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Protest, Democracy and the Cradle Thereof

Jun 20, 2011

The Canadian contingent is arriving now in droves, half of them Québecois. Several of the US contingent are staying here in the same hotel. The French and the Scandinavians are arriving soon, as well. This evening, the trainers for all teams will be meeting to plan and share ideas.

It has been good to have a few days to settle, adjust to the time difference and to soak up the Greek reality with its protests and economic turmoil. My first morning here, I awoke to a noisy, if well-disciplined demonstration below my hotel balcony. It’s as if there are two Greeces here – one populated by those who insist, on questioning, that there is nothing wrong, that all is well; the other populated by young activists, who have been camped out in Syntagma Square, opposite the parliament buildings and a few blocks from the Acropolis, the temple to Zeus, Hadrian’s library and the Parthenon. The cradle of democracy, speaking the demodic offspring of the koine Greek we learned in seminary, the language of the ancient scriptures, with street names that recall other historical uprisings of the people.

Son of the one-time Toronto exile, George Papandreou is fighting for his political life. On Friday, he dissolved the current government, inaugurated a new one, fired his finance minister, having apparently found a willing replacement. Merkel and Sarkozy are at loggerheads, favouring different routes out of a situation that threatens the very health of the Euro zone. The European Bank, for its part, favours restricting of the Greek debt, a move meant to include a measure of pain for those responsible for la chaos grecque.

In conversations during the course of my perambulations over the last few days, people in the finer parts of town, the Plaka, the heart of ancient Athens, have often turned the conversation from a crisis of the Euro to a crisis of immigration. The racism is palpable in the timber of voices telling me the tricks ‘they’ use to get here and stay here. There is indeed a presence of beggars and street vendors here that is reminiscent of no other European city I have seen. Many of the latter are black but the former appear to be Greek, shooed away with equal ferocity by shop owners and restaurateurs. Some are flogging whatever they can; some are merely sitting, their disability or deformity, burns or amputations displayed in hopes of pity and coin. Some are busking, playing battered dulcimers or bouzoukis.

The heart of the protests, now weeks old, is at Syntagma Square, where most of the photos we have seen in the press have been taken. It has become a tent city of plastic and bright cloth, banners and micro-enterprise. People are eating, playing games, repairing tents, shopping at the little stalls that have been set up to provide food and souvenirs. Signs inform both the residents and the curious that tai chi takes place at 1100, meditation at noon, yoga at 1500h. A radio station has been set up where a woman of Roma features and dress leans over an old-fashioned looking microphone, against a background of banners of solidarity in French – Bienvenue à Paris 1968 – and Spanish – ¡Venceremos! The banners are extravagant and hopeful in their artwork and language; others are sharp-edged, filled with angry expletives against the EU, Papandreou, the United States. Welcome to the building of an alternative community! Fuck the United StatesI Fuck the EU! I have a dream. Papandreou is a traitor! `Employee of the Year` under a photo of Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein – the variety of messages reflecting the diversity of people here, their anger, their interests, their motivations, their fear.

There’s nothing wrong here, a shopkeeper in the Plaka tells us this morning. The ever-flowing spigot of tourism euros cannot be threatened; the troubles must be denied. In the background, the television continues the constant play of parliamentary cut and thrust. We make our way back to the hotel along streets alternating starkly between the likes of Salvatore Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton and Zara – and blocks of boarded-up, garbage-strewn and grafittied metal fronts, pulled down some weeks, months or years ago in some measure of despair. A man sits on the street a few blocks from our destination, conducting surgery on himself with a knife, a set of pliers, wire, string and a bottle of something yellow. The object of his attention, his right leg, is blue-black in colour, with two large, red, open-flesh wounds. I stop, ask myself useless questions without answers about Greek health care, wonder what I can do without a car without the language without a tool in my toolbox. A greeting of any sort seems an intrusion in his painful task and I carry on.

The midday heat is reaching the low-thirties and the newly-arrived Canadians are resting. Boats are headed this way. The Canadian boat will include film-maker John Greyson, Jim Rankin of the Toronto Star, Alexandre something from Radio Canada, a Pravda (or whatever its successor is called) television crew and Amira Hass of Ha’aretz. Amira joined the Canadian boat with the last minute decision by the Turkish Mavi Marmura contingent to stay home – under pressure from Israel and the newly-re-elected President Erdogan. Novelist Alice Walker will be on the US boat. A letter of support from four notable women, Nobel peace prize laureates – Mairead MacGuire, Roberta Menchú, Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi has helped to raise the profile for the expedition. The Canadians leaving from Pearson yesterday gave several interviews to the Star, CBC, CTV, Metroland and the Sun. The National Post has already expressed its views, it would seem. Other boats are coming this way from Stockholm and Marseilles.

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