ATHENS, Greece — The streamers in English that among those in Greek festooned the iron fences were demanding more funds for the ongoing restoration work, as well as the reinstatement of dismissed employees. A small, crudely handwritten sign, hardly visible among the streamers, said the site was closed, and would remain closed. The employees were on strike.
The site was no factory, however, but the Acropolis, the complex of ancient buildings and monuments that Greeks say is “the symbol of Athens,” “the sacred rock” linking ancient Greek civilization with the modern city. Within its walls were, among others, the Parthenon, the temple Athenians had built 600 years before Christ and dedicated to Pallas Athena, the ancient goddess of wisdom, after whom the now modern city of Athens is named.
The goddess had so far not revealed herself. The storefronts and other buildings, including some of the luxury hotels of the modern city of Athens still bore the signs of the pillaging and burning by the hooligans who had joined the demonstrations that for three days had been rocking Athens, Thessaloniki and several other cities.
Although the audio was all Greek to this columnist, Greek television provided ample footage of demonstrator-police confrontations, of streets aflame with gasoline bombs, smashed store fronts, and burning cars. In the early morning of December 9, broken glass and the hulk of burnt-out cars still littered the main streets where the mostly student demonstrators had been battling riot police tear gas and batons with Molotov cocktails, steel bars, and rocks.
The demonstrations and subsequent rioting couldn’t have come at a worst –or (depending on one’s perspective)– a better time. In protest against the police shooting of 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the anarchist stronghold of Exarchia district, they broke in the evening of Saturday, December 7 (early Sunday morning in Manila) and as of this writing (December 10) were still continuing, as were a strike by nurses and a long planned general strike. All were in protest of the economic policies of the increasingly unpopular right wing government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who is accused of failing to address urgent social needs like education and health care in the midst of a growing economic crisis.
Students have been at the forefront of the anti-government protests of which “food, freedom and education” has been the battlecry. But so have the labor unions been involved, and university professors, who have been on strike as well. Even high school students have been boycotting classes.
Police say they acted in self defense, but witnesses say they shot Grigoropoulos without provocation. Two policemen were charged, one with murder, and the other as an accomplice. But the demonstrators were not appeased. Although the killing of Grigoropoulos, which occurred practically on the eve of International Human Rights Day, was the catalyst, it was far from the only instance in which the police have been accused of abuse and the unjustified use of deadly force. Police violence including torture and outright shootings have been alleged in a number of cases involving illegal immigrants and minority groups, particularly from the Romani community.
Those instances have been similarly protested, but not to the same extent. The unrest has been described as the worst in decades, and has led to right wing commentators’ lamenting the possibility of a period in which Greece would be practically ungovernable. Not that the government can’t be blamed for its own predicaments. Although anarchists have been blamed for the current unrest, students and other Greeks interviewed by both foreign and local media have expressed enough outrage to suggest that the killing could be the last straw that could break the camel’s back–in this case the government of Karamanlis, which like other European conservative governments, has adopted measures that have led to diminished social services and implemented an immigration policy that has encouraged police abuse.
Although Greece’s could be a unique case in that it is among the poorest members of the European Union, and feels the economic crisis more acutely than other European countries, as the unrest spreads and the international economic crisis intensifies it could spill over into the rest of Europe. If it does it could ignite a world-wide student protest reminiscent of 1960-1970 which challenged unpopular governments and their anti-people policies– and helped accelerate the growth of the Philippines’ own student movement.
Which brings us to an interesting point. The revitalization of the student movement in the Philippines has never been more urgent, given the numerous crises the country is facing, not the least of them the political ones of leadership incompetence and the monumental corruption that have prevented the country’s development and unless checked will certainly intensify the impact of the global financial crisis on the usual victims, the country’s poor.
In the 1960s it was the student movement that focused attention on the need for the vast changes that had been put on hold by a succession of bad governments, and which, awakening the citizenry from the lethargy of decades, evolved into a vast movement for change to which the Marcos wing of the political class responded with the imposition of dictatorship.
The Arroyo wing of the political class is the Marcos wing’s current reincarnation in its singular focus not only on remaining in power but also in its determination to re-impose dictatorship to achieve that end. And yet only apathy has been the majority response to that intent and to the vast corruption that has metastasized throughout the entirety of Philippine governance and much of society.
A student movement focused on the need for understanding the character and sources of the Philippine crisis could help create the ferment to move the rest of society into the active involvement needed to address that crisis. As Greece burns with the renewed commitment to oppose bad government and policies and to demand food, democracy, freedom and education as everyone’s right, so should the Philippines. It’s about time.