Thursday, 1 October 2009

Athens Portraits: The (Loud) Voice of the People

In case you didn’t know (or don't have a friendly Greek to remind you), Athens is where Democracy was born.
And 2,500 years later, you’ll find no shortage of folk ready and willing to exercise their democratic right to protest – loudly, and often.

Every week, somewhere in Down Town Athens, you’ll find a group of demonstrators making their feelings felt by marching down the street, banners in hand, chanting and banging on drums.

It’s part of the tradition of resistance in one of the few countries to have a National Day celebrating a famous “No” from its history (Prime Minister Metaxa’s reply on 28 October 1940 when Mussolini asked him to hand the country over).

So, don’t be surprised if you leave Syntagma Metro station, or step off the bus at Klathmonos Square, to find a mob of snarling students, furious farmers, cross college professors, growling grandfathers, livid lawyers or enraged ecologists chanting slogans and waving banners declaring “Hands off our pensions/jobs/education/forests” (take your pick).

Protests are frequent, noisy and disruptive for anyone who needs to get somewhere in a hurry. Streets are blocked off, shops close, traffic is diverted, and knots of riot police gather at strategic spots - just in case something gets out of hand.

Most of the time, they don’t. But there are times – like the anniversary of the storming of the Polytechnic on 17 November 1973 which sparked the fall of the dictatorship, or last December’s riots after the police shooting of a teenager in Exarchia – when it can get serious. Stones are thrown, shop windows smashed, rubbish bins set alight, cars overturned and Molotov cocktails hurled, prompting Kevlar-clad police to respond with batons and tear gas.

Every demonstration will include the ‘usual suspects’ like the organised anarchists (surely a contradiction of terms?), political agitators, those who just enjoy the thrill of the fight, and rubber-necking spectators keen to get a whiff of the action.

But there are also dozens of civil servants, teachers, students, utility workers and more who voice their outrage about the injustices and outrages that affect them.

At least, until the next day, when those same ordinary men and women will complain bitterly over their coffee about the ‘trouble-makers’ disrupting the city and stopping them from getting to work on time.

(Don't go expecting anything to change after this Sunday's General Election. Street protests and demos are a fact of life in Athens, regardless of who's in power.)

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