Posts Tagged 'syntagma'

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.”

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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.”

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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