by Dimitris Alexakis
The scene has been captured with a mobile phone, from above and several meters away, and the image quality is low. A rather tall young man staggers behind the window of a jewelry shop, struggling to lift a fire extinguisher, trying to smash the glass door in order to get out. He seems oddly alone inside the store. In his glass cage, he sways like a bear who has fallen into a trap. The fire extinguisher that he swings at arm’s length seems to be dragging him to the ground. Outside, two visibly older men, one of them in a pink shirt, are yelling and throwing things at him through the windows. Faint cries are audible, the horrified reactions of a woman. The projectiles will turn out to be stones and an ashtray, the man in pink the owner of the shop, and the second man a real estate agent high up in the Patriotic Front, a far-right group.
Inside the store, the young man eventually drops the extinguisher after being hit. He falls to the ground and crawls into the shop window, under the display shelf, as if seeking shelter or trying to escape from a nightmare. The two men kick in the window, hitting him in the head. The young man drags himself over shards of glass to get to the sidewalk. We see the backs of the onlookers who stand there, gawking. At the back of the crowd, a man in a short-sleeved yellow shirt talks on the phone. Two men intervene after the jeweler kicks the young man one last time, with great force, in the head. The video stops there.
It’s Friday afternoon and, according to news headlines, the man in the pictures is “a robber, beaten up in the Omonoia district by the owner of a jewelry store.” He could be anyone. He’s no one. We don’t know that he is for some of us a colleague, a childhood friend, a lover or a loved one, a performer, the queen of Athenian drag shows, an LGBTQI and HIV-positive community rights activist—one of the few people in Greece who speaks publicly about his HIV status. At this very moment, we watch him die as if he had no name.
At around 6 pm on Saturday, a friend posts Zak’s photo with the acronym widely used to mark the death of a celebrity, R.I.P., but I don’t understand at first that Zak, our neighbor, and the young man killed in broad daylight in the centre of Athens are one and the same person.
In the second video, shot from a balcony or window, Zak gets up a few minutes after being attacked. His head is bandaged. He seems disoriented. He is kicked in the lower back as he staggers away, a piece of broken glass in his hand. He stumbles against the tables of a café and sprawls full length on the ground before the policemen descend on him. The third video, released a few days later, is even more unbearable because it shows Zak dying, lying face down on the sidewalk, bleeding. He is blue in the face; six policemen crowd around his motionless body and cuff his hands behind his back—it is likely that his death by suffocation occurs at this point, caused or hastened by the way they handcuff him.
Witnesses report that the ambulance carries away his body with no siren; he is probably already dead when the vehicle starts. In any case, he is dead on arrival at the hospital, still handcuffed. The nurses present will later say that they took him “for an African” because of the mottling of his skin. The video is unbearable because we recognize his face perfectly and because the people we see man-handling his body are the ones who should have come to his aid.
No one knows at this point that he entered the jeweler’s shop in search of refuge. The theory that the attack began with attempted theft seems plausible, but not the claim of armed robbery, not only because no weapon appears in Zak’s hands, except for the piece of glass he seizes at the last minute in a desperate attempt to escape, but also because he viewed every form of violence with horror. The images show a man who is utterly vulnerable.
None of the released videos allow an estimate of the number of onlookers who are present at the lynching, but eyewitness accounts begin to appear that speak of a crowd of more than fifty people, some filming the scene on their phones.
After having hit him, the real estate agent leaves the premises and takes the time to write a tweet in which he claims that Zak committed suicide with the piece of glass he held in his hand.
In the minutes and hours that follow, the police, instead of cordoning off the scene, let the owner clean up. The jeweler is photographed facing the illuminated showcase, sweeping up the shards like a conscientious worker at the end of his day’s work. He seems strangely calm and has not changed his clothes. He still wears the same pink shirt. After the ambulance leaves, he gives an interview in which he explains that he acted out of frustration, “in the heat of the moment,” to defend his property. His version of events is repeated by practically all the media. A prominent news anchor will soon invite viewers to say whether they support “the jeweler’s reaction” to “a man armed with a knife.” A television channel linked to a far-right personality puts the following question to the audience: “Are you in favor of a homosexual and HIV-positive armed robber being considered a hero?” A third “survey” aims to establish the extent to which Greeks regard foreigners and homosexuals as “undesirable neighbors.” Despite the fact that the man in pink soon revises his initial statements and acknowledges that no armed attack took place, a well-oiled machine has kicked into gear in order to put the victim on trial.
The “negligence” of the police is easily explained: the junkies and immigrants beaten up and taken away are usually anonymous; no one, or almost no one, asks about them, looks for them, or comes to claim their bodies. A police union spokesperson defends the police action as standard operating procedure, and this is correct: the police have acted as they always do when faced with those most vulnerable, without suspecting that this time the victim had hundreds of friends and thousands of followers.
The autopsy report states that Zak’s body bears no mortal injuries, that the cause of his death is “indeterminate” or “indiscernible.” The adjective leaves us speechless. We learn that we will have to wait for the results of the histological and toxicological analyses, which will only be made public in a month’s time. We also learn that two of the forensic experts may have been linked in the recent past to the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. In the face of the public’s disbelief, one of them tries to downplay the report’s conclusions.
Several health professionals denounce the silence of the Emergency Medical Service, questioning the decision of the paramedics who arrived on the scene before Zak’s death and agreed to transport his body still in handcuffs. The hospital doctors’ union speaks of contempt for the dead. The attitude of the policemen is on the contrary defended by their union representative (“These are our practices, whether you like it or not”), who takes advantage of a television appearance to send a message of thinly veiled defiance to the Greek government. His rhetoric evokes the old term of “παρακράτος”—parastate—which designates far-right forces acting in the heart of the state. What’s more, the representative exploits the “fear of AIDS” by suggesting that the police would have used their feet to move Zak in order to avoid being exposed and later infecting “their children.”
The account initially defended by the press comes to resemble a damp-ridden wall, tissued with wallpaper that peels away in strips, falling to the ground sheet after sheet. But the initial lie has produced its effect: forty-nine days after the event, many continue to believe that the jeweler acted in self-defense, “took the law into his own hands” to “protect his business.” Greek society is largely made up of small business owners.
New witness accounts emerge. Contradicting the theory of an armed robbery or of an “act of madness,” these accounts describe an altercation that occurred before the incident. A worker from the café on the corner of the street reports that Zak was a few minutes earlier in a state of panic, that he was shouting, that two or three people surrounded him, that one of them came into the store to get him a bottle of water. Why has this person disappeared? Why did Zak take refuge in the jewelry store? Was he being pursued? Did an episode of bullying precede the assault? Why was the jeweler’s window made of normal glass and not, like most shops of this kind, of unbreakable double-glazed windows? Is it true that the shop did not have, as claimed by its owner, any security cameras? That jewelry stores in this area are visited by drug addicts, who come to deposit stolen objects for a pittance? Why are the many witnesses silent? Why are the government and the Department of Public Protection, a police regulatory authority, still silent? The threads sometimes take the turn of a multi-party investigation as if, faced with police inaction, the search for the truth has been taken up by social media. E., who defends the rights of incarcerated people, watches the videos on repeat and ends up noticing a detail that she captures in a screenshot: the inside of the glass door already had traces of blood on it before the jeweler and real estate agent’s assault; Zak was perhaps already bleeding when he entered the shop. C. writes that one of the most unbearable things is to think that we may never know.
In the second video, it is possible to see that one of the cops surrounding Zak’s body holds a knife behind his back, in his bare hands. We know today that this knife does not bear Zak’s fingerprints. Most of the documents that should be on file are missing, no photograph of the scene was taken, no evidence was collected from the scene at the time, and the police openly refuse to carry out the orders of the prosecutor. We wonder if the police officer’s intention was not to put the knife into the pool of blood that covered this part of the asphalt, so that the weapon would carry an easily identifiable DNA sample.
On October 4, a new video taken from the café-bakery facing the jeweler shows Zak, a few minutes before his death, bursting onto the sidewalk of Gládstonos Street and asking for help from passers-by. He is about to enter the bakery, but a man in a short-sleeved yellow shirt blocks his path; Zak turns away and heads towards the jewelry store. From the window of an office, a woman saw him, a few seconds earlier, shouting “Help!” at the corner of Patission Street, approaching two women to ask them for assistance and then rushing into the street where he would be killed a few moments later.
Zak is also Zackie, or Zackie Oh!, and has a weekly drag show at Koukles, a small Athenian nightclub.
Zak is an activist who advocates for the rights of HIV-positive people and the LGBTQI community. His texts on social media and in Antivirus magazine, in which he tends to make fun of himself, are read by hundreds of young gay people: he encourages them to “come out of the closet,” lets those of them living with HIV know they are not alone.
Zak is a queer artist who played once at KET, the theater venue I help run, and I sometimes bump into him on Kyprou Street: we live in the same neighborhood. A young man with bright eyes, short, curly hair who is out walking his dog the day I introduce him to my five-year-old daughter—Elèni looks up at him and then looks at the dog and smiles. I see him another day, going down the street dancing, earphones on, I call to him; he doesn’t hear me, he continues down the street with a light step, his gaze lowered, dancing for himself alone.
L. recalls the support he lent to the struggle of the United African Women’s Organization: “Zak was my family and my friend.” A friend remembers the community mobilization to find his lost dog, Snoopis, a ball of white hair, a few months ago. After the murder, Snoopis is entrusted to his brother, who also has a dog. Snoopis is gradually perking up—the first days, writes M., he wouldn’t eat and seemed totally lost. In a recent documentary, we see Zak crossing our neighborhood, which no doubt has the largest number of immigrants in Athens, and confiding that he has never been attacked by foreigners, “always by Greeks,” but that he has, thankfully, always gotten out of trouble—“because I run fast,” he says, smiling after a pause, “and because I can scream very loudly when I’m afraid.”
There is hunger in his smile and fear in his eyes—an instinctive trace of the fear that remains from the countless times he has been mocked, bullied, threatened, and insulted in the street—the fear that one day things may spiral out of control. He is under no illusion about the society in which he lives, about the reactions sparked by the mere presence of a young man who is obviously gay and, much worse, by a man in a wig, dressed as a woman. During an interview filmed on the pedestrian strip of Phokionos, he is interrupted by a bunch of kids who harass him and finally demand to know whether he is a man or a woman. The camera films his eyes. While the boys hassle him, Zak remains silent and lights a cigarette. Weariness and pain bubble up, even—especially—when the trouble comes from kids. A little girl moves away from the group and starts a conversation. Talking to the little girl, Zak gradually recovers his composure, his calm. In another documentary, we watch as he moves step-by-step away from Zak to become Zackie, putting on makeup in front of the mirror, putting on the wig.
During the first demonstration, A. waves one of his silver shoes as a rallying flag. We all walk behind Zackie Oh!’s shoe, which makes me think of Cinderella’s lost slipper—Cinderella and the vampires.
On a photo posted on Facebook, Zak’s shoes (black and white sneakers) and Zackie’s shoes (high-heeled, silver shoes), unlaced, appear in the entrance of his apartment, toe-to-toe but some distance apart, as if they were discussing his absence.
At the moment the paramedics carried away his body, one of his black sneakers remained on the ground next to the pool of blood. More than one month later, we still do not know why one of the police took it off his foot.
“Όχι έτσι, όχι τώρα”: the last words of the monologue What I Call Oblivion that we presented three years ago in our venue keep appearing in my mind during the following days, as we discover what has happened, piece by piece, one layer of horror after another: “Not like that, not now.”
A. tells F. that the friends of the victim were in drag in the provincial church where the funeral ceremony was held. He tells of the golden glitter thrown in the air above the coffin, the sparkles landing on the faces of the grandmothers, the embarrassed looks.
C. says, “We were his family too, another sort of family.”
K. is astonished at the naivety of those who expected the family to respect Zak’s atheism, his refusal of Orthodox practices—the family always has the last word in Greece and the Church almost always manages to recover the body. J. brings up a text in which Zak calls to mind the religious burial of a friend, who wanted to be cremated and would have absolutely refused to be buried by priests. F. is certain that Zak would have liked to wear a wedding dress for the occasion. The image of drag queens singing Madonna in the church aisle consoles us. The queer community is looking for, and finding, its way to say its farewells.
People wrap their arms around each other in front of Building 9 of the Athens Court or on Omonoia Square, before the start of the first demonstration. Many march in silence, others weeping or linking arms—a kind of funeral and political procession, between laughter and tears.
On the floor of Gladstonos Street, near a storm drain, flowers and burning mark the spot where he collapsed.
On the roller shutter of the jewelry store, T. taped a text in his memory:
They are afraid of us and kill us / afraid of the sky we are watching / afraid of the wall / where we are leaning / afraid of the words we say / you and I, softly, / afraid of the words that we will tomorrow all utter together / afraid of us, Zak, my love; / and if they kill us / they fear us even more / dead.
Odysseas publishes a poem written for Zak a year ago: “I am everything you dread / everything you fight / (…) everything you are afraid of / falling in love with.”
Foivos writes: “why do straight people never die / what are they made of / what are murderers made of / what do they look like / what does blood look like, when it’s spilled on the streets near Omonoia // who lives in times of peace / who is able to forget // this is his last night on earth / —who owns that night.”
The original meaning of the initials R.I.P., “Rest In Peace,” changes. In his text about the funeral, F. says: “Rest In Power.” L. uses the phrase “Rest In Pride.” This may be the expression that suits him best. In relation to Zak, the word “power” echoes as in this passage from A Season in Hell : “Weakness or strength: there you are, strength.” Zak’s strength comes from his fragility, a fragility that he assumes so fiercely that it is perceived as a threat by these “normal people” whose normality now appears in a monstrous light. He is strong, he is weak, he is himself, multiple, he does not pretend.
Some journalists are now calling him “the victim.” Despina remembers him kissing a boy during a happening in support of the recognition of same-sex couples; in the photograph, Zak holds his partner with one arm and with the other the end of a panel on which is written: “Homophobia is the outrage, not kisses.” To the right of the picture, a couple of young women kiss each other while striking the same pose, intentionally theatrical, holding the other end of the panel. “We must look after each other,” says H. During dinner, my daughter seems to hold back from asking me why I suddenly have tears in my eyes. I bury myself in reading Twitter and Facebook posts. I have the feeling that we have come back to the very beginning of the cycle, back to 2008, a year marked by massive wildfires and the murder of A., a fifteen-year-old anarchist. L. urges us to talk: “Talk about Zak, do not stop talking, talk about the dance and the tears you shared, talk about his beautiful hair, his waistline, his love for Madonna, talk about Zak until your tongue is parched, talk ceaselessly, talk with murmurs or shouts, talk about the Zak we know, talk about the way Greek society murdered Zak, talk about his killers, talk.” G. cannot bring himself to speak of him in the past tense and when he writes, the verbs vary, “Zak is,” “Zak was,” as though refusing a definitive parting, as if death were an exile in time. The exile of one alone. G., again, writes that he has just spent two days staring at the ceiling, crying. He is devastated, but is amongst the organizers of the first march, a demonstration that ends in Omonoia with Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”—I’d never have thought that Madonna could be sung while punching the sky with a fist.
According to some anarchists present at the meeting following this first march, members of the LGBTQI community are “apolitical” subjects. Some—the loudest and most “assertive,” the ones who know how to monopolize discussion and impose silence on others—propose to school them in revolutionary verses. G. suddenly tears off his hat, faces the amphitheater with his head bare, declares that transvestites, gays, lesbians, and trans people experience anarchy each and every day, in Greece. The “meeting” deteriorates rapidly. Some of the anarchist youth had wanted to smash automatic teller machines during the funeral procession: the queer response of “machos get out” causes outrage, as does the fact that some of the anarchists use the terms “whore,” “faggot” and “poofter” as insults. M. remembers the moment a young man accused trans people of “being overly emotional”—“as if we were not in mourning and as if emotions were not political.” “We do not change anything without anger, without tears, without laughter, without joy, without humor, without fear, my darling,” says F., a trans person with blond hair sitting on the lower platform. L. remembers the body search to which she was subjected after being stripped by two police officers on the seventh floor of the GADA building, the police headquarters in Athens, the transphobia and the racism that seeped out of their every pore.
K. posts a video taken in Brooklyn showing a black kid who, after having taken synthetic cannabis, is seized by extremely violent spasms that throw him to the bottom of the steps of a staircase. The kid screams, seems to be suffocating, gets up but cannot control his legs, a woman picks up his wallet from the ground, holds it in her hand, then slips away, three men film the scene on their phones while shouting at the distressed young man, a man in a suit avoids him. The kid is carrying a sky-blue schoolbag on his back, his bag too seems to be shaken by spasms.
We cry then we feel like vomiting. Anger has an advantage over tears and nausea—it makes us look forward. The second march is postponed from Saturday to Tuesday due to bad weather. I spend the next few days waiting for Tuesday as if the event was the only place to set down and share the sadness—readings and debates on social networks end up giving me a headache and leave a bitter taste of wasted time. Zak’s death took place six days, seven days, eight days ago; every day we are moving away from the day he died, that day which was the last for him, but not for us, and which begins to seem a far-off point, dwindling on the ocean. We leave him behind, as if on a desert island; we keep moving forward; time carries us along, but not him.
“I am terrified by the rise of fascism,” writes C., “by its speed.” “I am terrified by the thought that we may never know what happened to you.” “I’m terrified by their hatred, but I remember that you managed to turn everything that frightened you into a cause for action. And I promise you that your murderers will be brought to justice. I give you our word. The society that you wanted, we are going to build it, even if it’s the last thing we do.”
“The sole fact that Zak was probably seeking safety in the place where he found death is enough to cry for the rest of one’s life,” writes V.
Two days after his death, stenciling appears on walls throughout the city: “Your normality stinks of blood.”
On the page of a support group of the LGBTQI community, W. sends an SOS: he is urgently looking for someone with a room to rent until next September, not too far from the metro. His budget is 150 euros per month, all inclusive, at least until he finds a second job. He has a graduate degree in the field of petrochemistry and thinks it will not be too difficult for him to carry a tray and serve “perhaps unpleasant” customers. L., who feels terribly isolated and suffers from panic attacks since Zak’s death, responds immediately. The death of Zak brings to the surface not only the fears of LGBTQI people, but all the hate of Greek society. Comments posted online are sometimes almost as violent as the pictures of the killing. “He’s still twitching,” a reader points out below an article describing the lynching. On the eve of the demonstration of October 2, the Golden Dawn party organizes a motorbike demonstration throughout the city, a parade. In Iran, a young gay man, seventeen years old, is hanged after being accused of having a relationship with another young man of his age. Tara Fares, former Miss Iraq and influential blogger, is shot dead in a street in Baghdad. Similar cases of violence against LGBTQI people are reported during the same period in Russia, Italy, France, and Brazil.
S. publishes a photo of Zak in which he is wearing a beautiful blue T-shirt with the words: “Protect and survive.”
It’s a song title—the last song he posts on Twitter on the eve of his death. “The trick,” the song says, “is to keep breathing.”
—Athens, October 2018
Translated from the French by Darren Russell, Rose Peach, Daniel Reeders, and Zoe Mavroudi. First published in French at the website Vacarme.
Image of Zak Kostopoulos via aazios.com.