I arrived in Athens on March 16th. Three days later, a van of rebels armed with megaphones, red flags and protest signs paraded to the Greek Parliament building alongside 100,000 workers on strike in tow to prevent the newly elected conservative government pulling money from pensions. The mood of the strike seemed to be one of good fun; everybody cared, everybody echoed the same chant, flags in hand. I watched this from the sidewalk, got bored and went to a museum before the climax of the demonstrations a few hours later. CNN.com describes in many colorful terms how “groups of anarchists” incited “running battles with police,” threw tear gas and firebombs and set fire to a few banks.
My gut reaction was that I missed out on something historic and big and violent. But the riot wasn’t any of those. Apparently, protests and riots in Greece are somewhat pedestrian – almost every time there is something to be upset about – there is a protest.
The first tip-off that this strike-riot was standard procedure (firebombs included) came in the form of my hotel concierge. He warned that the metro would not be running on the day before the general strike, which he also knew about down to the exact time of the demonstration (10 am to 3pm). The metro would, however, run during the strike – which included all workers in transportation, sanitation, as well as lawyers, teachers, hospital workers, and air traffic controllers – to ensure that the demonstrators could take the subway downtown to the Parliament building. Despite having no effect on the government’s stance on pensions by striking one day early, other than inconveniencing everyone, the subway employees at least got their day off too.
Even with fires, bombs, and tear gas, the final “face-off” between the anarchists and the police did not culminate any arrests, injuries, or anything resembling the use of force and “destruction.” The rioters ended the strike by running to Athens Polytechnic University, an anarchist’s haven where the police are actually prohibited to enter by law. In 1973, a transitional government sent an army tank into the University campus to quell a student protest, resulting in 24 civilian deaths. Now, the University serves as a real-life “home base” for protestors running from the cops the same way a big tree does in a game of tag.
During this event, I was a bystander, a voyeur to a national ritual. The strike seemed a moment out of a long-forgotten past, taken from a time when people cared enough to demonstrate, something America has not really seen since the 1960s. Who cares if this one day would not change the Parliament’s mind (and I don’t see that it could, when I later learned that these demonstrations are pretty much a monthly occurrence in Athens), when it was a nice spring day to take the day off, smoke a few cigarettes, and rally a bit for the common good?
The Athenians have striking and rioting down to a science. The date, time, and even the final showdown at the Polytechnic are calculated to the point of ritual. However, what will happen, if a firebomb gets thrown in the wrong place and someone dies, and the “crying wolf” nature of these demonstrations is revealed in a real tragedy? Will the merry riot-making and demonstrating give way to chaos and pandemonium? How do they maintain the balance? Is there even a sense of balance? Do those few hours each month remind arouse nostalgia for Greece’s “better” days? A nostalgia that dissipates and then everyone can go home, the demonstrators and police alike to their wives, friends, parents and laugh over a frappe and a cigarette, possibly even together?
All I know is that I cannot imagine a day in America when a lawyer would ever take the day off and forgo his day’s salary with his garbage-truck-driving friend and throw a few fire bombs to let off steam. But, in a larger sense, the Greeks seem to have something with their monthly protesting. After all, there may be something to the act of playing war that makes society work a little better. At the very least, the “wars” aren’t real.