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Woman makes a stand against a water cannon.

Some people confuse resistance with anarchy. They believe, or it suits them to believe, that anyone protesting on the street, or in a park is just “asking for trouble”. Even if they are doing it peacefully, by sitting on the grass, with music and books. But the exact form of a public protest is irrelevant.

Even when the purpose of a protest has nothing political about it. Such as when attempting to protect a large park in the middle of a bustling city, which is about to be turned into a mall. The 94th, if my information is accurate. But even the cause of a protest is not really the issue here.

What really matters is that the state is treating its own citizens as enemies. And it is not happening just in Turkey or Greece or Bulgaria or Spain or Sweden. It is fast becoming a global phenomenon. The difference is that police in Turkey are that much more brutal in suppressing protesters. They don’t need to use agents provocateurs, like the Greek police still do (on most occasions – the last time I was in a protest all it took for the tear gas rain to start was a few kids tossing fruit towards the Parliament).

I never thought I’d see more tear gas canisters being used at once than that February evening at Syntagma. Was I ever wrong.

Used tear gas cannisters

Used tear gas canisters

The reports coming in from Istanbul (or Constantinople, as we prefer to call it in Greece) are mostly unverified because of the media blackout on the protests. However, there are now reports from Reuters that tear gas canisters were fired directly on the crowd, resulting in a woman being severely injured. A couple of months ago Greek police fired gas canisters into a schoolyard, injuring a girl on the head and sending several into the infirmary.

There are reports of four dead protesters on Friday and the protests continue today, also spreading to other major cities in Turkey.

These things are not happening in dictatorships. These are supposed to be modern democratic states and yet police violence grows unchecked. But these events force us to consider where the boundaries of order-keeping lie and where civil liberties begin.

A state which suppresses its citizens when protesting peacefully, for whatever reason, can no longer be considered democratic. At the heart of democracy lies the will of the people and that cannot be expressed solely by elections every four years. And that is because being elected does not grant politicians the power to make any decision they want, without taking into consideration the well being of the people. Nor is the police justified in injuring or, worse, killing the very civilians it is supposed to protect.

Furthermore, these democratic “lapses” also bring to light our own responsibilities as citizens. States and governments, when left to their own devices, can and will pass laws which do not serve the interests of the people. It can be as simple as demolishing a large park or as complicated as bleeding the people dry for the sins of the banking and monetary system.

Unjust laws and policies must be resisted. Politicians catering to the interests of the financial elite must be resisted. Democracy has to be safeguarded and protected, and that duty lies with the citizens. There are very few states in the world which can function truly democratically without being “reminded” to do so by the people. The proof of this is everyday in the news, if and when it is allowed to appear.

Resistance in this context is not just a right, but an obligation of the people.

An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.

-Mahatma Gandhi

Bulgarian protesters

In Greece the only thing that stirs these days is the occasional ceremonial 24-hour strike or a continuous strike action in a particular sector, which is condemned by everyone (including even a large part of the media-addled population) and put down by the police and the abusive use of law by the state. Meanwhile, in neighboring Bulgaria there are political developments which should be of particular interest to the Greek people.

Assuming that us Greeks still have the ability to see beyond our nose and our TV screen, which bombards us daily with a lengthy “analysis” on the absolute necessity of the Memorandum and the endless austerity measures which support it.

Although Bulgaria has experienced unprecedented economic growth in recent years, the minimum wage remains at 159 Euros, the second lowest in Europe. In the second half of the last decade, it went through a period of intensive privatisation, in accordance with the mandates of the IMF and the principles of modern economy.

Unemployment is low (below 10%) in comparison to that of Greece, but wages are not sufficient, despite the fact that prices are also quite low.

The energy market is in private hands and is completely self-sufficient. Bulgaria produces all of its energy and does not import even a single TW of electricity from another country.

Apparently, these ideal conditions are not sufficient to make market competition work. So, following the recent increases in the price of electricity, people took to the streets en masse to protest, defying even the bitter cold.

The main demand is the re-nationalisation of the energy market. Does that sound backward? Absurd even? Let me tell you what absurdity really is: expecting a pensioner who receives 79 Euros per month  to pay a monthly electricity bill of 89 Euros.

“We are witnessing how the refrigerator overcame TV,” said political scientist and analyst, Arman Bamikian, referring to the fact that television bombards people with the macroeconomic achievements of the government on a daily basis, while at the same time the standard of living is low and fridges are empty.”

Hunger cannot be fooled. Obviously, then, the point where civil unrest is almost assured is the point where basic needs are threatened: electricity, water, food.

The example of Bulgaria shows us that it is not just the austerity policy that is ineffective. Apparently, so is the uncontrolled privatisation of everything. And especially that of basic utilities, such as water and electricity.

Neoliberalism threatens to smother every last bit of common sense left, and make us forget a basic fact. Water and electricity are NOT luxury goods, the distribution of which can be determined by profit.

Unless, of course, we have decided that in the name of “economic growth” the majority of the population must resort to using oil lamps (assuming oil is affordable) and wells (assuming that people are still allowed to dig).

And why not indeed? According to the Greek Minister of Finance, Mr. Stournaras, the recent equation of prices of heating oil with that of diesel was deemed successful. For just a moderate increase in tax revenues, many oil distributors went out of business (since heating oil consumption went down by 70%), smog covers the air of Athens at night from stoves and fireplaces and millions of Greeks went cold.

Fatalities due to use of coal heaters and wood stoves by people without any prior experience are not uncommon.

The macroeconomic picture of our neighboring country is excellent. The IMF is happy with the compliance of the Bulgarian government. Daily reality, however, is completely different. In Greece, although a similar course has been plotted, no one will admit what lies behind the promises of ‘growth’, simply because misery does not appear in the statistics which interest the Troika.

The government of Bulgaria resigned in the face of widespread public protests. Not only that, but their Prime Minister made the following statement regarding police beating of protesters: “Every drop of blood for us is a stain. I can’t look at a Parliament surrounded by barricades, that’s not our goal, neither our approach, if we have to protect ourselves from the people.”

Of course, this statement was made for the sake of keeping up a pretense of decency. But it was made, nonetheless. That is much more than what could be said about the Greek Prime Ministers of the past three years of crisis and escalating police violence. And the Greek Parliament has repeatedly been surrounded by barricades and even, on occasion, by the military.

The Bulgarian minister of finance was forced to resign after the first public demonstrations. And when this proved ineffective, the entire government resigned. In Greece, unreasonable and unpopular fiscal measures are a daily reality. Anger is simmering, but nothing yet stirs. And thus, Greek politicians have nothing to worry about.

It seems that in Bulgaria, where people call their own politicians “mafia”, there is still a little dignity among the “mobsters”.

 

Intermission #18

Nick Cave sings/recites about the modern Greek tragedy.

In Athens all the youths are crying from the gas […] and in the cradle of democracy the pigeons are wearing gas masks […] we are, I say, mostly lost.

Who could explain to these children what the hell is going on in this country?

What does one call a national holiday without the attendance of the nation? An irrational holiday. It sounds like a bad joke and in many ways, it is.

On the 25th of March 1821 the Greek people, which had been subjugated by the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years, rose up against their oppressors and began the long fight which led to the liberation of Greece and the founding of the modern Greek state.

Every year this historical event is celebrated throughout the country with parades by pupils (on the 24th) and the army on the 25th. The streets are lined with proud parents and representatives of the civil, military and religious authorities attend the parades, make speeches and lay wreaths on monuments.

Last year on another national holiday, enraged citizens protested against the government’s corruption and destructive measures of austerity. In some cities, the parades stopped altogether and in others government officials and members of Parliament were forced to depart.

It was made clear many days ago that the government was not willing to let this happen again. The security measures taken to protect the celebrations were extreme. The police (7000 strong in Athens alone) was everywhere, 40 squads of riot police kept citizens (those without official invitations to attend) hundreds of meters away from the authorities.

The rooftops were manned by “armed observers” as the Minister of Citizen Protection called them, men of the antiterrorist squad were also deployed, and agents of the Greek Intelligence Service (EYP) were dispersed with surveillance equipment among the crowd.

All this in celebration of our independence.

Strive as I might to avoid comparing these two days with the 25th of March 1942, the first celebration of this national holiday during the Nazi occupation of Greece, I cannot deny the similarities.

Celebrating independence by invitation, under police surveillance, is much like a conqueror pretending to honour the independence of the conquered.

On the 25th of March 1942, the puppet government of Greece prohibited the citizenry from participating in the celebrations, decorated Athens with Greek flags, and made grand speeches about the “fascist and nazi revolutions” which Greek youth ought to follow, while mounted police patrolled the streets.

But the people ignored the orders and gathered to honour our heroes en masse. Despite the use of armed force, the protesters did not disperse. Eventually, the fascist authorities, Greek and non-Greek alike, were forced to retreat and let the people pay their respects.

Our current government, our non-elected puppet government of the international banks is pretending to honour independence and democracy, while blatantly ignoring the outrage of the Greek people.

Today there is no occupying army. There was no invasion, at least not with tanks and bombs. It was a covert invasion, with loans and bonds, facilitated by our own governments.

All for the good of our country.

They placed bars everywhere, distributed invitation lists to the families of policemen and the military to control the crowd surrounding the representatives of the authorities, so that they could all watch the parade in absolute peace and order.

All in honour of our national heroes of old.

I wonder, what would they do, simple, honest and unpretentious as most of them were? Would they laugh? Would they weep? I have no answer to this. Perhaps, if they saw the sorry state of “independent” Greece, they would take up arms again.

The sorry police state of Greece celebrating an irrational holiday.

Intermission #8

A group of young people chose a different way to celebrate this year’s national holiday and protest about our obvious lack of independence and democracy.

I am angry. I am angry with myself, first and foremost, because I was naïve. On the huge demonstration last Sunday in Athens, at Syntagma Square, there were two great Greeks, one of whom you might actually have heard of, who still fight for freedom and justice in this country despite their combined 177 years of age.

One of these Greeks is Mikis Theodorakis, made famous for putting Odysseas Elytis’ immortal words into music and turning them into weapons of spiritual resistance against the military junta of Greece (1967-1974). The other is Manolis Glezos, who as a young man on May 1941 tore down the Nazi swastika flag from the sacred mound of Acropolis, together with Apostolos Santas. It had barely been flying for a month.

I was naïve enough to believe that, because they were there, the police would refrain from wanton use of tear gas. I thought that the powers that be would wait before unleashing their well-known agent provocateurs, who are always used to cause riots and break up peaceful demonstrations. I thought that the authorities would have the decency to let these two honoured Greeks depart before they set their plans into motion.

My naiveté was dispelled early and brutally upon reaching the rear side of the Parliament and found the first of many riot police blocks. The first of many tear gas bombs also went off at that time. The protest on the square was peaceful. Allegedly, the riot police started launching tear gas once a small group of people threw some fruit at the Parliament building.

I could not see all that, of course. There was no way through. I only heard Mikis’ music that was being played over loudspeakers cut short once the first bangs were heard. The mass of people was unbelievable. It quickly became hard to breathe. For the next 2 ½ hours, even as much as a kilometer away from Syntagma, there was barely a spot with clean air.

I found out, the hard way, the reason why protesters set garbage bins on fire during times such as these. Up to now, I thought it was just vandalism. At the tender age of 37, I learnt that fire drives the tear gas away. It was one bit of knowledge I could have lived without. But our precious politicians have made it their life’s goal to teach us many things.

Such as how to live on a 400 Euro pension, pay taxes from it, pay your rent or additional property tax, and buy your medicine and food. Despite the fact that we pay for our bare necessities as much, or more, than Germans do. Very few pensioners in Greece can afford petrol for central heating these days. Unless, of course, they’ve served two terms as MPs.

I saw a young girl shouting at the police. “Why do you stand up for them? Your wages too will be cut to nothing next month!” She might as well be screaming at the Unknown soldier statue in front of the Parliament. I believe firmly that once the riot police don their armour, their higher brain functions altogether cease.

How else could anyone spray tear gas right on the face of a 90 year old man? Regardless if the victim is a hero of the Resistance or an Unknown pensioner fighting to survive the new Greco-German occupation.

I had to lift my turtle neck, the only protection measure I had brought with me, all the way up to my ears. Looking like that, like many of the protesters wrapped in scarves or wearing medical masks, it was difficult to tell if I was part of the usual hooded rioters or not.

It matters little. I don’t believe in violence, unless as a last resort. I have the feeling, though, that more and more of my fellow Greeks are thinking that this “last resort” time is fast approaching. If you have children and/or mortgages to pay this latest (but not last) batch of brutal measures will almost surely throw you on the ropes.

Many people, well-to-do people with jobs and good homes, are now losing everything. At the same time, the MPs voting for the new memorandum were sitting leisurely during the protest watching football in the Parliament cafeteria. You see, the voting was a lengthy process and many of the 199 who voted “aye” had no time to hear about how the people, whom they are supposed to serve, will starve.

Athens went up in flames last Sunday. There was looting, and clashes with the police went on for hours. However, all that cannot be blamed on the 800.000 – 1.000.000 citizens who participated in what was meant to be a peaceful protest, but was drowned in tear gas canisters and flames.

Some arson and looting targets were almost certainly planned beforehand. There are reports of people casing jewellery stores and blackmailing shop owners earlier in the same week. Several buildings, banks and department stores mostly, were torched by others as symbols of capitalism and the debt crisis. When total chaos reigns, it is impossible to tell who burned what and for what reason.

The truth is, however, that the extensive police blockades seriously hindered access of the Fire Department vehicles into the area of the city centre. Many news outlets, of course, blamed the protesters instead.

It is a great shame when historic buildings and properties burn. It is even more shameful that people who have been working all their lives and have paid for their pensions are now unable to sustain themselves, that real-life Greek heroes are brutalized because they dare to fight for their ideals, even in their twilight years.

The silver lining in these dark clouds is that people are rediscovering their solidarity. Total strangers would rub cream around your eyes or spray them with water to drive the tears away. When you fill your life with consumer goods, there is little room for that sentiment. But it is the only thing that will see us through. And it is the main thing, apart from honesty, that our politicians sorely lack.

Mind you, we are not done here. We are only just beginning.

Intermission #3

 

Odysseas Elytis is, without doubt, one of the most important poets of the 20th century and when Mikis Theodorakis put his words to music he imprinted them indelibly onto the Greek consciousness during the hard years of the military junta. The original, definitive version sung by the great Grigoris Bithikotsis might sound dated to those not familiar with the song, so I picked this version by our greatest rock singer, Vassilis Papakonstantinou. Bear in mind that Elytis’ poems are notoriously hard to translate and this translation does in no way do justice to the original.

Lone is the swallow and costly is the Spring,

For the sun to turn it takes a lot of toil,

It takes thousands dying at the wheels,

It takes the living to shed their own blood.

God my Master Crafter, You built me into the mountains,

God my Master Crafter, You enclosed me in the sea!

The body of May by mages it was stolen,

They buried it in a tomb of the sea,

In a deep well they have sealed it,

Its scent fills the darkness and all of the Abyss.

God my Master Crafter, You too among the Easter lilacs,

God my Master Crafter, You smelled the Resurrection.