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February 24, 2012

This is citizenship in action!

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Written by: pdcadmin

By Maria Patsarika

October 27, 2011 may now seem as a distant instantané of the eurozone crisis. However, at that time, it was seen by many as a victorious day, after having agreed a deal that slashed the Greek debt to 50%. As with all such deals, however, this one, too, had winners and losers; the loser in this case was the Greek sovereignty, which was further undermined, since Germany demanded an ongoing supervision status over Greece. The day after, October 28, marked a national anniversary, that of October 28, 1940, with all Greek cities making preparations for the customary parade that celebrated the “OXI” anniversary against the Italian occupation threat during World War II (“ohi” = no).

It is cases like this, when past and present become entangled, as though in ironic conspiracy, that trigger public outrage in the face of the absurd, almost surreal, turns of history. In celebrating Greeks’ heroic resistance in 1940 to the Italian threat, we now witness and unwillingly surrender to a new form of subordination, this time simultaneously financial, political and national. To make things worse, the Greek government’s asthenic stance and imposition of a series of paralyzing austerity measures showed that we are subservient to our very own representative leadership. Greek people very often raised their voices in dismay and indignation at riots and demonstrations. October 28, however, allowed another, so far neglected, voice of outrage to surface – the voice of young people.

Student voice has always been a powerful means of resistance for Greek youngsters – for both serious and frivolous causes. On November 14, 1973, for example, Polytechnic students in Athens raised their antimilitarist voices against the junta of 1967-1974. They went on strike, barricaded themselves in the university and encouraged the people’s struggle against dictatorship, a courageous act which sparked off the demise of the military regime in Greece. On a lighter note, having been a student at Greek schools myself, I often recall in astonishment times when students would happily go on strike because the school restaurant did not provide bendy straws or round cheese pies (as opposed to square ones). Such examples and, above all, the universal disenchantment of young people with politics has led many to believe that the student movement has long now lost its gravitas.

And, yet, it is the same Greek students who went on demonstrations and joined the public at the recent upheaval. The consequences of the austerity measures did not leave them intact: the start of the academic year found many schools lacking books and teaching materials. Students’ placards displayed the same messages as those back in 1974, such as “ΨΩΜΙ – ΠΑΙΔΕΙΑ – ΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΙΑ” (= “BREAD – EDUCATION – FREEDOM”), thus making manifest the urging basic right of every young person to live, to learn, to be free. No mention of bendy straws this time. This was serious stuff. This was young people’s citizenship in action. However serious, their voices were lost amidst the overall hullabaloo. Once again, the media were busy with the grown-ups. That is until October 28.

As every year, Greek students were to march past officials and the Minister of Education. The day saw many Greeks gathering on the occasion of the parade, only to condemn once again the unprecedented lack of political vigor against the crisis. Despite the cries of disapproval and the slogans against the government, the students did march; only on their terms. In Athens, students wore black armbands and waved black kerchiefs, as in mourning, and raised their fists against the Minister of Education. Rather than turning their heads towards the direction of the officials out of respect to the authority, they turned their eyes away in disapproval. Many other Greek cities witnessed such unheard of developments. In Larissa, a student expressed his contempt by means of an open hand (a disrespectful, rude gesture), and was, therefore, threatened with expulsion from all schools in the area. In Polygyros, Halkidiki, a group of students marked time in front of the officials’ stand, turning their backs at them. In Rethymno, Crete, students turned their heads towards the disabled ex-servicemen, who were sitting opposite the officials’ stand, thus paying respect to the past while condemning the present state of affairs.

Students’ reactions, as well as all public demonstrations on the day, were denounced by the majority of officials, including the Greek President Karolos Papoulias, who walked away upset having been accused by demonstrators in Thessaloniki of being a “traitor.” Politicians wanted the day to have been celebrated as a day of tribute to those men and women who sacrificed their lives for the call of duty. Interestingly, however, the marching students and the public present did pay homage to the 1940 “OXI.” In Rethymno, for example, students greeted the ex-servicemen with respect; in Thessaloniki, where I witnessed the events myself, the parade took place in an orderly fashion as soon as all officials walked away. The “OXI” day was honored and people remained on the streets until the end. The parade is not a tribute to the present political leadership; it is a tribute to our forefathers and victims of war back in 1940. In this light, students’ acts of indignation were not a disrespectful gesture, but, rather, a righteous expression of their citizenship right, however unconventional that might have been.

It is in these terms that we should evaluate young people’s response to the current turmoil. In the absence of efficient platforms for political action – and let us not fool ourselves with youth parliaments and similar adult-founded and adult-led structures – students took advantage of the parade, acting perhaps with trickery and wit. Their tactic, however, was informed by a serious cause, and cannot be, therefore, seen merely as “play.” Instead of chastising them, we should perhaps learn from them and rethink our own manipulated politics: as the parade of 28 October was shaped by those taking part in it, that is the people themselves rather than the political leadership, so should be the future of Greece, i.e. defined and decided by those who experience hardship every day and fight against it – even by means of a raised fist and a symbolic black kerchief.






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