Democracy squared rather than democracy divided

Photo by Stratos Safioleas

If you’ve been having sleepless nights worrying about Greece’s plight, you can rest easy now. As if by magic, the country’s concerns have been dispelled overnight. Only, rather than a magic wand, it was the waving of a police baton that did the trick when officers removed the dregs of the Indignant movement from Syntagma Square early on Saturday, long after the cup had run dry.

Had you been following the media-fueled public debate in Greece over the last couple of weeks, you would have been excused for believing that the few dozen protesters, their sagging tents and scrappy banners, which had been in situ in Syntagma for the last two months, were the country’s most pressing problem. These hippy wannabees were apparently destroying Greece’s tourism industry, driving the capital’s drug trade and creating a burgeoning market for street traders.

No matter that the government, reckless hoteliers, restaurateurs and ferry operators had been doing their best to wreck Greek tourism for years or that drugs had been doing a flourishing trade in several Athens neighborhoods for a long time or that repeated promises to create a licensed open-air market for street traders had failed to materialize. No, it was the fault of the Indignant.

Their taking over of public space with complete disregard for the well-being or safety of their fellow citizens could not be rivaled; not even by the cafe, bar and taverna owners who have for years encroached on Athens sidewalks with their profit-earning tables and chairs; not even by the rich and famous who park their cars on walkways outside the Athens Concert Hall or the Herod Atticus Theater when there is a major performance and not even by ministries and municipalities that turn a blind eye to the dangers of slapdash work in parks or playgrounds.

But why deal with the real problem when we can just scratch the surface and remove a temporary irritation?

The people removed from Syntagma Square on Saturday may not have been true Indignants, a movement that targeted Greece’s political failings as well as the unpopular austerity measures. In fact, they may have just been idlers looking for a bit of fun. Kathimerini English Edition has heard from two French tourists who claim they were just waiting for the first metro train to Athens International Airport when they were arrested by police.

Regardless of who they were, though, there is only one principle that should have guided the authorities’ decision to remove them and that is if any of these people were breaking the law. If it was illegal for them to camp in the square, the police should have prevented them from doing so from day one. If protesters were littering or damaging public property, officers should have removed them. If they were using drugs or threatening public safety, there should have been no tolerance of that either. Likewise if they were inciting or engaging in violence.

However, rather than do any of this, authorities and politicians adopted their all-so-familiar stance, which can be found somewhere between indifference and incompetence, and allowed a minor issue to escalate into a major problem. They then turned to page two of the playbook and launched an orchestrated campaign to discredit the Indignants.

Having served its use as a lightning conductor for people’s anger and frustration, Greece’s politicians — who a few weeks ago courted the people in the square — recently began dismissing the movement as nothing more than a ragtag collection of miscreants in “gypsy tents.” There are plenty of things to criticize the Indignants about but painting them as a threat to democracy appears cowardly.

It is part of the tactic of creating scapegoats that the political elite and part of the media have adopted over the last couple of years. Every few weeks or months, a new target for the system’s venom is uncovered. Legitimate criticism is replaced by unyielding rhetoric that attempts to shield those most guilty within our society — those who have had the authority to change things — from rebuke. Over the last couple of weeks it was the Indignant that were the bane of our existence. Now, it’s taxi drivers. This time last year, it was the truck drivers. In between, there have been many more.

While each group has serious questions to answer, the pogroms launched by some politicians and journalists ensure that none of these is answered. Instead, they create a situation where one social group is pitched against another. This is an explosive mix. The answer to the current crisis, which is not just economic but also political and social, cannot be to turn Greece into a huge wrestling ring where the last man standing wins. The answer must be greater fairness, more transparency and deeper democracy.

Our elite’s tolerance of the Indignant campers did not last more than a couple of months but it might be worth remembering a man called Brian Haw. He was an anti-war protester that camped in front of the British Parliament for almost 10 years. Authorities repeatedly tried to remove him, even changing the law on protests in Parliament Square, but the courts always vindicated Haw’s right to peaceful public protest. His constant reminders about the number of people killed in Iraq were uncomfortable, but in democracies, facing the truth isn’t always a comfortable affair.

Haw’s protest came to an end in June when he died from cancer. A few years earlier, London Mayor-to-be Boris Johnson wrote: “I thought his posters and general gubbins were a disgrace and spoiled the look of the place; and yet he… represented something dementedly British… Across the world, Britain still stands for a certain idea of liberty, a particular concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state.”

It is this relationship that Greece has to stop tearing apart and start rebuilding fast. Meanwhile, Syntagma Square was back to normality on Monday. As municipal cleaning crews cleaned in one corner, policeman huddled and joked in the other. Meanwhile, across the way two private cars and three motorcycles were parked on the square, obstructing pedestrians. Who knows, maybe if a few dozen vehicles find their way onto the square at some point, we might start a campaign to remove them.

Nick Malkoutzis

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