The images dissolve, match and mismatch, across continents and time zones, St. Louis, New York, Athens: police violence, protests, blazing cars; men in suits; sleeping bags laid out on rainy streets at night. We are experts now at fragments. Here and there a glitch in the matrix forces a connection.
Two hunger strikes are happening in Athens this week. One is in plain view, in Syntagma Square, where Syrian refugees—perhaps 500 at the protest’s peak—have been camped out for two weeks now, some of them refusing food. The other, under guard in the Gennimata Hospital, is far more visible. The 21-year-old anarchist prisoner Nikos Romanos hasn’t eaten for twenty-six days and his condition is worsening. #NRomanos is trending on Greek Twitter, with updates about his health and solidarity protests.
The Syrians, who have fled civil war and survived a dangerous journey, want to be allowed to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe, where they can find shelter, food and dignity. Their presence has attracted gifts of food and clothing, ritual declarations of support from other demonstrations that pass by, and almost no coverage in the mainstream media, inside or outside Greece. One of the protesters, the young doctor Ayman Ghazal, has just died of exposure trying to cross the border to Albania. His death has hardly been reported anywhere.
Romanos, sentenced to fifteen years for armed robbery last month, is demanding a study furlough to exercise his statutory right to education at a technical college. He’s been refused, on the grounds that he’s still awaiting trial on two counts and may abscond. His hunger strike has sparked huge demonstrations and riots in Athens and solidarity protests in many other towns. The headquarters of the private-sector union federation in Athens is under occupation; so is a central cinema in Thessaloniki. Alexis Tsipras, president of Greece’s left party Syriza (and likely future prime minister), has said that Romanos’ case concerns the whole of society.
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.