We will probably never find out exactly what happened at Syntagma Square on Thursday, when an anti-austerity protest degenerated into an all-out brawl between members of the Communist union PAME and the black block of rioters intent on wreaking havoc.
The unionists argue that they were aware of a plot by the rioters to disrupt the peaceful protest, as they had done a day earlier, and took measures to stop them. Photographs and video footage seem to support the theory that the hooded troublemakers were lurking among groups of other protesters, biding their team before launching an assault on the riot police in front of Parliament.
However, a counter-theory put forward by some observers and members of other unions is that PAME wanted to hijack the protest for its own publicity reasons. A show of such force by a line of communists wearing motorcycle helmets that the rioters, normally a match for the well-equipped police, were forced back could indeed serve as a great advert or recruiting tool for PAME.
Then there is the debate about the role of the police and who the hooded assailants actually were. Self-styled anarchists? Neo-fascists? Delinquent youths? Soccer hooligans? Agent provocateurs planted by the police? Probably all of the above. The parameters are endless.
There, in this chaotic scene, you have a snapshot of Greece’s fractious society — where politics is taken to the extremes, social groups are pitted against each other and citizens would rather fight each other than for a better future. And, right in the middle of it, there is a tragic loss of life: an unemployed 53-year-old construction worker, Dimitris Kotzaridis, whose heart could no longer take the stress of the mayhem around him. It really doesn’t get more symbolic than that.
Yet, this being Greece, one look is never enough to give you the answers you need. There is always the parallax view to consider. For somewhere in this scene of social carnage there may have been a glimmer of hope. PAME has become synonymous with the worst aspects of unionism in Greece — stubbornness, insularism and militancy — but some strange twist in the country’s fraught timeline meant the members of this communist union found themselves defending the right to protest peacefully and a Parliament whose laws they often hold in contempt.
They upset some people in the process, but the PAME members took on the nihilists who always manage to erase the messages public protests attempt to communicate and smash any hope of Greeks uniting behind something. Their motives may have been questionable, but the unionists stood under a hail of rocks and Molotov cocktails and refused to budge. It may have been more by luck than design, but their actions spoke of a gesture for the greater good.
The contrast could not have been greater with what happened inside Parliament, where the narrow interests that have dragged Greece to the edge of catastrophe continued to dominate. Seemingly oblivious to the death of a fellow citizen and the ugly manifestation of the social upheaval the crisis is causing, Greece’s politicians continued their tired Vaudevillian show in the runup to a late-night vote on the latest set of austerity measures.
There were claims from Coalition of the Radical Left leader Alexis Tsipras that PASOK was governing by “omerta” only for Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos to accuse him of “playing the tough guy” because he knew he didn’t have to take any tough decisions. Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) leader Giorgos Karatzaferis was not ashamed to display pure political cynicism by saying he was prepared to support the government’s austerity bill, just as long as Prime Minister George Papandreou was prepared to form a national unity administration — one that would, obviously, include Karatzaferis. The Communist Party clarified that it was in favor of Greece leaving the euro, while New Democracy was content to watch the government tie itself in knots.
In fact, it was like witnessing the brawls around Syntagma Square, only instead of chunks of marble, accusations were flying through the air. Instead of batons, the MPs used empty rhetoric to beat each other over the head. While a 53-year-old man lay dead in a hospital just a few hundred meters away from Parliament, democracy’s barely breathing corpse — the victim of grievous bodily harm inflicted by unworthy domestic politicians and increasingly unfettered interference from Greece’s lenders — lay on a slab in Parliament.
That’s when it became clear that Greek politics and society are two sides of the same prism. When you look through it you see the same gut-wrenching sight. How we would like to be able to flip it around and to catch a glimpse of something that could give us hope, another chance to see someone willing to fight the egomaniacal forces and stand up for the greater good, preferably by design rather than luck.