Rock stars, revolutionaries and other larger-than-life characters share a knack for showing up at the right place at the right time and leaving their mark wherever they go. They also tend to die too soon. Loukanikos, or Sausage, a mutt that became known as the Greek riot dog, was one of these heroes. And his death in May, first reported last week, is symbolic of something much greater than the passing of a stray dog: It’s a metaphor for the passing of a time of creative upheaval for Greece, maybe forever.
Like all legends, Loukanikos appeared out of nowhere. It was December 2008, and Athens had been in upheaval for two weeks after the killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by a police officer, who was subsequently found guilty of murder. Riots rocked the center of the city daily. It was a moment that politicized my entire generation, and as a simple observer on the day, I remember standing on the southwest corner of Syntagma Square, taking photos of the small clashes taking place in front of the parliament building and on the surrounding streets. As a police platoon started heading my way to retreat in the narrow streets around Athens’ shopping district behind me, I noticed a dog following them, barking at the heavily armored policemen.
I didn’t know it then, but that was Loukanikos. Lore had it that he hated cops, politicians and austerity, so he took to the streets again and again to make his point. Most will say he barked but would never bite, but some riot police shins would beg to differ. He would occasionally be seen carrying away tear gas canisters in his mouth. His courage got him a spot on Time magazine's personality of the year list in 2011.
Another riot dog everyone knew, called Kanelos, died some time before that, so when Loukanikos just appeared on the front lines, it was as if he were Kanelos’ heir. Like every revolutionary worth his salt, Loukanikos used a pseudonym; the man who took care of him called him Theodore, but everyone got to know him by his nom de guerre.
Loukanikos made the news that year. The unrest, taking place before the financial crisis reached Greece, was a prelude of things to come, and the protests served as a christening for young activists and their canine comrade. Report after report showed Loukanikos defiant in the face of danger. A large collection of photos of him barking at riot police or standing guard in front of lined-up protesters made it to the international media. With tear gas permeating the air, he would casually stroll between protesters and police lines. Seasoned activists often lacked the complete disregard for chemicals he showed, inspiring many to stick to their guns.
The full effects of the global financial crisis didn’t hit Greece until 2010. But anger was already brewing, in part because the state couldn’t have reacted with more indifference — antagonizing its youth by allowing the police to regularly abuse them (an attitude that led to Grigoropoulos’ murder) and all but ignoring the chunk of the population that was left behind by the booming economy. As the tranquillity of Greece’s “Golden Decade” of never-before-seen prosperity gave way to financial meltdown and political turmoil, demonstrations multiplied in downtown Athens. And when the first austerity measures and the International Monetary Fund’s efforts to bail out the economy were announced, the phenomenon intensified.
The protests peaked in 2011 with the occupation of Syntagma Square by a disparate group of not only activists but also citizens who had never before engaged with politics and who found themselves opposing the brutal austerity imposed on Greece. This was when Loukanikos’ snout became the most famous one in town. With journalists and TV networks descending on Athens and trying to make sense of the situation, the attention on skirmishes in the streets was greater than ever, and Loukanikos was more than happy to play the mascot. As the square turned into a laboratory for new politics that were debated, shot down and re-evaluated, Loukanikos stuck around — and in part thanks to his presence, so did the media.
The now iconic photos of a lone dog barking at police lines were everywhere. A marketing brief for Nikon even carried his photo with a tag that read “I am the resistance” in German. Loukanikos got his own song and became the unlikely face of the most massive street activism ever in the country. British journalist Paul Mason made him the subject of a report from Athens in June 2011. The famous Time list followed.
Then, suddenly, the demonstrations came to an end. The second memorandum of understanding between the Greek government and its lenders was signed in parliament, and that day, on June 29, more than 3,000 tear gas canisters were used to evict the Syntagma Square occupation. (No more than 100 are typically used to disperse a big demonstration.) Downtown Athens was turned into a gas chamber, with 150 people subsequently suing the government for endangering their lives that day. The massive showdown between choking protesters and the police and the smaller ones that followed were the last we heard of Loukanikos in the papers. By 2012, he disappeared. We didn’t see him out in the streets anymore.
Then again, there’s hardly anything left to see at all.
The massive uprisings of 2010 and 2011 feel like ancient history. Popular dissent was channeled into votes for Syriza, the far-left coalition party which now enjoys a healthy 9.4 percent lead in the polls in Greece. The protesters, ever committed, dispersed into smaller, more local groups with virtually no visibility. The streets of Athens grew empty.
Not only did the policing of demonstrations get heavier under the coalition government led by conservative New Democracy, but the Greek people also lost hope that change could be achieved by protesting. They forgot the power of those electrifying days on the streets and the good things that the protests brought — the sense of community, of engaging in direct democracy and of being heard by your peers — in spite of our everyday problems, hurdles and disappointments.
Loukanikos died in May this year, but no one noticed — until last week. As it turns out, the chemicals and the beatings he had taken by the police on more than one occasion had damaged his health, as a vet monitoring him told Greek daily Ta Nea on Oct. 9. The man who took care of him daily in the square was homeless and unable to offer the comforts of a home that a sick dog needs. A pensioner who helped take care of him (along with dozens of other strays around central Athens) ultimately took him in.
He died as Theodore, the name he was given by the man taking care of him. Sleeping on the couch of his house, his heart stopped beating. He was 10 to 12 years old.
It’s hard not to take Loukanikos’ death as a metaphor for the end of Greece’s once revolutionary fervor and the people’s downtrodden acceptance of the status quo. Even the once radical Syriza seems to be watering down its positions, adopting a more centrist approach toward the euro and the European Union. The pressure needed to keep politicians in line is absent. There is no one barking threateningly at their feet; there is no one bounding alongside protesters, supporting them and lifting their spirits through the tear gas and noise and upheaval.
I fear that Loukanikos, unlike Kanelos, won’t have an heir. Today dissent is virtually absent in these parts. The time of rebels seems to have passed, and with it, a real character and an integral part of Athens’ spirit is gone forever. If you were out in the Syntagma occupation or followed Occupy Wall Street or walked the streets of Madrid, Cairo or Istanbul, you must be able to sense that today the world is a little less bright than it was just a few years ago, when everything seemed possible.
So goodbye, Loukanikos. May you bite cops in the riotous heavens forever.