In December 2008, 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by police in Athens, Greece. The reports that center on his death vary. All that is really known is that two officers were present, one shot his gun, and a young boy died. This action sparked protests in Athens for weeks.
When this happened, I was eighteen years old, in my first year of college, and I was supposed to go on my first international trip with a group from my university to Athens, Greece. A week before we left, I received an e-mail from the professors that had organized the trip. Athens had erupted in protests. They were burning Christmas trees, shutting down the universities, and citizens were getting in skirmishes with the police.
Reading the news reports, I was nervous. Was it safe to go? Would I really miss my opportunity to go overseas? I was eighteen years old and unfortunately I was slightly selfish and did not clearly look into why the Greeks were protesting and rioting, not until after I arrived. The professors assured us that it was still safe for us to go.
I didn’t see much evidence of protests until the morning after my arrival. Our hotel happened to be right behind the National Technical University of Athens which was shut down and occupied by students and citizens who organized many of the protests. The night before I had arrived these protesters had burned cars and trash cans on the street and the charred smell of metal still hung in the air. There were posters and graffiti on the walls surrounding the university and on the adjacent buildings. All shops on the street had been closed so that it looked like an old western ghost town, except for the shapes of people barricaded behind the fences of the university.
I must admit that my trip wasn’t as scary as I am making it sound. I witnessed many breathtaking and beautiful ancient relics. We visited the Parthenon, Temple of Poseidon, Mycenae, Delphi, Zeus’s Temple, the Agora, and the National Archeological Museum of Athens.
One evening, we returned to the hotel and turned in early because the next day was our day-long trip to the Temple of Poseidon.A few hours after falling asleep, I awoke to loud booms. My body jumped off the bed and I was quickly on my feet, pulse beating rapidly, my throat in my stomach. Another boom. I froze. I looked at the window. There was something white and hazy out there. Another boom, followed closely by another.
I moved slowly to the window like a cat ready to dash at the first sign of danger and pulled back the curtain. Through the window I saw nothing except white smoke and green lights. Suddenly, a man dressed from head to toe in black gear, complete with a black helmet and a large gun held against his shoulder, walked through the smoke. And then another. I’d never before seen guns like these aimed at another human being.
The students were throwing Molotov cocktails at the riot police in front of our hotel. I threw on a sweatshirt and my boots, grabbed my cell phone, and my room key. Another girl in my group was located directly across the hall. I opened the door and stepped into the hallway where my eyes immediately began to burn and water. I closed my eyes as much as I could and shut my mouth, breathing in only small amounts of air. This was tear gas.
Quickly, I ran across the hall and knocked. I ran into my friend’s room as soon as she opened the door. I spent the night in that room, shivering for hours and jumping at every boom that vibrated through the walls. By morning, the tear gas had left the hotel, the street was empty, and there weren’t any signs of what had occurred the previous evening. Had I dreamed it all?
I emailed my parents that morning to tell them what had happened and for a second I felt something like pride. I had survived an incident that I had never thought I would find myself in. I was no longer a sheltered girl from a small city in Texas. I had survived bombs and tear gas. How young I was to be “proud” of something like this…
It wasn’t until the Ferguson riots erupted that I was so vividly reminded of my trip to Athens. And it wasn’t until the Orlando shooting that I finally saw my experience in Athens in a whole new way.
The day after the bombs and tear gas, I stood on a cliff near the Temple of Poseidon, overlooking the Aegean Sea. Thousands had stood where I was standing. They had looked at the clear blue sea just as I was. What had they thought about? I like to think they thought of something very simple: life. Where their lives had taken them, where they had arrived. And at that moment, I thought the same thing, although the thoughts weren’t as well formed as I like to think. I thought about what had happened to me the night before, and I felt more alive than ever. I had lived through something that most Americans had not.
I had experienced the frustration of people from another country and I recall thinking, “Bad things like this just don’t happen in America.”
But they do.
And they have done so recently. In Greece, the people stood up and marched on their capital demanding a change be made for an injustice — the death of one teenage boy. I look back on my experience in Greece and I don’t really see it as “bad” anymore. Scary maybe for an 18-year-old, but definitely not bad.
Bad is waking up last Sunday to the news that the worst shooting in U.S. history occurred in Florida.
Bad is hearing that the shooter targeted LGBT citizens, a group that has already suffered by the hands of bigotry in this country for far too many years.
Bad is hearing that since January 1st of 2016, there have been 136 mass shootings in the U.S. within just five months.
Bad is learning that the U.S., a country deemed as a first-world country, has been home to nearly a third of mass shootings in the world from 1966-2012.
Bad is reading Facebook posts where Americans are glorifying the shooter for killing LGBT Americans.
Bad is reading social media posts where Americans ignorantly believe the government wants to take away all of their guns and yet do not offer any sympathy to fifty different families who lost loved ones on a tragic Sunday.
A man shot children and teachers at Sandy Hook, another killed people with guns in a movie theater. Others attacked colleges, high schools, and malls, all loaded with firearms. Nothing has been done to effectively put an end to these tragic moments in the U.S.
The Greeks in 2008 erupted in protests when one life was lost, but we have lost hundreds in the U.S. in the past few years and still nothing has changed.
I am not asking that the U.S. riot, burn Christmas trees, or ban all guns to make a change. I’m asking that those in Congress worry less about the NRA, politics, or donations and do something to save their people — do their actual job which is to create policies that protect us. I’m asking that we contact our politicians and let them know that we don’t just want a change, we need a change. I’m asking that we remember how we drastically changed airline flight policies following September 11th to maximize our safety.
I’m asking that those with hate in their hearts, find love and that we work to eliminate LGBT discrimination (as well as racial and any other kind) and hate crimes through education. I’m asking that we not forget within the next month what happened at Orlando. I’m asking that we not point fingers at the Muslim faith and increase the already Islamaphobia in the U.S.
I’m asking that we don’t vote for Donald Trump, someone who had little to no sympathy for the victims of the attack and wouldn’t do anything to end the violence, but perhaps make it worse. I’m asking that we make it easy for people to receive mental health help and we make it harder for people with violent histories, criminal pasts, mental health issues, and those on no-fly lists to buy a gun.
I’m asking that we don’t ask for a change — we demand a change through words and actions.
So, yes, bad things happen in the U.S. and are made even worse when we don’t demand an end to the violence that is taking away our friends, family, loved ones, brothers, and sisters.
I was glad that the fear of riots and protests in Athens had not deterred me from my trip in 2008. For if it had, I would never have witnessed the strength of modern-day Greeks to fight to right the wrongs within their country, together as one.
I pray that the people of the United States stand together, not forget, and demand a significant change to stop gun violence, as we are not yet the country that we can be.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/IIP Photo Archive