Letter from… Athens

by Nikolaos Efstathiou:

The loud chants echoed across the center of Athens while dozens of protestors rhythmically pumped their fists in the direction of the Greek parliament building. I watched as smoke from the tear gas swirled among the mob’s banners, following the summer breeze. As the sun set, the voices of the rioters grew louder and more hysterical. “Tonight, we are bringing the government down!” cheered the student standing next to me among protestors pointing bright laser lights at the parliament building.

But they did not manage to overthrow the government that night. Or the night after. In fact, a summer of wild demonstrations, continuous strikes, and violent clashes with the police only exacerbated the problems of an already fragile economy and created more tension in the divided social fabric.

When seen through a populist lens, the public outrage in Greece is justifiable, even expected. Troubled by years of governmental inefficiency, bureaucratic institutions, and corrupt politicians, the country known as the cradle of democracy currently faces one of its most tumultuous political crises in recent memory. After the cabinet implemented waves of austerity measures cracking down on Greek households, a new surge of large scale protests hit the country. “Why should we pay for the deficit that they created?” shouted a young teenager, his voice echoing across Syntagma Square. Standing amidst the crowd, I couldn’t help feeling sympathetic towards their protests.

But most modern demonstrations are hardly an appropriate or proportional reaction to the government’s inefficiency. In late July, the Taxi Driver syndicates declared an indefinite strike that paralyzed the tourism industry for almost a month. For most of the summer, a suffocating combination of smog and haze from tear gas used by the police plagued Athens’s historical center. “What right do the protestors have to kill our businesses and to make our everyday lives like hell?” asked Argyris Papanikolaou, the owner of a pastry shop across from the parliament. Papanikolaou said that his store has been burned and broken into by protesters several times this past year.

Later that night, after the protests subsided, I decided to take a stroll to Syntagma Square. Despite the chaos and anger of the demonstrations, I was shocked to find an ambience better suited to a summer camp than a revolutionary gathering. The rioters had broken down into smaller groups, visiting coffee shops like Papanikolaou’s, making jokes about the current political system, and singing rebellious songs. Tents were set up throughout the plaza, and people gathered around fires, discussing Greece’s future. The atmosphere was buoyant, vigorous, and lighthearted.

As I walked towards the crowded subway, I reflected on my day at the protest. The unexpected contrast between the protest and its afterparty of sorts highlighted how superficial the tradition of protest has become in Greek society. The self-proclaimed “Indignant Greeks” have been voicing their disgust for everything, from current ministers to famous TV personas, yet they don’t seem to be offering any substantial solutions. In fact, protesting has become a sort of popular cult, a casual activity that the revolutionary youth of Greece engages in on a daily basis.

But protests must not be undervalued in a democracy. In his famous “Apology” speech 2,000 years ago, Socrates extolled the values of questioning political authority. In Athens a student riot against the ruling military junta in 1974 eventually led to the restoration of democracy. Has this culture of protest that has long characterized Greek society been overused, to the extent that it has become trivialized? Has the institution that forged democracy in Greece ended up killing democracy from within? Do protests have anything to offer Greek citizens other than a cathartic purge of rage and frustration?

An entire summer in the center of Athens was not enough to provide me with answers to these complex questions. What I did observe, however, was a crowd getting angrier and a country getting poorer. While the culture of protest is expanding, crossing frontiers and reaching even the puritan political culture of America, I cannot help but think that there are more constructive ways to channel discontent. Certainly dialogue is a difficult and often inefficient path, but it will certainly bring more tangible results than angry chants and heated slogans.

Nikolaos Efstathiou ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at nikolaos.efstathiou@yale.edu.