What led to the December riots in Greece?
It’s a question everyone’s been asking themselves since the unprecedented violence that erupted after the fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 6.
To outsiders, Greece appears to be a wonderful country: blue skies, wonderful beaches and fantastic food. And there’s the laid-back lifestyle. It all appears so tranquil, so they say.
The reality within Greece for many Greeks is somewhat different. This country is not a failed state, but it’s a highly dysfunctional one that, in recent years, has been plagued by disasters (the forest fires of 2007 and 2008) and political and economic scandals (Olympic overspending, the phone-tapping scandal, the post-7/7 mysterious abduction of a group of Pakistanis, the Zachopoulos affair, the Vatopaidi affair, etc etc.). Indeed, the scandals are so frequent that they all seem to blend into one continues battle between the media and public on the one hand and the government on the other to establish the facts.
Life is difficult for many and this was the case before the credit crunch. Wages are ridiculously low and prices outrageously high. Greeks love cafes yet this country is probably one of the most expensive places to buy a coffee in Europe. It’s also one of the most expensive places in the EU to buy clothing and footware. Rents are also high.
The ongoing protests have mainly been a student and schoolpupil affair. Greek schoolchildren, particularly those who live in the big cities (ie Athens) are an unhappy lot. Most attend state schools during the day where they learn very little. In the evenings, the go to private cram schools (frontistiria) to study all subjects, not just foreign languages. Some teenagers I spoke to spend 18 hours in these frontistiria, at great cost to their parents and to their general mental and physical well being.
It’s simply not healthy for children to spend 7 hours in school during the day and a further 3-4 hours in a cramming academy in the evening. They also have to find time to do homework as well.
Greek schoolchildren find themselves in being processed through a machine that is geared to produce nothing else but good university-entry exam results. In the vast majority of state secondary schools there are no extracurricular activities such as drama, music or sports. If anything in undertaken in this direction, then it is the responsibility of the schoolkids or their parents, who again have to pay for all this.
No wonder these children are full of anger.
Not only are they are overworked, but they face a bleak future. The aspire to go to university but know full well that very little awaits them once they finish their primary degrees. Even if they obtain a postgraduate degree — there are thousands of Greek postgrads in Italian, German, French and British universities — their job prospects are bleak.
This generation of Greeks is facing the reality that they will be worse off than their parents.
Many young Greeks want change. They are turning against the corrupt political system that their parents have supported since the end of the dictatorship in 1974. They all know the problems the country has but are not willing to tolerate them anymore.
They are fed up of the country’s rulers, especially those who seem to have inherited political office (such as Prime Minsiter Karamanlis). The alternative, socialist Pasok, is equally unattractive for the same reasons (the Papandreou dynasty).
They are fed up with the endless political game that accompanies every scandal.
They are fed up with the same old faces in the windows on Greece’s bizarre TV “chat news”.
They are also fed up with the ever-decreasing value of the money in their pockets as a result of inflation.
They are also fed up at the wanton destruction of the environment and the government’s paying lip-service to ecology.
They are also fed up of the police.
The Greek Police are almost universally reviled in Greece. Even conservative voters have no respect for the force. Respect has to be earned and it appears to me that the Greek Police has not earned the respect of the population nor does it have any idea how it can earn this respect.
Distrust of the police goes back to the Junta years. The police was never fully democratised after the fall of the Junta.
Of course, they are baldly paid like all civil servants, they are badly trained and they are corrupt like the rest of the system.
Unless they make an attempt to engage in dialogue with the people they are supposed to be protecting (community policing), particularly in flashpoints like Exarchia, then nothing will change.
Neither will anything change as long as the police and state prosecutors remain the political tools of the government. They must show more determination in combating top-level government corruption.
Will anything change?
This is another question that people have been asking.
The youth and students are discontented. They know what the problems are, but the danger is that various micro-groups will try to channel this protest movement into demanding laughable, unrealistic and nebulous aims such as complete social revolution and/or the abolition of the state! That’s simply not going to happen in 2008. The protests will end up demanding everything and achieving absolutely nothing.
The protests might lead to a change in policing if that remained the key focus. But arguably, the police are merely a product of a bad system and are certainly not at the root of it.
Some young people have told me that the protests need to be far more creative (and, above all, peaceful) in order to produce change.
There also needs to be real dialogue in society about the problems facing the country, but not in the daily mainstream TV media chatnews format or through the microparties of the left.
I saw one creative example of that today. Through Facebook, a group called for a “mobbing” on the central Syntagma Square this afternoon around the city’s (second) Christmas tree. A few hundred turned up, and the police — green (riot) and blue (regular) — were there as well. The police were determined to protect the tree — fearing that it could be set on fire — so they circled it. It was exactly what the protesters wanted, as they were now able to encircle the police, all 30 of them.
What followed allowed for the protesters to express everything they wanted to express: the sang anti-police slogans, danced around the tree and the police. They laughed. They even dumped some old pigmeat at their feet.
Apart from the protesters, hundreds of Christmas shoppers looked on and very few of them seemed to have any objection to what was going on. As mentioned above, the police have very little respect from most of society.
Basically, they humiliated the representatives of a force using verbal means. Granted, it wasn’t too pleasant for the police concerned, but they took it well. They were clearly under orders not to escalate the situation in any way.
The whole event allowed for the venting of frustration. After an hour or so when everything that could have been said was said, most of the demonstrators moved away peacefully. So did the police. And the tree remained unscathed.
Had the police resorted to its normal heavy-handed tactics, the world news would be broadcasting another report on rioting in central Athens and possibly another burning tree.