Happy New Fear

Sick of a corrupt political elite, young Greeks continue to take to the streets. Their words of rage

If painted slogans could tell the story of a city, then, at present, that city would be Athens. Like most things in the Greek capital, graffiti arrived late. But when it did come, it erupted with a vengeance, leaping from street corner to street corner and pillar to pillar, exhorting anyone whose eyes might skim it to “fuck authority” and “bring down the system” and “kill the rich”.

This was long before early December, when Epaminondas Korkoneas, a special guard seconded to the police, allegedly shot dead Alexis Grigoropoulos, a tousle-haired teenager, plunging Greece into an orgy of violence not seen since the collapse of military rule in 1974. And long before thousands of rock-throwing students and schoolchildren took to the streets in protest.

But like so many others, I failed to see the warning signs, to read the writing on the walls. Now words of rage are everywhere, splashed across buildings, banners, hoardings and road signs. In squares, streets and boulevards, passers-by are told that "Athens is burning", that "Cops are murderers and pigs", and urged to "Remember, remember 6 December", the day young Grigoropoulos died from a bullet to his chest, the day "the uprising was born". Self-styled anarchists have sprayed one word across the four pillars of Athens University's ornate neoclassical façade: XAOS (chaos).

On 5 January, gunmen pumped 40 bullets into a 21-year-old policeman standing guard outside the culture ministry - a brazen attack, conducted in broad daylight, that has fuelled fears of a resurgence of domestic terrorism. Four days later, when Eastern Orthodox Christians had barely celebrated Epiphany, thousands of student protesters again took to the streets. Fresh clashes erupted between Molotov cocktail-wielding youths and police and, in a sign of the union unrest also gathering pace, farmers erected roadblocks on highways nationwide.

On 12 January, as anti-terror police intensified their hunt for those who had attacked the police guard a week earlier, Pericles Panagopoulos, a prominent Greek shipping tycoon, was also targeted by gunmen. He was abducted with his driver - who was later released unharmed - as he travelled to his office along the Athenian Riviera. A ransom of ?40m has reportedly been demanded.

The euphoria that enveloped Athens during the 2004 Olympic Games seems a long way away. Pessimism, like the acrid tear gas that has become so commonplace, hangs heavily in the air. For politicians, who have been left speechless by the intensity of the protests, the destruction they have wreaked and the discontent they have exposed, the new year could not have begun more ominously.

At no time in the past two decades of reporting from Greece have I encountered such despondency. The shooting of 15-year-old Grigoropoulos ignited the wrath of a nation that has never had much time for the police, but it was also the flame that lit the inferno. The country is a tinderbox. Its state apparatus, institutions and political and ecclesiastical elite - ossified and corrupt, archaic and scandal-ridden - no longer inspire confidence or trust.

As I write, workers are planning yet more mass strikes over fiscal policies that have brought many to their knees; far-left groups are readying for rallies; children are moving to take over schools; university students are announcing sit-ins, and employees are occupying factories. And the global financial and economic crisis hasn't reached these parts yet: Greeks know that with their public sector labouring under unprecedented debt, and their economy so dependent on tourism, things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.

The ruling conservatives, already clinging to power with a parliamentary majority of one, also know this, because they understand that the young and disenfranchised - those behind the protests - have nothing to lose.

The generations who worked to re-establish democracy after civil war, decades of authoritarian right-wing rule and, in 1974, the end of military dictatorship, had dreams for a better Greece. In many ways these dreams have been shattered. But younger Greeks, who have seen their parents exhaust themselves to educate them, who have laboured through private language schools and college education and are now finding themselves jobless and struggling to make ends meet, aren't going to give up so easily.

"All my life I have only known scandals and corruption with nobody ever paying the price," 25-year-old Fotini Papadopoulos told me as we marched together through the centre of Athens. "It's sickening. My parents own a kiosk in a rural town. My mother wasn't allowed to go to college because her father said it would turn her into a slut, so I worked hard to go to university, to study psychology, to fulfil her dreams. Now, without connections, I have no chance of getting a decent job. Please write that it's people like me who personify what is going on here."

In the absence of any credible alternatives in a political system that appears increasingly blocked, young Greeks say the street is the only place where they can "fight and be heard".

Whether their protests will morph into an organised movement of civil unrest is anyone's guess. What is certain is that Greece's children have been surprised by their own runaway success. "We won't sit quietly," says another slogan. "Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear."

Helena Smith is the Guardian's Athens correspondent

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...