The Greek Crisis: Tents on a Square

  • The “gypsy tents in Syntagma [Square, in front of the parliament] make for an unacceptable sight.”
  • “…what we have now is an image of lawlessness.”
  • “…find a solution to restore the image of the square”
  • “A peaceful demonstration is one [thing] and the camp on Syntagma that is killing the city is quite different.”

Following those quotes, you may be expecting to read something like: these are the statements I am hearing from people in the city. In fact, these are statements from Greeks in public leadership positions. Read again, with their names indicated:

  • The “gypsy tents in Syntagma make for an unacceptable sight.”
    – Justice Minister Miltiadis Papaioannou. According to Kathimerini, the same term, ‘gypsy tents,’ was used by Costas Aivaliotis, spokesman for the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). Source.
  • “…what we have now is an image of lawlessness.”
    – Dora Bakoyannis, leader of the Democratic Alliance party and former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Mayor of Athens from 2003 – 2006. Source.
  • “…find a solution to restore the image of the square”
    – The mayor’s office. Source.
  • “A peaceful demonstration is one and the camp on Syntagma that is killing the city is quite different.”
    – Justice Minister Papaioannou. Source.

There was quite a push to clear the tents off Syntagma Square in Athens in the last two weeks, and today, city authorities and the police finally removed them. This past Thursday, a prosecutor began an investigation to determine whether the demonstrators maintaining the tents and activities on Syntagma Square were breaking any laws.

I support a respectful use of public space and a concerted effort to promote tourism. However, the situation on the main public square in Athens and the remarks of political leaders at the local and national level raise different issues in my mind, and do not bring me to the conclusion that the priority in Athens is to clear the tents away.

Who determines the use of public space?

There is a great and historical significance to the public square.  We tend to think of public squares as a starting point for tourists: lovely areas with cafes, beautiful restored historic buildings, and monuments of historical and influential figures. Perhaps we sometimes forget that, around the world, they have been the settings for significant social and political developments, and not always positive ones. Some of our most inspiring but also our darkest moments as human beings have played out in public squares around the world, from revolutions to public executions. Yet some people are uncomfortable with having the country’s social, economic or political problems reflected on the main public square in the capital. What exactly is the reason why the demonstrators in tents on Syntagma should have a shorter timeline than the economic crisis that brought them to the square?

If other citizens want the protestors to move out because their use of the square is being prevented, this is an important matter to address. But this is not what is being said. Based on discussions with people here in Athens, and my own experience passing through the square nearly every day for the past three weeks, there is plenty of space to pass, the area is tidy, organized and peaceful, and no one walking through seems disturbed or obstructed. Every time I passed through the square in the evenings or at night, there were people of different ages there, engaged in discussions near the tents.

Syntagma the first week of July.

People cleaning the square. Mid-July.

This is extremely contrary to every sidewalk I have walked on in the city, where mopeds and motorcycles park and drive freely, and cars often park half or entirely on the sidewalk. Yet this is not the obstruction and lawlessness leaders are commenting on right now.

Further, the demonstrators have not thrown unwilling citizens and tourists into their effort to make their voices heard by political leaders, which cannot be said of, for example, taxi owners.  Taxi owners have been on strike for nearly two weeks, and part of their strike has included blocking access to roads, ports and airports.  They also went so far as to throw oil on a road to prevent vehicles from leaving the port of Piraeus. Rather than make a case for their position and invite supporters to join them, they simply interrupt services for citizens and tourists and hope this will somehow aid their cause.

To what extent can image divert attention from or completely hide reality?

It seems to me that clearing off every marble tile on the square is less of a concern in addressing the image of the city and the country than the issue of how the media is covering events in Greece and the absence of a strong, clear and consistent message from the mayor’s office or national leaders on what is happening and what they are doing to move forward. Who would we fool by removing the tents from Syntagma?  No one will see the closed, empty shops on every street? No one will encounter young people around the city during the day, who have no job to go to?  Tourists will not notice the increased amount of graffiti and visitors will not see that neighborhoods in central Athens are crumbling further from the condition they were in just a couple years ago? Or will no one see the children, often victims of criminal and trafficking rings, approaching them one after the other to beg while selling flowers or tissues or while playing the accordion?

Whose vision of tourism are we concerned with?

Let’s assume a clean Syntagma will shine so bright as to hide all of the above in a lovely hazy glow.  What is the comprehensive plan for tourism? Is a clean, quiet Syntagma Square the center of the plan?  I would think that making transportation efficient and clean, and developing the network of museums, archaeological sites and cultural activities would be some of the main concerns, particularly in the short-term. There are some disappointing blind spots in these areas.  Here are just a couple examples:

a)     I had to pass through one of the Athens bus terminals several times this summer to catch buses for other parts of Greece.  To get to the terminal, you need either a car/taxi or to switch from the metro to a city bus.  Once you are there, use the restrooms at your own risk (ladies, there are still squat toilets in use) and bring change to give to the woman at the door so that she hands you some toilet paper. There is also one giant chaos of people, buses and cars going wherever they please throughout the terminal, and a non-stop procession of people selling trinkets, tissues or directly begging for change. The train would be a nice alternative, given that the station is accessible by metro, but it still does not connect Athens to all the larger cities of northern Greece.

This is an issue of far greater concern to me than a peaceful walk across Syntagma Square.

b)    There is an issue relating to archaeological sites in Athens of which not many people are aware. In February, archaeologists discovered the Altar of the Twelve Gods during renovation work for the electric rail near Thiseio and Monastiraki.  The altar was an area of religious and political significance, and at one time was the central point from which distances were measured.

This week, the Council of State, the Supreme Administrative Court of Greece, ruled to allow the burying of the Altar so that the electric rail continues to run over it, despite a petition by a citizens’ initiative requesting that this action be suspended and that the government consider an alternative solution, such as constructing an underground line for the train.

It is disappointing that there has been no significant discussion on the part of the relevant authorities (Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Regional Authority of Athens, City of Athens) to consider a solution that would allow the site to be excavated and integrated into a network of sites highlighting ancient Athens, including the Acropolis, the Agora, Kerameikos and other ruins, or even a plan to revamp and better utilize the existing sites.

Public Speaking 101

Ultimately, this situation reveals that Greece’s leaders appear to have forgotten the importance of public speech.  Hard to believe, given Greece’s history, but painfully clear in the statements above.  It is something I have heard this summer from people of different ages, in different sectors and of different political views:  leaders are not speaking to the people in a way that acknowledges their struggles or gives them reason to believe that anyone in power is truly making an effort to make things better.

The People’s Assembly of Syntagma Square has continued to maintain its online forum (real-democracy.gr) and its system of selecting topics of discussion, and it says that the peaceful protests will pick up again in September. Leaders can ignore all of this, call them drug users and loose women, and suggest that the tents on Syntagma are one of the city’s biggest problems if they choose, but this approach only dismisses the real frustrations of the broader public, many of whom are really struggling.  There are European Union statistics that indicate this, if the message is not coming through from the Greek people themselves:

“Based on the most recent statistics available, Brussels calculates that 116 million people in the EU are at risk of poverty (they live in a household with a disposable income below 60 percent of the national median) or social exclusion. The 2008 figures show that more than 2.1 million Greeks fall within the “at risk of poverty” bracket.”
Source.

August is a quiet month in Greece.  The weather is hot; most people go on vacation.  Hopefully Greek leaders will take this time to think about the message they are sending to international and domestic audiences, and lay out a respectful and constructive communication strategy. And some would do well to consider the racism they express when using the word ‘gypsie’ as a derogatory adjective.

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