Enjoying My Press Freedom in Greece
Bottles crash against the pavement, the broken glass glittering in the light of the flames. There is a heavy cloud of tear gas that has settled throughout Exarchia, a central Athens’ neighborhood. Hooded youths push back the police with a rain of rocks and molotovs. It has been two hours since these street battles kicked off. In comparison to years passed, this is supposedly tame. Riot police repeatedly try to advance and disperse the crowd but they are up against a stiff resistance.
On the 6th of December, 2008 Alexis Grigoropoulos, a teenager, was murdered by the police. He was gunned down in this very same neighborhood. The death sent Greece into weeks of riots. Decades of penned up rage spilled over. In Athens there were pitched battles across the downtown. Some say it was the first signs of the serious cracks in Greek society.
Every year since, there has been a march in honor of Alexis’s death. This year there was no break with tradition. The crowd was slightly smaller in size and there weren’t the usual clashes in Syntagma square. However when the protesters returned to Exarchia to the vigil on the corner where Alexis was killed, clashes erupted.
Its getting late and it seems like many in the crowd are tiring of this seemingly nihilistic dance. I run to a corner with another photographer just in time to see a group of youth charging a small battalion of riot police. I try to take cover and photograph the police. But its too late. The police have begun a charge themselves. I try to run around the corner, out of the way. The mass of people is running the opposite direction and as they pass they bump into me knocking a lens off my belt. I stop to pick it up off the ground but before I know it there is an officer on top of me. He lifts me, and I put up my hands showing him my camera. I’m being held by my shirt. I explain I’m a photographer. “I’m press ummmmmfff…”, the officer I’m with knees me in the groin twice. I double over and am pushed from behind by someone else. I find myself on the ground on the corner where I’d originally been standing. Four officers are standing over me, yelling and kicking. I try to protect my body. One officer pulls off my gas mask and slaps me in the face. I pray they aren’t arresting me. They are screaming in Greek. I don’t understand anything. I show them my passport. One of the officer looks at it while the others continue to slap and kick me. He throws it back at me and I’m told to run. Instinctively I reach for my lens, but they kick it away. As I scramble to leave I’m sprayed with tear gas. I run around the block and find the photographer I was with earlier. I’m shaken. My nerves are shot. I’m jittery. I won’t let the police, who now stand half a block away, out of my sight. Adrenaline is pulsing through my body and self-protection guides my every thought.
We start calling the photographer’s union and looking for my lens. But I can’t stop thinking of what it must be like for the people detained earlier in the evening. Being powerless at the feet of someone who is willing to use violence and protected by impunity is perhaps the scariest of positions to find oneself in. For a moment I think I’m beginning to understand what it must feel like to be Greek. Unable to affect the systems of power that are orchestrating the “bailouts” and “rescues”, Greeks and others find themselves at the feet of an economic system they do not control. I don’t think it is too rhetorical to say the austerity measures are violent. The cutbacks in healthcare and education are literally putting lives at risk, and killing possible futures. A systematic corruption of the national political system has left the population without hope. Finally unemployment and downward mobility is threatening faith in the European Union. The talking heads keep repeating there is no other option but austerity. The vultures of capitalism have already swooped in and taken everything that is of value. The country’s brain drain has already begun. The feeling is there is no other option but survival.
This is the kind of shock doctrine Naomi Klein describes in her book. What is occurring across southern Europe is a wholesale attack on the welfare state. This system of social protection that has existed since the end of the second World War, is finally being dismantled. Greece is the first European state to undergo this shock treatment. But there are countless examples of other countries that have undergone similar processes. A state of crisis has been created where all normal negotiations of power are off the table. Basic rights once taken for granted are suddenly under threat. The unionized public sector is being replaced by a lean un-unionized private sector. After Greece the privatization of the European Union will continue. This long protracted economic crisis is the newest form of shock. The shock being administered upon Greece today, builds off of previous experiments of laissez-faire economics. Unfortunately looking at the past we can estimate what awaits Greece in the future. Economic disparity and the collapse of representative democracy is the future no one wants to admit.