It’s All Greek to Them

It’s All Greek to Them

ATHENS – Nicolle Barber and Mark Leach, two young tourists from England, arrived in Athens in mid-June, when Syntagma Square was a happy, hippy tent city of anti-austerity activists singing and playing drums. The couple flew to the Greek capital despite pleas from friends and family that the city was just too dangerous. After all, wasn’t it all blanketed by riot police, Molotov-cocktail-wielding anarchists, and pissed-off mobs who screamed "thieves, thieves!" and beat up politicians?

When I met Barber, 20, and Leach, 23, they were sunburned from a day at a nearby beach and enjoying an impromptu evening concert at the square by a skinny, bearded young man playing the Cretan lyre. "I tell everyone back home that this city is not a war zone, that the Greeks are cool and chilled out," Barber said. "But they believe the pictures and the TV reports that say the whole city is on fire. It’s a story that’s become a stereotype."

I wondered what they would have thought of Syntagma this week, after the parliamentary vote on June 29 supporting new austerity measures sparked clashes between anarcho-leftist militants and riot police that devolved into indiscriminate violence. Although that violence was limited to the area around Syntagma, and just a few blocks away people were hanging out at cafes and restaurants, it was also fueled by stereotypes.

First, the police are known to left-wing Greeks as "pigs" and "murderers" because of the force’s oppressive role in the 1967-1974 military junta. Many young activists who rose up against this totalitarian regime were then students at the National Technical University of Athens, then known as the Polytechnio, and they weren’t unlike the bright young idealists of today’s Tahrir Square. Today, the aging Polytechnio activists either are embedded in Greece’s hopelessly dysfunctional political system or are professional protesters who call Prime Minister George Papandreou’s democratically elected government a "junta." But hatred of the police is deeply ingrained in those Greeks whose families still hold grudges from the brutal 1945-1949 civil war here between the communists and conservatives. This enmity also sparked violence in December 2008, when young Greeks rioted for weeks after a police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old boy in Exarcheia, a neighborhood in central Athens near the Polytechnio.

Many Greek police officers are badly trained and barely out of their teens. At demonstrations, the angriest protesters call them fags, retards, and monsters, and wish them the very worst. "I hope you and your whore wife and all of your bastard children die!" a man in a Che Guevara T-shirt screamed Wednesday at a police officer with a peach-fuzz mustache. "And I hope your mother dies too!" The officer got angry, and a fellow officer had to hold him back.

When I’ve talked to police about their views of the protesters, especially the hard-core ones, they too reach for a stereotype — champagne leftists from rich families who spend their days throwing petrol bombs at working-class police officers (while protesting on behalf of the working class) and their nights drinking fancy wine at fancy suburban restaurants. "They riot, we arrest them, and then their rich parents bail them out of jail," one officer told me after a recent protest.

It’s true that some self-styled anarchists, including the ones who sent the mail bombs to foreign embassies and world leaders last November, do come from upper-middle-class families. But the police’s reliance on this stereotype is dangerous, especially lately.

After the anarcho-leftists began their usual rock-and-gas-bomb throwing routine on Wednesday, the police seemed to lose all sense of who was a militant and who was one of thousands of regular Greeks who just wanted to vent by marching, chanting slogans, and throwing the odd container of yogurt at the politicians they don’t trust. They tear-gassed everyone repeatedly, including a 72-year-old grandmother I was interviewing, a first-time protester who tried to shield her face from the burning gas with a flower-embroidered handkerchief. By evening, as fires burned in garbage bins and broken pieces of marble from storefronts littered the streets, motorcycle cops chased a journalist friend of mine who fled on foot. "They saw every single person trying to get to Syntagma as an enemy," said my friend, a father of two who looks like Paul McCartney in his "Yellow Submarine" days, not a black-clad, club-wielding militant.

The chaos has turned Syntagma into the very stereotype that populist Europeans have reached for all year. Here was proof that Greeks are impetuous, violent, and ungovernable. The debt crisis has also revealed many longtime problems with the civil service, pensions, and tax evasion that have furthered more stereotypes — that Greeks are lazy, entitled, tax-evading spendthrifts who would rather dance on tables at the bouzouki club than show up at the office.

Never mind that a deep recession that may last years because of the debt crisis is slowly disintegrating Greece’s middle class. Or that many Greeks already work two or three jobs to make ends meet, that they get far lower wages than their counterparts in Northern Europe despite a high cost of living, that some 40 percent of Greeks under 30 can’t get jobs, even if they’re multilingual and have three degrees. That’s too much nuance for, say, the German newspaper Bild and the two German parliamentary deputies who suggested last year that Greece should sell the Acropolis or its islands to pay its bills.

All that can unearth the nationalist even in mild-mannered Greeks like Giorgos Rallis, a 46-year-old power company technician with two young sons. "We will sell the Acropolis over my dead body!" he declared last week, during a mostly calm discussion about the European Union. "Those cheap, miserable fascists won’t take my country! There will be blood!"

This clash of the stereotypes is hurting Greece. Right now, it needs billions of dollars in bailout loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund or it will default on its massive sovereign debt. Writing off the Europeans as bloodsucking capitalists — even if they have made huge mistakes in handling this crisis — is not productive. The Europeans, too, should realize that pushing this harsh austerity program of big wage cuts and tax hikes on a country in a deep recession is provoking anger not because the Greeks are impetuous, violent, and ungovernable, but because they simply do not have the money to spare.

It’s not easy to see anything clearly these days, especially with so much tear gas in Syntagma Square. The army of photojournalists and TV reporters on location in Syntagma continue to fuel the "Athens on Fire!" meme, prompting even my most intelligent friends back home in the United States to send me worried emails wondering whether I’ve been set on fire by anarchists. I brush off the comments, but I wonder whether there’s danger in becoming inured to the "new normal" of riots at Syntagma, a square previously known for its cafes, buskers, and street vendors. "Since when have riots been normal?" says Panos Tsakloglou, a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business. "As a society, we should be petrified if we’re getting used to this."

Barber and Leach, the British tourists, were long gone by Wednesday’s protests, but I spotted several tourists in the crowd looking both bewildered and curious. Just as the violence began to escalate, I saw a sandy-haired Australian couple in their 60s, their faces covered by blue scarves silk-screened with depictions of Minoan frescoes. "We’re heading back to the hotel now. Too much tear gas," I heard the man say loudly into his cell phone. "Just wanted to get a few photos to show the kids." He snapped a few photos of an oncoming phalanx of riot police facing down protesters in surgical masks, their faces smeared with liquid Maalox, the stomach antacid, to keep the tear gas from burning. He kept snapping until another volley of tear gas exploded, chasing him and his wife away.