A general strike and street battles formed the backdrop to the Greek parliament's narrow vote to implement IMF austerity. Christina Laskaridis describes the events and looks at the future for Greece's Movement of the Squares.
Since the 25th May the protest movement in Greece has surpassed every expectation in its size, dynamic, strength and global importance. Springing from the alarm of the rapid implementation of further austerity measures a ground swell of people continually arrive and are present in the squares of Athens, to show their discontent and to fight in the streets for a better future. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and the movement of Los Indignados in Spain, the Greek protests have moved on from the feeling of indignation to the feeling of outrage.
From the 25th May the central square outside of the Greek Parliament, Syntagma, has been reclaimed by protesters who day and night sleep and eat, debate and discuss in the self organised camp set up by hundreds of people. People have set up working groups to face their daily needs, discussion groups discussing legal, economic and political issues, organised massive days of popular education on the debt crisis and on direct democracy, culminating in the practice of the People’s Assembly, a public meeting with thousands present.
We have been there every day since that day, and have lived through a series of unprecedented events.
Every Sunday since the 25th May there is a Pan-european invitation for all the central squares to be filled with people objecting to government policies and to the European (non) resolution of the crisis. Six Sundays on and the amount of people is still stunning.
The 5th June saw the biggest mobilisation in Syntagma reaching 200,000 protestors, with some claiming close to half a million having passed through the area that day. Proportional to the population of Athens of 4.5 million this is huge.
General Strike June 15th
The next major milestone was the 15th of June, a day of General Strike announced by the three major unions, GSEE, ADEDY and PAME (of the private and public sector and Communist Party, respectively). The Indignados of the Square called for a mass blockade of parliament to coincide with it, culminating in the first major action to object to the new austerity package.
The pillars of the austerity package include a privatisation programme worth 50billion Euros, increases in taxes and cuts in spending worth 28 billion euros. The privatisation programme foresees that by 2015 all train lines, airports, ports, mining rights, water and electricity companies, telecommunications, stakes in the banking sector, highways, rights to entry of archeological areas and parks and everything else in public possession will be sold.
The Application Act states that any income received goes directly to debt repayments, whereas the expenses of companies privatised remain the duty of the taxpayer. The troika (ECB, IMF and EC) will play a leading role in deciding who the buyers are and in setting the price through the creation of a Fund to manage all privatizations.
‘Technical assistance’ will be received, involving the placement of IMF officials in each ministry, in essence sidelining ministers and bypassing our democratic and independent sovereignty, transforming the state into something resembling a colony.
Increases in income and indirect taxation, imposition of a poll tax on all those with annual incomes above 12000 Euros, cuts in pensions and wages, stringent conditions to the right to unemployment benefits are just some of what’s included.
The package leads to a transformation that will impoverish the Greeks and seriously undermine national sovereignty. Amidst the growing pressure on MPs to outvote the Mid-term Austerity Plan, MPs supporting Papandreou dropped to a low of 154.
The entire ability of Papandreou to govern is hanging on the edge. The panic created edged the Prime Minister on to have a emergency meeting with the Head of State relighting the rumors of imminent elections, which faded briefly after the announcement of the desire to cooperate with the conservative New Democracy party and following stringent conditions, announced a cabinet reshuffle.
In the streets the blockade aimed to prevent the discussion of the austerity package in Parliament, brought thousands of protestors to more than 12 hours of nonstop fighting with the police who took every opportunity to squash the right to peaceful protest. Gassed like cockroaches, trampled over tents and down stairs, people suffocated and fainted whilst others persevered. This was the first day of overt violence which began with extensive use of tear gas, in a manner counter to all legal specifications of its use.
Contrary to most recent riots in Greece, where tear gas usually leaves just the few determined, the people proved that they will not give up their streets and the square to the police or to anyone else.
The people stayed and used all means necessary, drums and music, barricades, the make shift medical centre, speakers and microphone to keep the people in the square. And with success! Despite the efforts to evacuate the square, it was never fully achieved and the people remained.
In a spectacular image of a world gone mad, people danced traditional (partisan) songs in Syntagma square as tear gas and stun grenades, flaming barricades and police and protesters thrashed at one another for hours at the perimetre of the square and in the streets around.
Through the announcements on the microphone and on the spot initiatives taken by the people of the square, they showed their ability to peacefully keep the square and to not respond to the provocations of the police which simultaneously cancelled its validity.
Vote of Confidence
What followed the protests on June 15th was a desperate attempt to retain what little credibility was left in the government by announcing a lousy reshuffle to satisfy inner Party dissent and maintain the slim majority needed to pass the austerity package.
Papandreou proved his inability to handle the people’s reaction to the austerity package as people gathered in the tens of thousands to repeat their objective which is to not leave until the government, IMF and the debt are ousted.
The government announced the Vote of Confidence for Tuesday 21st June, which resulted with 155 in favour of the new government and 148 voting against. Completed after midnight, the people outside showed their vote of non confidence, expressing that no matter how many chairs they change and cabinet reshuffles they make they cannot solve the problem.
People gathered and shouted ‘Unwanted’ as the vote of each MP was announced through the microphone, humiliating and condemning each MP with betrayal and shame.
Never again can these people walk in the streets without the finger of shame and abuse. Scuffles with the police broke out after a classic provocation by the police of sending a riot squad into the crowd, bringing on the abuse and attack, ending with tear gas, relentless chasing and beating up of people standing at the front line with the police.
Meanwhile in Europe, officials toy with whether the austerity package is a precondition for the release of the next tranche of the bail out money, as they greeted the new Finance Minister, Evangles Venizelos.
48hour protest on the day the austerity package is voted in Parliament.
Subsequently a 48hr general strike - the first in Greece’s recent history is announced by the major unions to coincide with the parliamentary vote over the new austerity package. Hinging on its agreement were the next tranche of the bailout and the second bailout for Greece including the involvement of the private sector in debt rollovers. The significance of its failure in Parliament would be a second ‘Lehman brothers event’, contagion through Europe, markets tumbling and prompt Greek default. What followed during those days is well documented, having caught the interest of the international press from the US to Australia.
Two days of violence with a different quality to each day. Tuesday 28th, the plan was to tear gas the square from early morning to after midnight, with violence continuing also due to the role of violence seeking protestors. Wednesday 29th, a gathering much bigger than the previous day, the command to the police was clearly different, no mercy, combat fighting and the aim to evacuate the square. Its failure was proven by the fact that people gathered in surrounding streets consequently were chased kilometres through the city, only to hold mini people’s assemblies to reorganise and plan their march back to Syntagma, people insisted and persevered to not leave the centre. In the face of masses on the streets, the police are too few to handle the situation.
We witnessed 48 hrs of state terrorism on its grandest scale, with the unmerciful attack of the entire city, where we saw brutality unimagined, with the result of more than 500 people sent to hospital. The police revealed their brutality through indiscriminate beatings, through almost 3000 canisters of tear gas released just on Wednesday, including down into the metro station, in closed spaces and in the medical centre.
They revealed it through their cowboy chase on motorbikes, waving their batons in the air and their hitting people sat at restaurants and tourists eating ice cream, jumping off and throwing stun grenades and tear gas wherever more than a handful of people were gathered.
After a marathon battle of people dispersing but regathering it was obvious the police could not break the crowds. In the early hours of the morning people reoccupied Syntagma square and began the task of rebuilding everything that had been destroyed.
In response to the Vice President’s blackmail that either the austerity package gets voted, or he brings out the tanks, people chanted in the streets ‘Even if you bring the tanks and you bring the army, we are not leaving from here’.
The day after
The day after, June 30th, the sight was incredible, despite the previous day’s ‘war’, people gathered peacefully in the thousands again, where the police were shamed for their outrageous behaviour of the previous days.
Solidarity with the general strike struck a chord of unity, the metro workers kept the metro running so that people could come and leave, the medics on call and volunteers and the red cross doing the best they could whilst under attack, Greek prison inmates held anti-memorandum protests.
And now the wave of mass law suits against the police will arrive after hundreds of victims with swelled eyes, bruised legs, backs and arms demand justice. A resolution from the People’s Assembly in Syntagma voiced the following:
“every police officer bears personal responsibility for his/her stance and behaviour and he/she will suffer the consequences of his/her actions, as will the politicians that command him, that have delivered the country to foreign centres of power with loan agreements, memoranda and Medium Term Austerity Programs. It’s the last big opportunity for the Greek police and policemen and women, and we hope that many of them will act conscientiously and cross over to the side of the people.”
Having failed that, there will be no remorse ever again, as even the people who didn't witness it first hand, saw on mainstream TV the police’s agent provocateurs, dressed in black and carrying crowbars.
What will follow is unknown. As summer dawns and people seek some rest for the bitter winter ahead, what will become of the movement in the Squares?
Without a doubt it will continue, reaching much further than the corners of Syntagma square. For it is one thing to vote an austerity package and quite another to implement it.
The desire of people to self organise, to self educate and to dream of a more just, democratic world, the unflinching persistence to reclaim lost futures and exploited pasts is stronger now than ever.
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