How do you protest against an economic crisis? You set up a group on Facebook, get over 16,000 people to click “attending” and set up tents in front of your parliament. The Spaniards did it, and tonight, the Greeks plan to follow suit.
But what is it that we are really protesting? The debt? The austerity measures? The unemployment? The new taxes? Are these really things that we can protest against? Or are they things that will not go away no matter how much we protest? A debt is a debt. A lack of jobs is a lack of jobs. There is nothing that can change that. What is it we are trying to change? How is the change to come about? What are our suggestions? Our solutions? Ousting George Papandreou is only going to leave his seat open for Antonis Samaras. Is that a solution? Is he a leader we trust? Does he have a vision? Will he do a better job getting us out of the financial mess? Will he be better at negotiating the non-negotiable with the Troika? Will he create more jobs instead of shrinking the public sector? Will he not raise taxes on soft drinks?
A few days ago, I watched two men pull down the Greek and raise the anarchist flag on the roof of the University of Athens. They wore black pants and black hooded sweatshirts. My camera’s zoom was not strong enough for me to see their faces through the lens, though I wouldn’t be able to get them anyway, black hides everything but their eyes. A long black vertical banner flapped in the erratic summer breeze, like a massive sick tongue licking the Athenian air poisoned with remnants of tear gas, remnants just for a few more hours until the clouds will appear again.
I had purposely chosen my outfit to blend in, torn jeans, All Stars, and old fabric bag hung crossways on my body, so I bravely walked up to the entrance of the University and began taking pictures. No more than ten people had gathered, it was 2pm, the protest wasn’t due to start for another four hours. They set up a stereo system outside the doors, and harsh Greek rock music was blasting through the streets. I didn’t know what it was, but it sounded “revolutionary.”
Five clicks into my shoot, a twenty-something year old man came up to me. He was wearing black, and his hoodie revealed playful blue eyes and a head of curly, rich brown hair.
“What are you doing and where are you from?” he asked me. His blue eyes and half smile that he tried to hide, took away my fear.
“Where am I from? What do you mean?” I asked, immediately realizing he thought I was from a news organization. “I’m from nowhere, just came down here from my house.”
“Is your camera digital?” he asked. I nodded.
“Will you post the pictures on the internet?” he asked. I nodded. “Just make sure no faces are visible.”
“Of course,” I said. He walked off. I continued to shoot, walking further away. A Pakistani immigrant ran up to me and motioned me to stop taking photos. I looked at him, puzzled. He continued to gesticulate forbiddance. I stopped. He ran to the University gates. Had they hired him to stop photographers from shooting? I wondered.
The day before, there was a general strike that froze the country, even planes didn’t land for four hours of the day. There was a mass protest. Anywhere between thirty to fifty thousand people marched down the capital’s streets, scarring and slashing its main arteries, Stadiou and Panepistimiou Streets, along the way. Anarchists and “hooded youths” suddenly infiltrated the crowd, one came up to me and threatened he’d take my camera if I didn’t stop taking pictures. Then they threw stones and Molotoff cocktails over my head at the police officers standing in a row behind me. The police replied with tear gas. I ran.
Dozens of people were hurt. One man was beaten by the police. He’s still in a coma. Another, unarmed and un-hooded was clobbered. A camera caught that beating and the footage made international news. Again.
As I sniffed on my lemon wedge, rubbed it on my eyes to get rid of the stinging and chocking sensation that tear gas tends to bring, I watched people on Voukoursetiou Street, lean against the Prada, Christian Doir, and Loius Vuitton shop windows. Some had blood on their faces, heads, hands. Others coughed and spat on the pavement of one of the most expensive roads in the city. A few meters away, cops were still firing their tear gas guns and random anarchists ran from the clouds.
What do they expect, I think to myself, for the government to give them their jobs back? To raise their salaries? It seems like they can strike all they want, paralyze the country for all the parliament cares, but nothing will change. How do they not see that? Or is there hope? Can we change something? Can we get rid of the governments that have proved inept, inadequate, impotent in the course of our modern history? Is there a leader, a visionary hidden in that crowd? If there is, he must present him/herself to us immediately.
The next night I met two pregnant girlfriends for an early drink, a couple of blocks down the street from my apartment in the center of Athens. We chose neighborhood cafe, the night was warm and we sat outside. Suddenly we heard explosions and three straight lines of fire flamed down the street, stopping right next to us. Policemen with their guns and shields ran past us and turned into an alley, chasing whoever threw the Molotoffs. We paid for our drinks and went home.
In the time that I’ve spent writing this, today’s protest’s Facebook page has grown by over 2,500 people. They’re speaking of sleeping bags, tents, candles, supplies. They’re asking violent groups and individuals to stay away. This is a peaceful protest, they say. No political affiliations. All as one. I won’t be there, but I only hope they speak to eachother, find a common goal, stray away from the abstract notion of simply “protesting against the economic crisis”, and take a first step in leading this nation to a brighter future that it so deserves.