of life in downtown Athens that the five-star hotel graciously provides platters of lemon slices and hot towels in the lobby for guests like me who catch a whiff of gas.
I called in the story to the Tribune newsroom. Then a friend and I ran out the back door to get a better view of what was happening outside. The rock throwers had been run off the street, but they were still in Syntagma Square, also known as Constitution Square. There were loud chants, and the smell of tear gas, and the sounds of marble hitting pavement, walls and glass. But eventually the sounds and the tear gas faded away.
It had been quiet hours before, when the old man walked out there with his gun.
And it was quiet again, just before dawn, when I returned to the square.
People were paying their respects at a shrine set up to Dimitris. They were making the sign of the cross and saying prayers.
And city crews were using high-pressure water hoses to wash down the square, just like they do every morning.
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