On the 25th of May at around 6 in the afternoon, when people in Athens usually get off their jobs, a crowd of 1500 was already at Syntagma Square in front of the parliament. The square is considered the most central part of Athens, and on any other Wednesday afternoon, when the summer is approaching and the weather is warm, is usually occupied by tourists emerging from Plaka through the commercial Ermou Street on to photograph the changing of the guards and then board the sightseeing buses. The area around the square is also the heart of the market in Athens, but the stores are always closed on Wednesday afternoons, and if you are an Athenian passing through Syntagma at this day and time it is to get the metro or bus home.
One hour later, at 7, the square was filled with people, and if you were standing among them it was impossible to estimate how many there really were. At 7:30 reports on Twitter were making the crowd close to 30,000. This was, after all, the first citizen protest in Greece communicated through the social media this past week, with posts in Facebook groups like this, and chatter on Twitter mostly categorized under the hashtags #greekrevolution and #m25gr. One could see people taking pictures with their phones and then posting them on Twitpic, making this another self-reporting, self-referential public gathering.
Athens is accustomed to protests and demonstrations in front of the parliament. Following the restoration of democracy in 1974, it has become part of this country's political culture. This past year following the bailout and the austerity measures imposed by the IMF, EU, and ECB (collectively referred to as Troika by the Greeks), there has hardly been a week without a demonstration making its way from Stadiou Street all the way to Syntagma. On several occasions these ended up in clashes with the police, the crowds dispersed with teargas.
This week's demonstration was different. It was not initiated by any party or union, and in fact their banners were not welcome; when the union members of the Public Electric Energy Company marched by Syntagma they were booed. There was only one big banner in Greek and Spanish with the phrases "We have waken up. What time is it? It's time for them to go". The majority of the people shouting "thieves", and "we are awake" were not the kind that would attend a protest in the past. The unions and parties that usually organize them are increasingly distrusted by the Greek public, as they are seen as complicit to this society's dead end. Most of the protesters, people in their 20s and 30s, would describe themselves as "apolitical", or "angry", in the paradigm of the Spanish indignados. This wrath did not explode into violence. We knew that this would only add to the despair of this city.
The Greek crisis throughout this past year since the bailout has featured in the financial sections of every international news outlet. In parallel to the ongoing political discussion between the Greek government, the IMF and Greece's European partners, there has been a worldwide discussion in the media. Participants in this international debate and more than willing to offer opinions and analyses are the same people: politicians, bureaucrats, academics, economic analysts, influential financial journalists. During this time we have remained largely silent. "Greece" has been used to refer en masse to its government and the Greek public: corrupt state workers and underpaid teachers alike, tax evading lawyers and private sector tax paying employees, businessmen with offshore accounts and workers with mortgages. We allowed ourselves to be bundled up together driven by both a sense of guilt and the belief that we would be able to change the ills of Greek society. There was an unwritten contract between us, our government and the Troika. We would endure the austerity measures, assume our democratic responsibilities, and entrust the government to find a way out of the dead end. Exactly one year later we are still facing bankruptcy and we are offered no viable solutions. This justifies our participation in the dialogue collectively or individually, even if only to express our anger.
As a journalist I feel that the Greek crisis is no longer an issue to be exhausted in the financial pages, and the detached reporting of the rise in unemployment, deflation, weekly demonstrations and marches. This kind of media coverage is no longer adequate. This has been an unprecedented predicament for a developed European country, and the extremity of its escalation this past year has created too many intense personal stories, and too much human drama. I cannot claim to understand the anger of all the Athenians gathered in Syntagma Square, though I can certainly empathize. I can only relate to my generation, people more or less in their 30s, and I know why they are angry.
They live in a city where everything is now more expensive. They walk past shops that have closed down. They are themselves unemployed; the companies that they used to work for went bankrupt. Some of them were made redundant because they did not agree to sign paycuts. Those who did, kept their jobs. Within few months they had to sign more paycuts. They now earn on average 25% less. They have to work more to cover for their fired colleagues. If they are lucky enough to land a first job they can find themselves earning as low as 300 euros per month. They have to pay their own insurance. Every few months they have to adapt to yet another company budget cut. The companies can no longer get the loans that fuelled them in the past. They wonder where the profits of the past decades have gone, and why there was a need for loans. In the offices the rat race accelerates, and creativity subsides. This is not the time to be on the outside.
People still have to bribe to get a driver's license, and get proper health care. They know lawyers and businessmen who still evade taxes. They work as waiters for bar owners who pay them black money. They follow the news even though they depress them. They complain about the price of gas. They suspect there still are a lot who don't. They ask their landlord to lower the rent. They think that next year they will be poorer. They realize that the older generations are holding on to whatever they had managed to acquire in the past, and that themselves have nothing to hold on to. They feel ready and eager to create something worth while. They fear that they will not have the chance. They are starting to realize that they will not be able to pursue the things they wanted. They see no way out.
In the days that followed the protesters gathered peacefully in Syntagma square every afternoon. On Sunday similar protests all over Europe were arranged simultaneously. They are aware that this type of demonstration will most likely not result in a solution and that it cannot go on forever. Right now they prefer to feel angry in public than desperate in private.
Update: This is the 8th consecutive day that the Syntagma Square has been occupied by people, some of them staying overnight in tents.There is a daily general assembly where everyone who wants to speak has to take a number and wait for the outcome of a random ballot. There are no official representatives of the movement, it remains apolitical and collective. In Athens there is a general sense that this is the beginning of a new type of citizens' action based on the principles of direct democracy.