Friday, December 12, 2008

Guest Post: Greek fire

As regular readers will be aware sometimes I host guest posts and/or interviews providing a platform for some voices other than my own. It's useful for lots of reasons - not least because they can often talk about a subject I'm unfamiliar with - but am interesting in learning more about. The situation in Greece is one such example and so I'm really pleased to present this post from my "Greek correspondent" Manos.

Greek politics has never been a stranger to violence as we have been reminded in the last few days. Yet, sitting in front of a BBC report, it is easy to underestimate how deeply political these events are.

First a short refresher on what happened for those who did not pay attention: on the evening of the 6th of December, a patrol car in a left wing area of Athens, had a few rocks thrown at it by people shouting anti-police slogans -- business as usual, really.

Surprisingly, the two officers on patrol, drove off, got off their car, and came back on foot to taunt the teenagers. As the teenagers moved towards them, one officer shot at them twice, killing the 15 year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos (pictured, right). It would be a waste of pixels to present the police side of the story, i.e. that they only fired warning shots in the air. We live in Internet times and there is a digital recording of the scene, and videos of witnesses all over YouTube stating that the cops aimed and fired directly at the kids, and afterwards simply turned and walked away as if nothing had happened. The officers were arrested, charged with murder, given no bail and the Greek PM has even apologised to the family.

Since that incident there have been 5 days and 5 nights of political mobilisations, centered around the assassination of Alexandros, and fueled by years of discontent with the current Greek government but also the Greek political and to some extend social system as a whole. The Greek government has been engulfed in embezzlement scandals, as well as attempts to "reform" the social security and education system towards a more neo-liberal direction.

Meanwhile salaries have been staying low, prices have been following EU trends and going up, and the economic crisis has had a deep effect on the Greek people. Young Greeks can only survive due to the very strong family ties in society. They end up living with their families well into their thirties since a salary is often not enough to cover rent. Greek political circles tried very hard to attribute to the turmoil to marginal elements of Greek society, but in reality pretty much everyone is out in the streets for reasons going well beyond the latest shooting: if you are young and stuck in Greece, your future looks bleak!

What has surprised french media in particular (note: I am sitting in Brussels as I write this), is that the composition of the protest movement is young but otherwise quite representative of Greek society. This is in sharp contrast with the Banlieux or student uprisings in France that never managed to widen outside those circles. Both the right wing press, and the communists (amazingly they still exist) see this as a problem: they try really hard to brand protesters as a bunch of rich kids with nothing better to do than run riot through town - a classic populist line.

In reality it uncovers a very interesting dynamic of our economic system, that might become relevant in the UK: while many people in the streets come from a comfortable background, they see no way for themselves to match or exceed this standard of living. The pyramid scheme has just fallen: the old generations managed to get by, without at the same time creating a fair and sustainable economic system to ensure the new generations can strive. Greek workers in the past may have received a good deal, but no entitlements they can pass on to their children - a good lesson in the difference between property and wage-labour. That is at the heart of what drives people in the streets.

The international media has of course been fascinated by the street fighting scenes and the talk of political violence. This often overshadows the fact that the gravest act of political violence was the murder of Alexandros by the police. Independent media are full of stories of further police assaults and abuses during the protests, including the police drawing and aiming live ammunition weapons towards crowds and firing warning shots in the air. The poor reputation of the Greek police, marred with corruption and known as heavy handed and unprofessional has done nothing to diffuse anger.

On Thursday alone mainstream media report about 10 local police stations have been the target of attacks or political actions. Other targets of attacks have included banks, car dealerships and large stores. The destruction amidst the street battles of private property in an indiscriminate way has been the subject of a lot of heated debate within the movement: some deplore it, others consider it marginal.

Photos have emerged of police in civilian clothes with wooden sticks, fueling the belief that some of the damage used by the mainstream media to demonise the movement might have been cause by right-wingers. What should sound strange to British activists is the ability to nuance violence: not accept it or reject it as a whole, but judge it on a target by target basis. Refreshingly, pure pacifism has not had much influence on this corner of the world.

One can only hope that in the school and university occupations, as well as through the general strike last Wednesday, a new social movement will emerge, that cannot be reclaimed and neutralized by the traditional dinosaurs of Greek politics. Since I hate being optimistic, let me say that there is nothing to suggest this will happen: Greece has seen a lot of social movements in the 80s, and 90s and they all got subsumed, allowing business-as-usual-with-a-couple-of-concessions to resume. Maybe the difference this time will be the ability to report and coordinate directly, yet the thesis that the Internet itself brings on social change does not stand to scrutiny.

On a positive note the lasting image of this protest will be festive: the giant Christmas tree on Athens Parliament (Syntagma) square in flames. What a symbol of the times!

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Interesting perspective on the situation. Very informative, cheers!