Tag Archives: Greece riots

Smells like… the end of an era

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

After such a momentous day for Greece, it’s difficult to know where to begin in terms of analysing events in Parliament and on the streets outside it.

Given that the world’s attention was focussed on how a handful of PASOK MPs would cast their ballot in the vote on the government’s midterm fiscal plan, it was always going to take something “special” to trump this story. Enter the Greek riot police and the usual bunch of thrill-seekers and hooligans. They never disappoint.

Their running battles through central Athens constituted the worst violence that Greece has seen in over a year and only added to the impression that this country is about to implode. The younger self-styled anarchists and older street warriors reliving past glories could not pass up an opportunity to get their concealed faces on every major news bulletin around the world.

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It’s not the fall, it’s the landing

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

La Haine (Hate), Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal 1995 film about the disenfranchised youths of a Paris housing project begins with an image of a petrol bomb dropping to earth. As the firebomb falls, a voice says: “It’s a story about a guy who falls from a 50-story building. As he falls, he tries to reassure himself by repeating: “So far, so good. So far, so good. So far, so good.” When the firebomb explodes, the voice says: “It’s not the fall that matters, it’s the landing.” Last Wednesday, when three bank employees in central Athens suffocated from the smoke produced by petrol bombs, it confirmed Greece was locked in a death spiral and rapidly approaching rock bottom.

The incident and its fallout encapsulated the failures and hang-ups that have pushed Greece into the void. The attack, carried out by mindless fanatics or deranged criminals depending on how you prefer to view it, was the culmination of years of pathetic indifference to the destructive nature of a fringe element that mistakenly believes it has a relevant message to convey. Greek society has never been able to draw a clear distinction between what is legitimate, effective and necessary protest and what is the imposition of one’s view on others.

The way some protesters taunted the bank employees is evidence of the perverted thinking that has been allowed to fester among a segment of the population. It’s the defeat of compassion by bigotry and the loss of common sense to blind obedience. Unquestioning commitment to the cause suggests a society where the basic norms have dissolved under the pressure of its members constantly needing someone or something to oppose.

The fact that the particular bank was a sitting target, with little protection against such an attack, highlights more of this society’s hang-ups. The bank did not have metal shutters because it was housed in a neoclassical, listed building. If the building was worth protecting, either it shouldn’t have housed a bank or adjustments should have been made to protect it. Doing neither is proof of a people that cannot reconcile themselves with their past, who end up simultaneously paying it both too much and too little respect. The end result is that Greeks are not able to live fully in the present, let alone think about the future.

That the three employees were allowed to be in harm’s way also points to some of the shortcomings in labor relations in Greece. Although Marfin Egnatia is not a member of the OTOE banking union, which had joined in the general strike, the Stadiou Street branch should have been closed last Wednesday purely for safety reasons. Rather than bowing to protesters, this would have been an acknowledgment of the real danger to employees’ health and safety. People are a business’s most important assets but in Greece the conditions in which employees work are too often overlooked. The unions that represent workers are too focused on other areas, such as maintaining privileges and rigid labor regulations, to pay any attention to ensuring working conditions are safe and professional.

The reaction of the country’s unions and politicians after the firebombing emphasized the bankruptcy of the current system. In the immediate aftermath of the three deaths, when a minute’s silence and a brief statement of condolence would have sufficed in Parliament, the party leaders chose to engage in drawn-out political point-scoring. The unseemly argument between the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and the Communist Party (KKE) was like guests at a funeral arguing over the quality of the brandy. The unions reacted by making the rally they had organized for the next day one of remembrance as well as of protest against the austerity measures. It didn’t occur to them to either cancel the gathering out of respect for the dead or to organize one for another day just in memory of the three victims.

In fact, the silent protest that was held in Syntagma Square on Sunday by a couple of hundred citizens also speaks volumes about Greece’s social degeneration. Those who gathered did so thanks to a commendable effort to use the real social networking power of the Internet. But the presence of less than 200 people confirmed a fear or lack of conviction among Greeks – who have been spoon-fed political protest as the only form of valid public discourse – to eschew these old habits and voice their displeasure as independent citizens. And, what of the young people who so passionately and so justifiably took to the streets to protest the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008 – where were they to protest the deaths of people that could have been their brothers, sisters or cousins? Did someone not have the guts to tell them that in a few years’ time they could be the ones working behind desks at banks?

Certainly, it’s not something they would hear from the media. Never ones to miss an opportunity to pour oil onto the fire, newspapers, radio and TV had for weeks been screaming about tough measures and unavoidable pain and disaster. None of them, though, would accept that for years they have played a part in fostering an atmosphere of fear, antagonism and rejectionism. Why keep your head, when – as the media suggest – everyone around you is losing theirs? And, just to confirm the cheapness of the country’s journalism, one newspaper illustrated a story about one of the victims – a woman who was four-months pregnant – by running a picture of a sonogram with flames surrounding an unborn baby.

But perhaps the most galling aspect of the firebombing was that the three victims belonged to a group this country is relying on to stay afloat – salaried workers. For years now, Greece has managed to stumble along because of employees who have their taxes deducted at source. These people carried others who treated tax as an option rather than an obligation. Having been pushed, pulled and squeezed for so many years, they are now being asked to give again. Well, three of them can’t give anymore, nor will they find out if everyone will be made to pay their fair share.

As La Haine nears its tragic climax, the three main characters pass a billboard. The image of the earth is seen again, this time with the slogan “Le monde est a vous” (The world is yours) underneath it. One of the three takes a can of spray paint and changes the words so they read: “Le monde est a nous” (The world is ours). This hints at the question Greeks must respond to: whose is this country? Who will fill the moral, social and political void? As Greece hurtles headfirst toward apparent disaster, the only chance it has of landing on its feet is if this question is answered. Anything less and there will be an almighty thud when the country finally hits the ground.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on May 14.


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.