Greece has been on the frontline of anti-austerity protests rising across the Mediterranean, with a wave of mass demonstrations convulsing the country all summer and continuing through the fall. Events reached a dramatic climax on June 29, when thousands of peaceful protesters gathered in central Athens to voice their dissent over Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou‘s signing of the country’s $8.8 billion, five-year austerity package – an initiative that would reduce deficit spending, increase taxes and cut public services, all with the hope of securing the country’s second European Union-led bailout.
It was a sweltering afternoon which began standing atop the roof of a bus stop surrounded by thousands of demonstrators who’d congregated outside Parliament to bear witness to the proceedings. Amid the varied masses—men and women of all ages—a 30-something activist wearing cut-off shorts and a black T-shirt brandishes a homemade sign that reflects the quiet fury of the crowd: “Error 404: Democracy not found.”
Anticipation permeates the air, as if the crowd are waiting for the show to start. The calm is unnerving because Greek protesters have endured the inevitable violence before—and are expecting it again. It’s only a matter of time before tensions reach boiling point and riot police begin indiscriminately launching stun grenades and tear gas canisters to clear the streets of its unruly citizens. A small subgroup of protesting anarchists are chipping away at marble walls with axes and picks, hurling the dislodged pieces of stone at police officers, who later throw the same rocks at unarmed protesters. The 5000 authorities, armed with truncheons and protected by Plexiglas shields, gas masks and layers of padding, never so much as order the people to disperse; instead, they launch into a large scale tear gas offensive.
Democracy was born in an age of oligarchs and tyrants, when a powerful minority ruled most of the 1,500 independent city-states scattered across the Mediterranean. The imbalance of control contributed to a crescendo of social unrest, and so in 594 BC, the befuddled rulers turned to Solon, one of the seven sages of the ancient world, for help. Solon set into motion the foundation for Athenian democracy, which got off to a good start, valuing transparency and accountability. In principle, at least, public officials could be blackballed for any form of corruption or for not serving the will of the people. We’ve since come a long way. Now, consecutive governments have ratcheted up such spectacular levels of national debt—all without their citizens’ knowledge, and under the guidance of Goldman Sachs, who showed the Greek government how to hide massive amounts of debt using derivatives—that the country needs its requested loan tranche to pay its people’s salaries and avoid bankruptcy.
Greeks see their predicament as the bitter fruit of rampant corruption courtesy of both the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and New Democracy, two of the nation’s most influential political parties. An 87-year-old native of Greece, echoing the sentiments of his national brethren, quips, “I’ve always said they run this country like a cheap bordello.” The national debt had long been spiraling out of control by 2009, when Greece placed second-last in the EU’s Index of Economic Freedom. On October 6, 2009, George Papandreou was inaugurated as the country’s 182nd Prime Minister. His first order of business was to come clean about Greece’s financial disaster; his solution to the mess was to enlist the help of the troika—the tripartite committee comprised of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, which would begin to organize the financial rescues of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal.
“People ask me where all the money went to create this debt,” said Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos in a televised parliamentary session last July. “I say to them, ‘we ate it together.’” Pangalos, a portly man with a history of making inflammatory comments—many of the young activists who’d taken to the streets of Greece in protests aren’t old enough to have even tasted the squandered wealth, let alone feasted on it—quickly became the butt of a national punchline: “No we didn’t,” replies the Greek chorus. “You’re so fat, you ate the whole supermarket!”
At 2 p.m. the austerity bill has been approved, at which point emotions reach a fever pitch. Police hurl the first of many tear gas canisters deep into the crowd. A toxic white cloud rises from the street, forcing people to away from the Parliament and into Syntagma Square. Very few protesters have come equipped with gas masks, most are forced to improvise with scarves or surgical masks. Many have covered their faces with Maalox, an over-the-counter antacid that helps neutralize the effects of tear gas (and heartburn). Among the many banners being waved in the air, there is one that quotes Thomas Jefferson: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” The square quickly deteriorates into a war zone.
“We really are in a war,” says medical doctorate student Vassilis Kafetzopoulos, who’d volunteered at Syntagma Square first aid station to help those injured in the upheaval. “It’s not a war fought with armies and guns, but we feel the violence of the austerity measures, of being under the reign of the troika and the actual physical violence of the police. We are trying to build an army of peaceful resistance, a movement of consciousness for democracy and freedom.”
Trying desperately to avoid exploding grenades and the dangerous asphyxiant that can’t be filtered by my gas mask, I seek refuge inside Syntagma Metro station with hundreds of protesters also struggling to breathe. In the distance, the only sound louder than the explosions is the incantatory defiance of the people, who’ve begun screaming, “Bravo!”
Greeks say that their government avoided bankruptcy by spreading it across the doorsteps of its citizens. Stelios, a young protester, tells me, “We realize a third world situation is coming to us.” Since the first loan package of $18.7 billion was rolled out with austerity measures on May 18, 2010, the Greek economy has shrunk by 4%. National unemployment now stands at 16.5% and 42% of the population’s youth remains jobless. The minimum wage was cut from 700 to 500 Euros per month. Sales tax, meanwhile, increased from 19% to 23%. Unfortunately, Greece’s financial troubles aren’t unique. The previous Irish government signed a similar contract in November 2010, since described by the incoming Prime Minister Enda Kenney as a “bad deal for Ireland and a bad deal for Europe.” The Irish Labour Party finance spokesperson, Joan Burton, has also said that “it makes Irish taxpayers the sacrificial lambs for European financial stability.” Similarly, Portugal, Spain, and Italy are all teetering on the edge of a precipice; Southern Europe is overrun with rumors that more IMF loans will be needed.
Greece’s situation is notable because it was the first country so severely affected by Europe’s financial crisis. In December 2008, even before the Greek economy crashed, graffiti in downtown Athens wished passersby a “Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear.” Greece’s second troika agreement, passed late last May, brought with it an unprecedented condition to privatize $72 billion worth of state-owned assets. Everything from the Athens International Airport to DEPA, Greece’s natural gas provider, are up for sale. “They may have agreed to sell the Acropolis and we wouldn’t know,” a woman demonstrating in Athens told the BBC. “They’re selling off the country right now,” says Achilleas, a young and dedicated protester. “But in 5 years we’ll take it all back. This is Greece! You cannot own our water!”
In the end, protesters weren’t able to hold Syntagma Square. A very intense few hours and a staggering 2,860 tear gas canisters later, police had cleared the area of protesters and bewildered tourists who’d de-boarded their long-haul flights into the mouth of total madness.
Aftershocks of terror rippled through the city as dusk coated the Grecian sky for the evening. Revved-up riot police moved on to grocery stores, restaurants, and tavernas, where they randomly attacked tourists and Greek customers, as well as the waiters and business owners serving them. One waitress recalled an incident that involved four riot policemen who came into her workplace, a casual restaurant in Monastiraki: “They started smashing chairs and tables, they hit a 20-year-old girl on the head with a baton, and threw stun grenades at the people eating.”
While trapped inside a café just around the corner from there, I watched terrified demonstrators running through the streets as dozens of police roared past them on motorbikes, detonating stun grenades on their victims. Concerned proprietors shuttered their doors, sheltering panic-stricken customers, some of whom were demonstrators, many of whom were not.
It’s been proven that Greece’s first line of defense against mass protest is police brutality. Ironically, 88-year-old Manolis Glezos, who climbed the Acropolis and took down the swastika flag back in 1941, was tear-gassed by riot police at a demonstration outside the Greek parliament last March. Elements of Greece’s fascist history (the country has a complicated legacy of military dictatorship, which was pervasive between 1968 and 1974) still linger today, and the riot police served as a reminder. “If you meet a policeman who lives in your apartment building, he will greet you, and be friendly,” says Petros, a local shoe designer. “He will tell you that he, too, is struggling financially—he can relate to you. But as soon as he puts on his uniform and gas mask, you are nothing to him.”
When asked by a Greek journalist this year about thousands of protesters gathering in central Athens to challenge the troika’s austerity policies, former Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis replied that “the business of the Parliament must be protected, even if it results in deaths.” Meanwhile, protesters insist that their basic democratic rights need to be protected, not the Parliament. “We don’t have the right, in practice, to demonstrate without being tear-gassed and attacked,” says Hera Diamond, a language teacher in Athens. “Most protesters are peaceful, but there is always police violence.” Journalists’ right to report freely are also at risk. While covering a demonstration in Athens on the morning of June 15, video journalist Manolis Kypreou was stopped by a group of riot police who demanded to know what he was filming and why he was filming it. Kypreou showed his media ID to the commanding officer, who immediately ordered an attack. A stun grenade exploded next to the reporter, who is now permanently deaf in both ears.
Two weeks later at the June 29 demonstration, medical personnel volunteering with the Greek Red Cross and Syntagma Square first aid station treated 700 injured protesters, and transferred 100 people to hospital. Dr Meletis Kiriakou, a pulmonary specialist, said the situation deteriorated around 4 p.m, when riot police launched a one-hour attack on the first aid station. “They threw asphyxiant gas and rocks into both entrances, and a stun grenade landed right next to the oxygen tank. The chemical clouds became so dense that no-one could breathe properly, and eventually we were forced to evacuate.” Incredulous at police actions towards medical personnel and the injured, Dr Kiriakou exclaimed, “even in war this does not happen!”
Recent Amnesty International reports expressed “profound concerns” about the human rights of Greek citizens. In their June press release, they plainly stated that the police “must not curtail the legitimate right of the vast majority of peaceful demonstrators to gather and protest in Syntagma Square.” Barbara Doukas, a first aid volunteer says despairingly, “What happened today was really criminal. It was against the people.” By the following morning, the streets have been cleaned and everything looks as if there’d been no brutality only the day before. But those of us who were there know otherwise.