I was in Syntagma Square just a little over one year ago.
Like most tourists, I was stuck by the pure visual majesty of Greece. I started crying when the plane landed, the unapologetic blue of the Mediterranean Sea lapping against the most dramatic mountains and hills, as the sun set glistened over the tiny airport. Each subway station is a tiny museum–decorated with the pottery and ancient ruins that were unearthed as the subway was constructed.
Greece is romanticized. Greece is what is old, what is classic. Greece is mythology and the ruins that provided the background of those stories standing over the same deep, blue sea that has seen it all.
Greece is the small stands in Syntagma Square and Omonoia Square, desperately trying to sell worry beads and pottery pieces, selling the Greece of days gone by to the tourists who have come for the warm climate and photo opportunities next to ruins, and could care less about austerity measures.
It was rumbling underneath the ruins then–but there was a dramatic difference in the price of goods as compared to western Europe, depending on marketing an image of Greek key designs and worry beads to the tourists who keep the economy afloat.
On Sunday, the public squares that sell these images–images of a Greece far goneby–were filled with teargas, riot police, and 100 (officially reported) injured, and miraculously no one dead. The people were rioting against the latest set of austerity measures–budget cuts that would devastate an already devastated economy, fighting riot police and screaming because there was nothing else that they could do and they have nothing more to lose.
If you search “Greece Protests” or “Greece Austerity Measures” or “Greece Parliament,” the results will be news stories that describe what will happen to the euro, now that the austerity bill and the spending cuts have passed the Greek Parliament. You will find what will happen to economies in Asia. You will find what will happen to the Australian economy. You will find pictures of Athens on fire, burning without rhyme, reason or back story.
Athens is burning, because Greece is trying to avoid a default with a bailout that will qualify for loans and pay creditors off the backs of the people. Since this past summer, 60,000 businesses have closed. Unemployment in the country is over 20%–and is almost 50% for the youth. The minimum wage is going to be cut by 22% for most workers, and by 32% for young workers–did I mention that 50% of them are already unemployed? Monthly pensions will be cut by 20%. 30,000 public workers’ jobs will be suspended. Most of these workers already haven’t been paid in months.
The pictures of Athens burning feel closer now–I have pictures of riot cops wearing the same gear without the Greek letters right here in New York City. I have pictures of the rolling hills of Greece, the Mediterranean Sea, the ruins, the square, the streets. I have memories of the agony around the debt ceiling, here, in this country–balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable, refusing to cut money that funds the needs of the elites or tries to prove the worth of our asinine wars over seas.
In a city where democracy was executed as a process–counting every piece of pottery, making sure that every vote was included–so long ago, selling the images of this idealized time, crystallized in the past yet immortalized for the imagination of the present, the democratic process is being ignored–reserved for the hands of the elite, ignoring the lives of those who are not elite (and carefully making sure that the news wires do the same)–so Athens has become a war zone, looting the shops and filling the squares with tear gas and fire, closing all exits and arming themselves against the riot police, the armies of the state that ignores their needs.
Athens is burning. And it probably wont be the first.