Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sights and Sounds of Athens

It may be one week too late, but yesterday I decided to go down into central Athens and Panepistimio to see for myself what exactly has been happening to my city for the last week. I took a bus that should have taken me all the way to Omonia square, but was stopped at the last set of traffic lights before entering central Athens.

"These f*cking police, they didn't even tell us they'd be closing the road." muttered the bus driver as he let his passengers spill into the road and reach their destinations on foot.

I joined a scattering of people heading towards Syntagma and felt my heart start to pound the closer we got. I wanted to see Athens, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be prepared for what I would see. In the end, it seems to me Athens bounced back better than anyone could have predicted.

It was eerily quite on the walk to Syntagma Square. Athens looked as it does on any other day, until closer looks revealed broken glass on shop fronts and graffiti everywhere; "ALEXI, THIS NIGHT IS FOR YOU" screamed a red sentence from a marble wall. Near the parliament, I saw the battered marble slabs that a protestor had been caught smashing on camera earlier in the week to throw at riot police.

At the square itself, a few hundred people had gathered to observe a peaceful sit in the memory of Alexandros to mark one week since his death. The crowd was very varied; small children, old hippies, smartly dressed middle aged women and of course high spirited teenagers.

There was a lot of broken glass, but not that many burnt out shops, but then again the worst of the incidents hadn’t taken place in Syntagma.

Athens is a schizophrenic city. I have never seen Syntagma square so quiet, despite the people gathered there, and yet one road away, on Ermou street, business was brisk as Christmas shoppers darted in and out of shops that were either unaffected by the riots or have been quickly fixed to make it seem so.

If you looked down Ermou street, it could have been any other Saturday afternoon – shoppers, well dressed women clutching gigantic Attica Stores bags, street performers. If you turned and looked towards Syntagma, you realised that something was amiss. The square was cordoned off, and the burnt out Christmas tree already dismantled. A few curious guests had gathered on the balconies of the Great Britain hotel to observe the goings on below.

The people who were doing the best business of all were the illegal street vendours who for once in their lives were looking relaxed as they lined Ermou from top to bottom with blankets displaying their wares. After all, for the time being the attentions of the police lie elsewhere.

I continued on towards Panepistimio and it was the same story there, except here almost everything was shuttered and closed. Once again, lots of broken glass and scars of where Molotov bombs had hit the ground, and the evidence that things had been bad around here was that despite the fire damage not being very visible, the whole area had a lingering smell of burnt petrol.

Akadimia was not much different. A young woman holding her Christmas shopping approached me, “Do you know when the bus will come? We’ve been waiting here for so long.” I told her it was best to try the metro as the police had closed off roads without letting public transport know. She thanked me and walked away.

I contemplated going on to Exarchia, but didn’t see what good it would do. I had come armed with nothing except a notebook – no candles or flowers. What good would it do to go just go and see the spot where Alexandros was killed, like some sort of misery tourist?

It was nearly 4, so I decided to head back to Syntagma square and join in with the protest for a while – after all I’d spent a week watching the protests from the comfort of my sofa, so it was the very least I could do.

Nearing the square, I passed a brigade of riot police. “Do you remember that time when we were at the Athens Albania football match? Hey man, I said do you remember that time when…” traffic swallowed up their words as I walked away, wondering what was so memorable about the time when they were at the Athens Albania match.

At the Square I mingled with the crowd and looked at all these young people who had come out in the cold weather. A few were handing out leaflets. Others sat in groups here and there. A group of girls with multicoloured hair began to sing “Always look on the Bright side of life.” A young couple kissed. There were flowers everywhere: clutched in hands, poking out of backpacks, braided into hair.

A group of men had gathered in a small circle and one of them was giving out stickers that read PLEASE KILL ME, which the gang was gleefully sticking all over their clothes. A teenage boy walked past, talking on a mobile phone in English “Well, there’s a lot of things we want to change…”

Some teenagers sitting in the middle of the road produced a guitar and began to pass it round and sing songs. Black candles were produced and carefully lit in the center of the gathering. The teenagers draped themselves over each other in that casual way that teenagers do. They looked so full of life, so hopeful and so determined. The atmosphere was quiet and peaceful, and I hoped for their sake that it would remain that way.

As I began to walk away and head towards Syntagma metro, I overhead a very telling conversation. A cameraman with his colleagues dug his hands into his pockets and said “Come on guys, let’s pack up. Everyone else is starting to leave too.” His colleagues said it was better to stay a while. “What’s the point? Nothing’s happening. The station doesn’t want this. They won’t run it unless something happens.”

Such a sad fact that riots with Molotovs and burnt cars make better news than a sit in with flowers and candles.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Dam Breaks

A shockingly small white coffin emerges in a sea of young people dressed in black, and applause goes up to say a last goodbye to Alexandros-Andreas Grigoropoulos, the 15 year old who was shot dead at point blank range on Saturday night by police in Exarcheio.

Staggering behind the coffin were the parents, crippled by grief, and his mother who could barely stay on her feet. Her son had called her to tell her he had reached the centre safely, where he was celebrating the birthday of a friend. A mere ten minutes later, she was told to rush to the hospital where his life ebbed away for absolutely no reason.

And Greece erupted. The generation of Alexandros, tired of a government that has refused to ease their frustration, fed up of working their fingers to the bone and still being the first generation to be worse off than the one that preceeded it, dispairing at living in a country where it's not what you know but who you know and hopeless at watching their parents dig deep into debt to provide them with degrees that turn out to be meaningless, has finally boiled over in anger.

If anyone hoped that the three days of riots would let up soon, the images from the funeral of the teenager are likely to set things off all over again.

Despite throwing my hands up in frustration at the hot headedness of the Greeks who like nothing better than having a strike or a riot, this time I am completely backing the young people who have taken to the streets in anger.

No one has listened to their voices, and now they are lashing out in the one way they know will finally get everyone's attention.

Whatever really did happen on Saturday night, one thing is clear from the eye witness accounts (unfortunateley for the police, there are several and they all concur). Alexandros and his friends got into an argument with two police officers in the bohemian district of Exarcheio. There was no baying mob as the police claimed. Shots were fired, supposedly in the air, and an unarmed teenager lay dying on the road as the two officers calmly walked away.

I've been to Exarcheio, it's one of my favourite parts of Athens. It's a part of town that goes against the grain, where young people are able to find expression, and maybe it's this that terrifies the authorities so much, especially the police who really ought to have something better to do.

Every single time I go to Menandrou street, the police are there. But are they cleaning up the drug users and prostitutes operating in clear view? No! Of course not. They're too busy breaking up groups of immigrants who gather on the weekend in the only part of town that they can really claim as theirs. When they're not busy beating up immigrants, they're stopping cars driven by women to flirt with them and issuing tickets if the ladies get irritated. And when they're not doing that, they're shooting dead unarmed teenagers.

The Greek media has thrown impartiality out of the window and turned on the police. Kudos to them, because all though this police killing is getting unprecedented levels of coverage, the news debates have made sure to mention police killings in the past, not only Greeks but immigrants and the Roma too.

Meanwhile the riots have divided society down the middle. I am in full favour of them, believing that it's healthy for a government to be scared of its people when it really fucks up. And this time the government deserves everything it gets.

Greece has been a member of the EU since 1981, but is plagued by corrupt and self-interested politicians, crippling bureaucracy, cronyism and an increasingly disillusioned public.

The left wing government of the PASOK party was voted out in favour of the centre right New Democracy party in 2004 in a move to affect change in the country. But the change that the Greek public had hoped for was not to come and the government’s failure to listen to their voice came to fruition on Saturday night.

The crowds that have taken to the streets in anger at the unprovoked murder of a teenager represent all spectrums of Greek society, but mainly members of what is referred to in Greece as Generation 700 Euro, in reference to an entire generation of young people who despite enjoying an unprecedented level of further education are not able to find jobs that pay them more than EUR 700 a month, a sum that is barely able to cover a modest lifestyle.

The cost of daily living in Greece has rocketed while pay rates have remained the same after the Euro replaced the inflation-ridden Drachma in 2002, resulting in one in five Greeks living below the poverty line and young people being unable to afford to move out of the parental household or start families.

Greek youngsters face some of the toughest school systems and university entrance standards in Europe through a poorly funded educational system and are then subject to government entry quotas for universities that fall well below the actual demand. The result is families putting themselves under huge financial pressure to educate their children overseas.

Despite all this, Greece has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the EU for under 25s and of the original 15 EU states, it is the only one where higher education does nothing to improve a candidate’s job prospects.

Simple day to day tasks like the installation of a phone line or the paying of taxes are in Greece an exercise in negotiation skills and bribe paying.

Add to this a government that seems embarrassingly incapable of dealing with 21st century problems like the processing of illegal immigrants, a bullying police force that acts with impunity and now a global financial crisis impacting the country’s faltering economy, and it’s easy to see so many young people are so angry.

In my opinion only a small section of the crowds are trouble makers. The rest are just plain angry and are venting this anger through violence. And really, when you consider all the facts, why the hell should they not be angry? As so many news commentators have said, this is a generation without hope. The youngsters waiting outside at Alexandros's funeral were crying not only for the waste of a life, but also for themselves and their wasted lives in a country where the government is not the least bit bothered about their futures. They were tears of anger, sadness and frustration.

If this government has any brains at all, they will take a serious look at cracking down on the grievances of the young people who see no future instead of the rioters themselves.

Glass can be fixed, shops are insured. If they wipe out the hope of an entire generation, they are sowing the seeds for their own demise and if that's the road they want to go down, we haven't seen anything yet.