- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2011

ATHENS — A stun grenade exploded in the hand of a Greek riot policeman, severing a finger. Police and demonstrators ceased combat and scoured the debris-strewn street, uniting in a frantic search for the missing digit.

They found it. The finger was rushed off in a wet towel to a hospital, where doctors reattached it to the injured man.

The brief scene of solidarity, witnessed by an Associated Press photographer, was one of many twists in a wild drama on the stage of central Athens last week.

Greece delivered an image of rage and rift to the world with the battles around parliament, where lawmakers approved an austerity bill in an attempt to avert a default that could inflict financial mayhem across Europe and beyond.

The ferocious display evoked a society unhinged. There were staccato booms, flashes, sirens, the roar of police motorcycles, drifting smoke, flimsy barricades, smashed storefront windows and jeering youths with cloth draped over their faces, and clubs and marble chunks chipped off building fronts in their hands.

About 300 people, nearly half of them police, were injured in two days. But the main battleground, Syntagma Square, buzzed with traffic. Tourists patrolled with cameras, recording the debris and idle riot police.

Greeks had indulged in another contained eruption, heavy with choreography and symbolism, to convey disgust with their political class. The culture of protest and violence by a hardened minority is now a routine form of collective therapy.

It turns out there is a framework to the chaos, and even the police play a part by blasting away with tear gas that riles up the crowd but doesn’t make it go home.

Both sides usually act with a degree of mutual restraint, in contrast to the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, which often have elicited bloody crackdowns and even warfare.

Greece does have a dark history of military dictatorship, terrorism, political assassination and anarchism. And modern-day protests don’t always follow a script. Last year, three clerks died when their bank was torched by rioters.

Much of the current protest was about extreme gestures that are, fortunately, grounded only in performance. At one noisy protest, a young man made eye contact with a policeman in silence, then drew a finger across his throat in a slitting motion. Another agitated man plucked a few grimy euro banknotes from his pocket and waved them at police lines.

“Here, you want my money? Take it!” he fumed sarcastically before putting the cash back in his pocket.

The anger is real, and so is a fear of the unknown as Europe and international lenders struggle to help Greece dodge a bankruptcy that could inflict new turmoil on global markets.

Elina Makri, an Athens resident, said she started going to protests because she couldn’t “stand it anymore,” a common sentiment among Greeks who blame state mismanagement for harsh spending cuts and tax increases that are stripping away a life of relative comfort. Beyond that, Greeks feel their lives are stalled or in free fall, and protest is the only way to release reservoirs of boiling emotion.

“I have been a lot of times, just to be a part of what’s happening,” Ms. Makri said. “It’s history that is being made here for us and, who knows, for Europe as well.”

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