Posts Tagged 'demonstration'

The genealogy of violence

By Harry van Versendaal

When Dimitris Stratoulis, a leftist lawmaker, was assaulted by alleged far-right extremists at a soccer stadium last month, many in Greece found it hard to disguise feeling some degree of Schadenfreude.

It appeared that the tables had finally turned on Greece’s main SYRIZA opposition party, which has in the past failed to provide a convincing condemnation – some would say it in fact silently condoned – similar attacks on its political opponents.

Greeks have traditionally been more accustomed to social unrest and political disobedience than their European Union peers, but the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that was comfortably voted into Parliament for the first time last year, has spawned a local Historikerstreit, a contested debate among politicians and pundits about the causes and the nature of violence.

Ideological hegemony

Interestingly, some critics have gone as far as to blame Golden Dawn’s shocking surge on the country’s left, which, despite losing the civil war, went on to win the ideological hegemony. Public tolerance of left-wing radicalism in the years following the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 – what is commonly referred to in Greece as “metapolitefsi” – allegedly laid the ground for Golden Dawn’s violent extremism in providing some sort of social legitimacy.

“Only blindness or bias would prevent someone from noticing the connection between public attitudes regarding the violence of the extreme left and the rise of the violent extreme right in Greece,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor and an expert on the subject of political violence at the University of Yale.

“If public attitudes vis-a-vis leftist violence had been different, the extreme right would have been much more constrained in its use of violence today,” he said, stressing however that there is no casual relationship between the violence of the two political extremes.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds and more than a few support SYRIZA’s promise to repeal the law if it forms a government.

Beyond the universities, left-wing unionists – like the Communist Party (KKE)’s militant PAME group – traditionally organize street blockades and sit-ins at public buildings as a form of protest. Mass rallies, interpreted by many as a sign of a vibrant democracy, regularly turn violent and destructive. Groups of hooded youths carrying stones and petrol bombs ritually clash with riot police, who respond with tear gas and stun grenades. Public property is damaged, banks are set on fire and cars are smashed, but arrests and convictions are surprisingly rare.

Serious injuries and fatalities were also rare, until May 2010, when three people were killed as hooded protesters set fire to a branch of Marfin Bank in central Athens during a general strike over planned austerity measures. Demonstrators marching past the burning bank shouted slogans against the workers trapped inside the building. No arrests have been made in connection with the murders, which many leftists have blamed – like other similar incidents – on agents provocateurs.

A few months later, Costis Hatzidakis, a conservative heavyweight who is now development minister, was beaten up by unidentified protesters before being led away bleeding on the sidelines of a demonstration against the then Socialist government’s cost-cutting policies.

The reaction of SYRIZA, a collection of leftist, even militant groupings, to such incidents has been rather ambiguous as the party – which denies links to violent groupings – has repeatedly fallen short of providing a clear-cut condemnation of violence.

“We condemn violence but we understand the frustration of those who react violently to the violence of the memorandum,” SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras said of the painful bailout agreement signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Critics responded by accusing the left of giving in to ethical relativism, by seeking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” violence as it sees fit.

A few months ago, SYRIZA refused to vote for a motion by the Parliament’s ethics committee that condemned violence, arguing that the text should refer to “racist violence” and not just “violence.” Party officials appeared concerned that the motion could be used to sabotage acts of popular struggle versus the injustices of the state. KKE, as is its wont, chose to abstain from the vote.

When the residents of Keratea, a small town 40 kilometers southeast of Athens, fought, often violently, with police forces for three months over the planned construction of a huge landfill in the area, Tsipras hailed the “town that has become a symbol for the whole of Greece.”

But nowhere has social tolerance of violence been more evident than in the case of domestic terrorism. November 17, a self-styled Marxist urban guerrilla group, assassinated 25 people in 103 attacks from 1975 until it was disbanded in 2002. One of the reasons the terrorists managed to remain elusive for so long, many analysts believe, was that its actions, mostly targeting American officials and members of Greece’s wealthy “big bourgeois class,” did not enrage the mainstream public, fed on years of anti-American rhetoric from long-serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

“Public opinion, as recorded in several surveys, viewed terrorists either with sympathy or indifference. There was hardly any mass mobilization against this group,” Kalyvas said.

In an opinion poll conducted a few months before the dismantling of November 17, 23.7 percent of respondents – nearly one in four – said they accepted the organization’s political and ideological views, although most said they disagreed with its practices. Only 31.3 percent said they wanted the guerrillas to put their guns down and turn themselves in to the authorities. Later, many on the left slammed the government’s anti-terror law as an attempt to crack down on civil liberties.

For Kalyvas, in a public arena saturated with rhetorical violence – for example the increasingly frequent calls for hanging or executing traitors, especially during the Indignant protest gatherings in central Syntagma Square in the summer of 2011 – it was perhaps predictable that the violence of the extreme right may strike a large number of people as a quasi-legitimate political weapon.

“How surprising can it be to see the public responding in this way, after four decades of being consistently told that political violence can be justified?” he asked.

The rise of populism

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that the tolerance of violence may have played a role in the rise of Golden Dawn. But there was nothing particularly left-wing about the displays of lawlessness, she points out.

“Sure, the law was often not enforced, there was an anything-goes mentality, a sense that people stand above the institutions,” Georgiadou said.

“But this was not an exclusively leftist outlook. It was more the outgrowth of a populist outburst that swept across the left-right spectrum. And it was a PASOK creation. PASOK was the creator of populism in the post-dictatorship era,” she said.

But it was not just the populism. Like other analysts, Georgiadou attributes Golden Dawn’s soaring influence to popular disillusionment with the country’s crumbling institutions.

“It was the discrediting of political institutions, of the political class, and of the operation of democracy that allowed anti-systemic, far-right extremism to flourish,” she said.

When Golden Dawn spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slapped Liana Kanelli, a long-serving Communist deputy, in the face on live television last summer in a fit of frenzy, many, instead of being shocked, saw the move as an attack on the country’s bankrupt status quo, despite the Communist Party not having ever risen to power in any election. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Golden Dawn’s ratings rose following the incident.

The trend did not occur overnight. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Only 11 percent of Greeks are satisfied with the way democracy operates in the country, a December Eurobarometer survey found, against 89 percent who said the opposite. A scant 5 percent said they have trust in political parties, while a slightly higher number, at 7 percent, said they have trust in the Greek Parliament.

Journalist Xenia Kounalaki readily points a finger at the obvious culprits: the nation’s mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, who have between them ruled Greece since 1974.

The daughter of a veteran Socialist politician, Kounalaki speaks of “the corruption, the entanglement between media owners and state contractors, and the sense of impunity,” which, she says, pitted a better-connected, privileged chunk of society against the disenfranchised lot that were left out of “the system.”

If the Greek left has something to regret in the surge of the far right, Kounalaki says, it’s that it chose to hold the moral high ground on the issue of immigration instead of articulating a more pragmatic alternative.

“Its stubborn anti-racist rhetoric was hardly convincing among the lower-income groups living in depressed urban centers, lending it a gauche caviar profile,” she said of the nation’s left-wing intelligentsia who preached multiculturalism from the safety of their suburban armchairs.

Greece’s porous borders, combined with the rather unworkable Dublin II convention, which rules that asylum applications must be heard in the first country of entry, made sure that the country became a magnet for hordes of unregistered migrants who eventually get stuck here in a semi-legal limbo.

Family resemblances

Like many others, Kounalaki may be willing to discuss any wrongs by the left in the rise of Golden Dawn, but she rules out any attempts to equate the radicalism on the two sides. Not only are such efforts unwarranted, she says, they are also dangerous.

“Equating the locking up of university professors with Greek neo-Nazi pogroms against migrants leads to relativism and, effectively, legitimizes Golden Dawn violence,” she wrote in a recent publication on violence.

The Hamburg-born journalist, who became the target of anonymous threats on the Golden Dawn website after she wrote an article critical of the party, thinks that equating the two types of violence amounts to a relativism that effectively legitimates far-right violence.

Others are not so sure. When a protest supported by members of Golden Dawn against the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” led to the cancellation of the “gay Jesus” play’s premiere at the capital’s Hytirio Theater in October, several critics were quick to point to a similar incident in late 2009, when self-styled anarchists burst into a theater and damaged the stage at the premier of Michel Fais’s “Kitrino Skyli” (Yellow Dog), a play inspired by the hideous acid attack on Bulgarian labor union activist Konstantina Kouneva. The anarchists said they were against the theater cashing in on the woman’s ill fortune.

The fact is that left-wing activists have in the past prevented the screening of movies and forcibly interrupted speeches and book presentations.

“Golden Dawn’s hit squads are no different from the groups of left-wing activists that like to blockade streets, assault lawmakers or interfere with academic proceedings,” Palaskas said, adding that violence lies at the heart of both ideological doctrines, which, under certain conditions, treat force as a necessary means to a superior end.

“Attacking a student who collects rubbish around his university dorm, or a professor because he holds different views than you do is no different, from a humanitarian perspective, to attacking a migrant trying to make a living in this country,” he said, referring to a recent feud between students at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and leftists supporting striking municipal cleaners when the former tried to clean up growing heaps of rubbish on the campus.

But it is hard to see how such acts, illegal as they may be, can be compared to organized attacks against fellow humans.

“The violence of Golden Dawn carries a very specific ideological weight: discrimination on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation,” Georgiadou said.

“It’s a violence which is directed against individuals. It seeks to deny their universal rights in the most extreme manner and, on top of that, it involves an extreme form of physical abuse,” she said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks between January and September last year in Athens, Piraeus and Patra. In 50 of those incidents, the victims suffered serious bodily harm. In 15 of them, victims accused police officers of using violence against them. Many immigrants are reluctant to report such abuses because they don’t have documents or mistrust the police.

Those who put the two types of violence in the same bag seem to suggest that scrapping leftist violence of its social legitimacy would make it easier to combat far-right violence. However, says Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at International Hellenic University, it’s hard to see why one thing would lead to the other.

“Despite the political and social consensus to deal with far-right extremism, this has not been enough to curb [the phenomenon], a fact which underscores the complexity of the situation,” he said.

Part of the system

Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine why Greek society is not willing to condemn violence in general. Part of the explanation can be found in its modern history. During the Second World War, the country suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis. The specter of the 1967-74 dictatorship also hangs heavy over the country’s modern politics. Far-right violence has bad historical connotations for it is associated with memories of the so-called right-wing “parastate,” the junta and torture.

“Although leftist violence has its origins in equally anti-systemic reasons, motives and objectives, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it benefits from having been absorbed into the country’s political culture,” Antoniou said.

“The purportedly anti-systemic violence of the far left is in a way at the same time also systemic because a big chunk of the political system and society has accepted it as an integral part of Greek political culture,” he said.

Each time activists used Facebook and other social media to organize peaceful demos against violence in the recent years, these only drew very sparse crowds.

As part of the national narrative, Antoniou says, this type of violence is seen as less of a threat to the nation, thus “undermining democracy in the long run.”

However, should attacks by ultranationalist thugs spread and diversify, people like Stratoulis may eventually come to develop a more inclusive understanding of violence, condemning it in every form: whether racial, sexual or political.

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Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

In Syntagma Square, some see the dawn of a new politics

Photo by Chris Bertsos

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s past midnight in Syntagma Square, the epicenter of Greece’s month-long anti-austerity demonstrations, and Stathis Marinos is sitting at a corner cafe overlooking the colorful tent city under the trees. Flipping a string of worry beads while sipping a frappe, the 37-year-old software engineer muses about Greece’s financial crisis.

“The memorandum is unsustainable,” he says of the loan deal signed last year between the socialist government of George Papandreou and Greece’s foreign creditors to avert default. He thinks the debt-choked country is being stifled by a mix of brutally rigid measures — and that they must be resisted. “But you cannot use the system to fight the system. You must not get caught up in this process,” he says, criticizing calls among protesters and pundits to declare the bailout agreement unconstitutional.

A few yards away, in the heart of the white marble square, a loudspeaker crackles with rhetorical din from the ongoing session at the makeshift assembly meeting. Modeled after Spain’s “Indignados” who took over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and other public squares earlier this year, Athens’s “aganaktismenoi” (Indignants) have camped in the capital’s main square since May 25. A month after the first call on Facebook and other social media, Syntagma, or Constitution square, the starting point to the capital’s main commercial street, is playing host to a postmodern incarnation of the ancient Athenian agora.

Every evening, hundreds of people gather here to discuss anything and everything about the crisis. Speakers, who are chosen by lot, are given a two-minute time limit so as to allow for the greatest possible number of contributions. There is little of the typical booing and hissing, and audiences react mostly with hand gestures: waving their hands in the air for approval or giving a thumbs down when they disagree. Interpretations of what is happening in the square range from the groundbreaking to the delusional or just plain silly.

“This is not a movement — and it will by no means evolve into a political party. It’s more like a trend,” says Marinos, who has joined in every evening after work since day one. He has often taken part in street demos, but points out that he has never belonged to a political party. “It’s great that people familiarize themselves with the political process; they learn how to engage in dialogue with each other; how to participate in civic life,” he says of the meetings.

In the beginning, the Indignants were mostly portrayed as a non-political grouping. It was in the wake of a mass demonstration earlier this month that Greece’s mainstream parties, PASOK and the right-of-center New Democracy, came close to clinching a unity coalition deal. Talks eventually fell through and Papandreou went on to conduct a cabinet reshuffle designed to galvanize his base. He also proposed a referendum in the fall on a proposal to revise the Greek Constitution. The fact that the Indignants have put pressure on the government and the politicians, some argue, means that they have now become political.

Political animals

In fact, some analysts maintain, the movement has been political from the start. Costas Douzinas, a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London, recently penned one of the most flattering profiles of the Indignants in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, after being invited to speak in Syntagma. For him “this is the most political movement we have had in Greece, and perhaps in Europe for the past 20 years. It is totally political and in a way it changes our understanding of what politics means,” he says.

He is not alone. Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, has kept a close eye on the demographics of the square. All findings so far, she says, indicate that we are dealing with a “politically active” audience. “These people are deeply disaffected and disillusioned with politicians, with the political parties and with the institutions at large,” she explains. Their reaction was not a bolt out of the historical blue. Most research shows that people’s disaffection with Greece’s social and political institutions dates back to the early 1990s. A public survey published last year found that nearly nine out of 10 Greeks are “dissatisfied with how democracy works.” The local media, which have suffered their own barrage of criticism (some of it fair) as sycophants of the status quo, like to describe the movement in emotional rather than ideological terms. “But frustration is not merely an emotional reaction. Frustration is the preamble of political protest,” says Georgiadou.

“Any kind of politics of resistance starts from a refusal. Refusal is the first step in any process of eventual political confrontation,” Douzinas says. The phenomenon seems to have a dream-come-true quality for some, and Douzinas is certainly happy to connect the dots. “Without people being in a space, taking it over and declaring their refusal of whatever it is that they want to reject, no radical change has ever taken place in history,” he says.

Skeptics, on the other hand, maintain that the memorandum is not at the root of the problem, but only a symptom. Culminating to the memorandum, they say, the trail has been one of dysfunction, waste and corruption. Writing in The Guardian last week, author Apostolos Doxiadis attacked the “charlatans” who blame the evil foreigners for our own ills and failures. Some soul-searching would instead be more appropriate, he reckons. “I know that the heart of our problem is a huge, parasitic and inefficient public sector, which EU funds, unwisely and often corruptly distributed by our politicians over the past two decades, made even bigger and less productive,” he writes.

When it comes to self-criticism and proposals to overcome the crisis, detractors say, the Syntagma folk are uncomfortably laconic. “Far form being the frontline of any kind of solid movement, the Syntagma camp-in is a confused, depoliticized, borderline-petulant response to the economic crisis,” writes Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked website, in The Australian. He is annoyed at the absence of any serious debate about the hard stuff. Save their vociferous opposition to austerity measures, “absolutely nothing of substance is proposed,” he writes.

What virtually everyone agrees on is that Greece is a mess. Faced with bankruptcy, the country received a 110-billion-euro rescue package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in May 2010 but now needs a second bailout of a similar size to meet its financial obligations until the end of 2014, when it hopes for a return to capital markets for funding. International creditors have set the introduction of a painful raft of belt-tightening measures — including tax hikes, spending cuts and privatizations — as a condition for releasing more aid. A critical vote is to be held in Parliament on June 29 and 30. Meanwhile, unemployment has soared to 16 percent and crime, in what used to be one of the safest states in Europe, is on the rise. Anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods of the capital, is spreading as once-marginal xenophobic groups are establishing a mainstream presence.

Square feat

Nicos Mouzelis, an emeritus sociology professor at the London School of Economics, goes as far as to draw parallels between the Indignants and the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle and Genoa — and, in a more far-fetched comparison, the events of May 1968. Mouzelis, a former adviser to reformist Prime Minister Costas Simitis, praises the movement’s “great dynamism, spontaneity and the rapid, widespread diffusion across all social strata.” The protests have truly brought together a very diverse crowd — but one that is not always pulling in exactly the same direction.

Browsing through the crowd massed in the square, you encounter a motley crew of leftists railing against global capitalism and neoliberalism. Posters of Che Guevara hang next to used tear gas canisters (with “Made in USA” labels) launched by police during the recent riots. The spicy fumes wafting from the assorted stands of hot-dog vendors occasionally mixes with the pungent odor of marijuana. At the assembly, people discuss the negative effects of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy on Greek farmers before talking through some organizational issues. With time, the discourse at the meetings has become more progressive and assertive. A recent resolution called for activist-style interventions like the occupation of television stations and public buildings. For Marinos, some degree of radicalization is a “natural evolution.” “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he says.

The Indignants’ decision to cordon off the Parliament building on June 15 to prevent lawmakers from reviewing the controversial midterm fiscal plan was widely regarded as the first break with the movement’s non-violent stance. The rally, which was also attended by thousands of union members, degenerated into violence as riot police battled with self-styled anarchists for hours. Then came the usual finger-pointing squabble over who deserves the blame for the violence. A decision to give the movement a more activist orientation, some analysts say, would most likely alienate the big mass of supporters. “Some people would like to see a fallback to traditional practices. But I am not sure that many people will want to follow,” Georgiadou says.

Interestingly, however, developments in and around Syntagma Square have thrown left-wing parties — like the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) — into disarray. Early skepticism — the more sclerotic KKE went as far as to condemn the movement for not being class-driven — gradually gave way to, some say, cynical attempts to hijack the movement. They are unlikely to succeed, as most protesters view them as part of the problem. “If KKE changes, it will destroy itself,” Marinos says.

Dogs of war

Just up the steps from the assembly, in front of the illuminated Parliament building, a different group is chanting slogans and hurling insults against the “thieving politicians who destroyed Greece,” calling them to “give the money back and get the f*** out of the country.” Demonstrators make the disparaging open-palm “moutza” gesture against the House and point green laser beams — sold here by immigrant street vendors — at television crews conveniently positioned on the balconies of the Grande Bretagne luxury hotel. Mock gallows and banners taunting Papandreou as being “Goldman Sachs’s employee of the year” decorate this part of the square. Most of the acid is flung at Theodoros Pangalos, the corpulent deputy prime minister and father of the infamous “we-all-ate-the-money-together” comment. Here, in this more colorful part of the new agora, is where you are most likely to bump into Loukanikos, the famous riot dog, and manic street preacher and cult TV personality Eleni Louka yelling “repent” into a megaphone as bystanders take snapshots with their cell phones.

The rowdy behavior and nationalist overtones of the people stationed in front of the House have caused occasional spats with their left-leaning counterparts down the steps. “I don’t understand what is going on down there,” Giorgos, a young man in blue jeans and a polo t-shirt, tells me while rolling a cigarette. “I don’t have a solution to the crisis. All I know is that I am angry with all this,” he says. The blanket rejectionism and often xenophobic posturing of those upstairs conveys a sense of uncertainty, of lost bearings perhaps, in a world swept up by rapid social change.

Elias Maglinis, a writer and journalist in his early 40s who lives in the nearby Mets area, is put off by some of the crass behavior. “The gallows, the comparisons to the 1967 military coup and the slogans that the dictatorship did not end in 1973 make me angry. These people have no memory or do not know what a dictatorship or firing squad means,” he says.

At 1 a.m., the protest has petered out. About 50 people remain scattered on the sidewalk of Amalias Avenue in front of the House. Some lean over the newly installed railings to taunt the baton-wielding policemen. Two middle-aged men, beer cans in hand, chat with a police chief. A towering figure with a white mustache, the soft-spoken chief expresses his sympathy for the demonstrators. “We also are suffering,” he says pointing at his men. “My salary was slashed; I am the father of three. We are here to protect the House, not them [the deputies],” he says. Police officers, currently paid between 800 and 1,500 euros, are in for wage cuts like all civil servants. As he speaks, fireworks explode overhead as the Panathenaic stadium, the venue that hosted the first modern Olympic Games, prepares to host the Special Olympics opening ceremony.

What next?

Most analysts predict that the Indignant movement will fizzle out. “Because these movements reject any linkages to political parties, trade unions and other well-established organizations, they do not last long,” says Mouzelis. But the long-term impact on Greece’s political culture must not be discounted. “Politicians will not be able to operate ‘as usual’ anymore,” he says. And even if the hype about direct democracy in action is exaggerated, recent developments have made people realize that they can be active citizens without belonging to any particular party or trade union. “A democracy should welcome the existence of active citizens; it’s not something to be afraid of. After all, it’s better if people get together in public squares than becoming numbed couch potatoes,” Georgiadou says.

Back in the square, the assembly is voting on the resolutions proposed over the course of the day. Attendants vote in favor of organizing concerts on a daily basis, but reject a proposal to invite the country’s premier for talks. Decisions will soon be posted on the real-democracy website. Most of them dictate actions to be taken during the two-day general strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ambling over to the crowd, Marinos says that what happens during the strike may well determine the future of the movement. He ponders the Marfin bank tragedy in May last year. Three employees died when the premises were firebombed during an anti-austerity rally. “Should there be human losses like then, the whole thing will die.”

Violently happy

By Harry van Versendaal

The seemingly subdued reaction to the deaths of three bank employees during a demonstration against austerity measures in central Athens on May 5 indicates that it’s not just the protests which are seen as natural in Greece but also the violence that accompanies them.

Stathis N. Kalyvas, a professor of political science and director of the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University, talked to Athens Plus about the cultural roots of the rioting and destruction, the misguided role of the left and the long-term impact of recent developments.

Contrary to the massive protests in the wake of the police shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008, recent demonstrations in protest of the three deaths at Marfin Egnatia Bank on May 5 have been extremely modest in size (a recent demo on Syntagma Square, which had no political affiliation, only gathered some 150-200 people). What is the reason for this?

For a number of historical and political reasons, Greek society remains very sensitive to loss of life caused by agents of the state compared to other types of victims. In turn, this sensitivity is further reinforced by the capacity of various leftist parties and groups to mobilize people whenever state forces are seen as exceeding their authority. Indeed, this type of situation is critical for these groups, as it provides a unique recruitment opportunity for them. Lastly, the mass media, staffed by many journalists who came of age politically right before and after the fall of the Colonels’ dictatorship, in 1974, are happy to reinforce this type of sentiment through a highly emotional coverage.
In contrast, no political organization called for, let alone, organized public protests for the three deaths at Marfin Egnatia Bank; likewise, the emotional reaction of the mass media was much less intense. In fact, there were several attempts to displace a part of the blame for these deaths toward the bank management, using a perverse way of reasoning — it was argued by some the bank building lacked effective fire protection.
I think that this biased attitude also explains why no one seems to care much about the tens of deaths caused on Greek roads by avoidable traffic accidents and other similar instances.

Some commentators have branded the events of December 2008 a “popular uprising.” Do you agree with that description?

If by “popular uprising,” we mean a sustained mass protest seeking to challenge a political regime, as is now the case in Thailand for example, then it is pretty clear that the events of December 2008 fail to meet this definition. What happened in December 2008 was a convergence of two distinct events. On the one hand, many high-school students protested peacefully against what they perceived, with good reason, to be the unjustified killing of one of their peers. On the other hand, several extreme leftist groups used this opportunity to generate widespread mayhem and destruction. They were helped in this by the fateful decision of a fearful government not to challenge them.

Some analysts appeared to read too much into the December 2008 protests, while certain politicians on the left sought to capitalize on the events. What degree of responsibility do they share for the current violence?

In my opinion, they share a considerable degree of responsibility. By fanning the flames, they sought to gain political advantage. The electorate thought otherwise, however, as indicated by the results of both the European and general elections, which sanctioned these politicians.

Greece’s left lost the Civil War but it seems to enjoy a peculiar type of political and cultural hegemony, which has made it largely immune to criticism from the right. Would you agree with this?

Yes, this is correct. The collapse of the dictatorship in 1974, which had appropriated the right-wing narrative of the Civil War, caused the total delegitimation of this narrative. Almost by default, the counter-narrative of the left became the official version of the history of the Greek Civil War, further enshrined in books, school textbooks and art. However, because the left-wing narrative is so closely associated with the so-called “metapolitefsi” period, i.e. the post-authoritarian era, it is unlikely to outlast the present economic crisis, which has brought this era to an end.

It has been argued that Greece has a “culture of violence.” Is violence in Greece seen as a legitimate part of the political game? Could violence be legitimate under a particular set of circumstances?

It is true that a certain culture of violence persists in Greek politics. This culture is primarily verbal and highly ritualized. Insofar as it is physical, it generally targets objects rather than people. Terrorist activity remains, on the whole, beyond the pale, even when it is not condemned as vigorously as it could, and should, be.
I find it very hard to think of circumstances that would justify the use of violence under a democratic regime. The biggest achievement – indeed the very content – of democracy has been to decouple conflict from violence.

Does violence in Greece stem from the flawed relationship between the state and citizens?

There is, indeed, a flawed relationship between the state and its citizens in Greece – but it is also a contradictory one. On the one hand, several studies have shown that Greek citizens view the state with distrust. On the other hand, the same people expect the state to also employ them and assist them with all kinds of high-quality services. This flawed relationship can be traced to a history of polarized conflict and the domination of the state in political and economic life.

Do you agree that – much like homegrown terrorism – anarchist violence is, first of all, a question of social tolerance?

Absolutely. How else to explain the impunity that allows this type of violence to go on? According to recently released police data, there have been 5,952 firebombings during the last 12 years; and yet, one only finds 20 convictions during the same period. It is difficult to find another explanation for this type of impunity than social tolerance sanctioned by political decision. However, I think that the Marfin deaths may mark a turning point in this respect: There may be support now for the application of the law.

Do you think that lingering economic and political crisis will turn ours into a more violent society?

Only if these extremist groups are allowed to continue to operate with impunity. Controling them should not be a difficult problem; after all, their numbers are small. If these groups are placed under control, the crisis will likely generate only peaceful protests, not violence — unless, of course, a huge shock, such as a bank run, takes place.

Do crises like the current one expose the primal elements of a nation’s psyche?

Not necessarily. Take the recent violence: There is nothing new about it. Four people died in a similar incident, during protests that took place in 1991. There have been several close calls since then. Street violence in Greece has been a constant, not a variable. This is what many foreign correspondents seem to miss when they attribute the violence to the crisis.

Do you see the recurring riots leading to a more aggressive police state?

Only if the street violence problem is not addressed. Indeed, the issue is not to move toward a more aggressive state but toward an effective state — one that applies the law. Failing that, there is a point where a majority will demand order at any cost. There is no question that this would be a negative development.

Cut the Krapp

By Harry van Versendaal

Elbowing my way through the PAME troops rallying in scruffy Omonia Square, I felt tempted to walk back into the metro station. Looking at these hordes of KKE labor unionists, greater in size and passion than at any other time in recent history, I could not help but ponder the root causes of much of Greece’s current ills: populism, opportunism and blanket rejectionism. And there I was, ready to take part in that same rally, prompted by the socialist government’s IMF-inspired austerity measures.

Torn. As Greece spirals into crisis, it has become clear that we need new tools, and perhaps a new vocabulary, to explain the world; for the old dividing lines, the old camps are no more. Haunted by the specter of a “lost generation,” Greece’s 30-somethings can feel little solidarity with the generation of their parents. Politically and socially bankrupt, the so-called generation of the Polytechnic (a reference to the 1973 student uprising against the 1967-74 military dictatorship) is now struggling to hold on to their hard-won rights and perks. The problem is some of these are indefensible and, to a large degree, responsible for the current deadlock. So, frustrated masses, but not pulling in exactly the same direction.

And then came the violence, so uncomfortably predictable and so dreadfully tragic, to remind us that when it comes to death there are no gray areas – even though some seem to think otherwise.

As three bank employees choked to death after being firebombed by self-styled anarchists on Stadiou street on May 5, dozens of angry demonstrators marched past the burning building firing barbs against the trapped men and women: “Let the scabs burn!”

This was an accident waiting to happen. In fact the biggest surprise was that there had been no victims so far. If you play with fire you will, eventually, get burned. And the truth is that on the issue of violence the country’s left-wing parties have been unashamedly pro-blur. This was the case when the variegated and ideologically nebulous Synaspismos Left Coalition sought to capitalize on the violent riots that swept the capital in December 2008 following the police shooting of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in Exarchia.

Some degree of mourning and soul-searching for the Marfin bank deaths would again have been more appropriate. But the typically opportunistic Alexis Tsipras was quick to point a finger at the “agents provocateurs” who aim to disorient public opinion and undermine the people’s movement. A crime like this, the argument goes, can only have been committed by those who benefit from it. Tsipras’s party is not the only one to find scapegoating easier than change.

The Communist Party of Greece, which has never taken the trouble to denounce its Stalinist legacy, is singing from the same hymnal. After demonstrators carrying PAME flags assaulted the Parliament during the May 5 protest, KKE General Secretary Aleka Papariga provided the good old anti-capitalist reflex reaction, handily blaming the carnage on outside forces.

In the world of the willfully amnesiac KKE truth is not based on accuracy, but ideology. All this should come as no surprise from a party that is openly allergic to “bourgeois democracy” – a party in fact that has repeatedly been seen to mistake democracy for capitalism. A KKE spokesman recently said that the party does not recognize the Constitution because it did not vote for it, while PAME unionists last month blocked the port of Piraeus, preventing some 1,000 foreign tourists form boarding their cruise ship.

True to their Marxist DNA, Greece’s communists, who garnered just over 7 percent in the last general election, do not hide their metaphysical pretensions as they claim exclusive access to the “true interests” of the people. A political minority sees the right to elevate people’s “true interests” above national law – an extremely perilous concept and one which has played a part in nourishing the country’s culture of violence.

On Sunday evening, a silent demonstration organized by citizens via the Internet could hardly claim to have drawn more than 150-200 people – the fact that death did not come from a police bullet did not seem to help much. A note stuck on the wall of the fateful bank, addressing the killers and all those who allowed them to be, reminded everyone how too much relativism can be unbearably nihilistic: “Back in December [2008] your slogan was ‘you talk about broken shop windows, we talk about human lives.’ What do you have to say now?”

Watching Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” on an Athens stage later in the day evoked some unsettling patterns. Lonely old Krapp, played here by Bob Wilson, relives his past by listening to tapes of his young, confident self. The man will soon go down in a sea of doubt and despair about his life choices and the devastating realization that nothing can change anymore.

Let’s hope it’s not too late for the rest of us.


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