Lost

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

This weekend marks one year since Alexis Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old schoolboy, was shot dead by a policeman in central Athens. People will commemorate his passing in different ways: some peaceful, some, inevitably, violent. But the truth is that beyond the teenager’s family and friends, no Greek has the right stake a claim to this boy’s memory. As a country, we’ve failed to mourn his death by acknowledging the questions it posed. As a society, we’ve failed to honor his life by making things better.

Wherever we had the chance to learn and improve since last December, we spurned it: the trial of the policeman who shot Grigoropoulos has yet to take place, the secondary education system that Alexis was part of remains a mess, the tertiary sector that he may have graduated to is at war with itself, we continue to show inexplicable tolerance to those who hijack and abuse democracy while the state and its citizens, particularly the younger ones, still stand opposite each other rather than side by side.

The first thing that needed to happen after the shooting was for Epaminondas Korkoneas the special guard who fired the gun, and Vassilis Saraliotis, the other officer on duty with him, to face trial as swiftly as possible. This would have, to some extent, assuaged suspicions that Korkoneas and Saraliotis will not face the full force of the law. Also, it would have cleared up exactly what happened on the night of December 6, 2008, in Exarchia. The doubt, the theories and counter-theories only inflame a volatile situation.

The trial has now been put off from December 15 to January 20, more than 13 months after the original incident. This is a catastrophic failure by authorities who should understand that justice must be swift and blind when someone entrusted to enforce or uphold the law is suspected of breaking it. It’s further confirmation of the disintegration of the Greek justice system, where few people now have hope of finding anything resembling justice due to the crumbling facilities and a huge backlog of cases.

A year on from Grigoropulos’s death, Greece’s youth – from high school to university – is still ensnared in an education system where the only thing that’s permanent is that everything is temporary. This was summed up by the recent fiasco over franchise colleges. Days before being ousted from power, New Democracy granted operating licenses to 33 institutions only for the new PASOK government to take them back a few weeks later. Both parties are guilty of toying with the education system, which should have always been excluded from their political games.

In the meantime, parents continue to spend money – roughly 750 million euros a year – on private tuition schools and home tutoring in the hope of securing an education for their children that state schools, where more appears to be written on the walls than in children’s books, seem increasingly unable to provide. Teachers complain, justifiably, about a lack of investment but money alone will not revive public education. As long as teachers and students use it for their own political ends by calling strikes and sit-ins, the sector is destined to wilt in the shadow of apathy cast by the very people supposed to nurture it.

At university level, many lecturers and students opt to live in the comfort zone rather than accept that the failure to assess themselves, to improve standards and to take on the challenge of independent or private colleges is starving their institutions of the academic oxygen they need to survive. Sensing this lack of courage, the minority has taken over. Last week, vandals ransacked Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and a group of non-students physically assaulted a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business. Academics at Athens Law School claim they were threatened to keep the campus open this weekend despite fears it would be used rioters. Small groups of people, hiding behind the shield of university asylum – which nobody has the guts to review – are now holding Greek universities hostage.

Faced with this deteriorating situation, those with authority choose the path of least resistance. University rectors, often fearing for their physical well being, turn a blind eye or shift the blame onto the government, which, fearing a populist backlash, also dodges its responsibility. This was highlighted last Thursday when Deputy Education Minister Yiannis Panaretos said PASOK has no intention of intervening over the failure of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) to prevent its computer terminals being used to update the Athens branch of the anti-capitalist news network Indymedia. “We live in a free society,” was his response.

This is the coward’s way out. It underlines how little faith we have in our democracy and how weak-willed we are when it comes to upholding its values. Indymedia, which brands itself as a source of independent news, has a right to exist as much as any mainstream media site but the fact that this website is run from computers paid for by taxpayers and installed for educational purposes is beyond comprehension. It’s the equivalent of an Athens bus driver using his vehicle to take his family on holiday.

As a society, we’ve allowed the few to dictate the terms by which our institutions, and our lives, are run. We’ve been too afraid to argue that rights also come with responsibilities. We’ve been too timid to champion a free society but at the same time prevent a free-for-all. Nowhere is this more evident than in Exarchia, where a relatively small group of anarchists and hooligans sets the tone. Not knowing how to deal with them, the state responds with brute force, prompting residents this week to threaten legal action against police because of what they see as heavy handed measures.

Greeks, particularly the younger ones, see this and form the impression that they live in an oppressive state, disregarding that in their country rules are not there to be enforced but to single out the fools that actually follow them. And while they rage against a non-existent authority, nobody takes the time to realize that it’s the absence of the state, the lack of enforceable rules and the dearth of respect for each other that’s the actual source of oppression. This is the reason why justice is compromised, our schools are sources of stagnation, our universities are turning in on themselves and our streets have become battlegrounds.

All of us had 12 months to put at least some of this right and we’ve done nothing. That’s why the last year has turned out to be just like Alexis Grigoropoulos’s life: lost.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 4, 2009.

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