Tag Archives: Grigoropoulos

Reading the signs

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If there’s anything to be gained from being stuck in an interminable Athens traffic jam, it’s that we get an opportunity to pose ourselves existential questions like “Why do I do this to myself?” and “Why do we do this to each other?” The more immediate and practical answer becomes apparent when the amber lights on the matrix display above the street gleam, one after another, like cigarette lighters being thrust into the air at a soft-rock concert, spelling out: “Rally. Center closed.”

These are three words every Athenian is familiar with. They’ve been seared onto our retinas. In fact, they could be the perfect motto for Athens, the city where unrest never rests and where disquiet is never quiet.

“Rally. Center closed” flashed up more often than usual over the past few days, as several thousand people took to the streets to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos. The upheaval that followed his shooting last December was the crystallization of the turmoil that plays out on Athens’s streets with predictable regularity. It was, however, more direct, more potent and more devastating than the usual protests.

A year on though, as a Public Issue poll for last Sunday’s Kathimerini indicated, we are still struggling to understand what happened and what it means for this country’s future. We examine last December’s events hoping that by sifting through the protests, the riots, the vandalism and the general outpouring of anger and frustration, we can find the answers to some of the existential questions that trouble us.

But perhaps the answers lie not so much in what actually happened but in how we’ve interpreted what happened. Among the poll’s most significant findings are that 52 percent of those questioned believe last December’s events were a “social uprising” – but 45 percent disagree; 51 percent think only a minority was involved, whereas 45 percent believe it was a mass movement; 51 percent think the protesters were not being incited but 42 percent think they were.

In assessing last December’s events, we are in perfect disagreement, which is a dominant feature of our society. It’s a form of disharmony that means the right cannot agree on much and those on the left turn their backs on each other; that civil servants work against rather than for the citizens who pay their salaries; that students can protest about the same thing at the same time in the same city center but in groups that are not in contact with each other; that Greens cannot watch a soccer match in the same stadium as Reds; and which prompts each minority to pursue its niche demands at the expense of the rest of the population.

The Public Issue survey underlines that Greece is a society at odds with itself, where a common view is always beyond reach, where one group is pitted against another and where consensus is torn apart like a chew toy thrown to a pack of Dobermans. So, maybe it’s time for us to look at this pervasive division as the key factor behind last December’s events rather than trying to work out whether it was a “social uprising” or a “mass movement.”

It’s very tempting, as some have done, to look back on the unrest of 12 months ago as being the lovechild of France’s May of 1968 but such comparisons are rooted in nostalgia. The December 2008 protests had no common purpose, whereas in 1968 a key aim was to bring down the existing government, shift the political system to the left and create a new morality. Yes, New Democracy lost power after 10 months – but at its own hand rather than anyone else’s. In fact, the riots did not even force the resignation of then Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos, which would have been a given in most other European countries.

While the intensity and persistence of the protests last year were impressive, they did not have the broad appeal or participation that some would like to believe. In France, 11 million workers went on strike for two weeks in 1968, bringing the country – not just a city center – to its knees. Also, French workers and students united in their opposition to the government of Charles de Gaulle. Here, this solidarity was fleeting and it was not long before each group was protesting on its own. On the political front, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) isolated itself by adopting an equivocal stance on where the protests ended and vandalism began, PASOK and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) exploited the situation as much as they could, while the Communist Party fulfilled the role of the sage elder of the tribe, urging for a more mature form of opposition.

That this movement, albeit not a mass one, should blossom out of nowhere last December and then split into various disparate branches was absolute confirmation that the country’s youth cannot help but be sucked into Greek society’s vicious circle. In simply raging against the system, they registered their presence on the landscape but did little to change it. By taking to the streets to vent their frustrations, they thought they were making a bold statement on behalf of a new generation but in fact they were speaking their parents’ language of selfishness and bloody-mindedness.

In a society as divided as Greece’s, the only way people know how to communicate is through conflict, by butting their heads against each other – we see it when we are in our cars, on our TV screens, at public service offices, in banks and at sports grounds. The philosophy of “I rage, therefore I am” is best manifested in our public protests, where either one man and his dog or tens of thousands of people voice their cause in the central Athens and demand that the rest of us listen.

There’s an average of more than two protests a day in Athens, as each group, no matter how small or large, attempts to take what it believes it’s entitled to by force, foregoing any opportunity of uniting with other aggrieved workers, establishing common positions, putting forward proposals. The fragmented nature of this opposition and the frequency of the rallies dilute their impact and undermine the moral basis they may have. The only thing they succeed in doing is to antagonize the majority that suffers from the constant protests and so, in turn, more grist is fed to the mill of discontent.

There is no doubt that last December was a landmark – not because it marked the dawn of a new era but because it saw a new generation fall into the whirlpool of self-destructiveness that is dragging Greece down. The only hope is that this generation will be quicker to understand its mistakes and to find different ways of communicating than those that went before it. If not, the country’s future is already written – we only have to look up and see it in bright lights right in front of us: “Rally. Center closed.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 11, 2009.


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.