Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The criminalisation of the Converse All-Star

Welcome to a lesson in logic, courtesy of the Greek police.

On the 19th of May 2009, Panagiotis Ketikis will stand trial. For wearing converse.
So you won’t think I am putting it too strongly when I say, this could have been me, this could have been you. This trial concerns us all. Especially those of us wearing converse. Or care about the rule of law. Or care about politics and hope for change.

On May 5th 2007 there was rioting and some vandalism in the centre of Thessaloniki. What’s new, you say.
Some hours after the events and a few roads along, where Egnatias and 3rd September roads meet, Panagiotis was stopped and taken into custody, initially to confirm his identity (yes Greek police can do that. Yes Greek police do do that every chance they get).

Upon arrival to the police station and, presumably, after checking Panagiotis’ file, the policemen must have thought Christmas came early. Panagiotis had a previous arrest on his record, you see.
A few months previously Panagiotis had been arrested alongside another 48 people, accused of vandalism during a demonstration in favour of universal free education.
All 49 were acquitted.
But why should the police let facts stand in the way of a good story?
Panagiotis was there and the police needed a suspect.

So yet again Panagiotis is accused of something he has not done.
Only this time resolution has not been quick.
Only this time, not only did he not do what they say he did – he wasn’t even there.

On Saturday the 5th of May Panagiotis was at his university campus at a party.
So he has an alibi and more witnesses than you can shake a stick at that he was not where the police say he was. But that doesn’t stop the prosecution from proceeding. You see there is irrefutable evidence that Panagiotis was one of the vandals at work in the centre of town on that 5th of May 2007: one of the vandals had been wearing a pair of converse and Panagiotis was wearing a pair of green converse when stopped by police. QED, thought the Greek policemen and arrested the chemical engineering student who at the time was only 19. Simple police reasoning: as there can only be one person wearing converse in Thessaloniki, arrest the first converse-shod person you come across. Job done.

So Panagiotis found himself with a list of charges as long as your arm: possession of explosives; construction of bombs; causing an explosion; vandalism; disturbing the peace; disturbing the safety of the transport system – among others.

On May 8th 2007 Panagiotis meets with the interrogator.
His lawyer presents video footage of the wanted vandal smashing up a Mercedes Benz pointing out that the man in question looks nothing like Panagiotis (being evidently taller and skinnier) yet, according to the police, he is Panagiotis. And his converse are not even green. But the interrogator decides to imprison Panagiotis until his trial regardless. Despite the witnesses. Despite the alibi. Despite the evidence.

His lawyers accuse the DA and the Thessaloniki Police Department of collusion and fabrication of charges but all attempts to have the young man released fail. And Panagiotis is treated like a dangerous criminal, held before his trial to minimise the chances of his escape to a foreign country or the danger of his committing another crime. That dangerous converse-wearing, party-attending engineering student.

But this is no joke
Panagiotis was held for over a month.
And although the treatment he got from other inmates was understanding, almost warm, the police used every means at their disposal to scare, hurt and intimidate him.
And yet, in interviews and in his blog, Panagiotis is measured, calm, grounded.

Well I am not.
That boy was stuck in prison way too easily. With no evidence of guilt. Against all evidence of his innocence. He was at the wrong place, at the wrong time, wearing the wrong shoes. Wearing the shoes I wear most days of my life.
So yes, this could have been me. It could have been you. It may well be you next time. Don’t fool yourselves: Panagiotis is the only one suffering right now but on May 19 we are all on trial.

This case sounds too much like something that would happen in Saddam’s Iraq, in Pinochet’s Chile, in Greece under the colonels.
Dictatorships stick people in prison just because.
On May 19th it’s our democracy and our rule of law and the integrity of our institutions that should be judged. It’s not Panagiotis but the whole bloody system that should be on trial. Converse or no bloody converse.

I haven’t met Panagiotis.
But I read about him in the papers, in blogs. And I read what he has to say in his own blog and this is what I see: I see a sharp, measured and politically engaged man, left-wing and opposed to violence. Not so much angry as hungry for change and opposed to destruction and blind rage. Stick a pair of converse on his feet and this is me.

And I, too, am a citizen of a country that allows vandals to run riot while a thinking political animal has to report to the nearest police station every month for the two years between his release and his trial. And I too am a citizen of this country that takes its rage out on the innocent, those who happen to be nearest, those who will be easier to arrest, easier to intimidate. And I too wear converse. And while I write this from the comfort of my home, far away from the clutches of the Greek police, safe and snug, not having shared in anything Panagiotis had gone through, the fact remains that May 19 2009, at the Katerini Court House will be a big day for us all.
And it’s up to us to make sure that it’s not Panagiotis that is on trial that day. But the system that victimised him. Because unless we do that, we are up next.
Converse or no converse.