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… “We’re talking about people’s lives!”
I have been wanting to write, since reading of it, about the deaths in Athens. And unhealthily (because of such recursion is our society enmeshed), I have been wanting to write about the reactions to the deaths. What I would write would be reactionary, and vindictive, and uninformed. I don’t particularly want to say I’m not entitled to my own opinions about what happened, or that I cannot identify with class struggle because I am, after all, the class enemy. But the dead deserve more respect than that, and better reasoning than I can come up with on the other side of the planet. It is as offensive to make them a departure point for my sloganeering, as it is for the parties that I took offence to.
Instead, I wanted to post what someone else has said: someone who has a stake in the country, and the protest march, and the struggle on the streets of Athens. Someone whose response—I admit it—I could make sense of, but would still challenge my complacent notions.
The following article by Stratis Bournazos, which I am translating with permission, appeared in the Sunday issue of Avgi [Dawn], the newspaper affiliated with the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), on May 9, and is republished in the column’s blog.
“What is a diamond worth
when people’s souls are coal.
Once you’re in Dante’s Hell,
there’s no way back to Earth.”
It’s Wednesday night, and I’m listening to the Winter Swimmers (Χειμερινοί Κολυμβητές). They wrote that piece for another reason and another time, but I’m thinking: what are words worth, when three people have burned? So our souls don’t turn to coal as well: that’s what they’re worth. That’s why I’m writing this, with an unbearable sense of burden. For the dead. But also, and mainly, for us.
A lot happened on Wednesday, a whole lot. We could say even more. On the huge crowd that deluged Athens. On the rage. On the savage joy. On people’s laughter. On the gas that choked us. On the crowd surging, shouting “burn the whorehouse, burn the Parliament” (a harbinger of an uprising? or the prelude to a dangerous backlash against representative government?) On the fluidity of things. On how we got from the sadness of the First of May to the enthusiasm of Wednesday. On that, and a lot more. Until we learned of the dead. From that moment, nothing is the same. For all of us, the three dead have haunted our day. Their names: Paraskevi Zoulia. Angeliki Papathanasopoulou. Epaminondas Tsakalis.
It is a horror that three people found such a death. Because it was no accident, it was the result of a process of blind violence, of a conscious indifference for human life. It was going to happen. It was almost predictable—just as it is predictable that we will in the future mourn deaths from the indiscriminate use of tear gas. In protest marches for the past few years, a certain party has exalted and exercised violence for violence’s sake—sometimes to the protesters’ reproof, sometimes with the protesters standing aside. They have done so without caring whether there are people in danger—inside, next door, upstairs, further down.
So for the first time in our entire recent history, people have died in a demonstration not because of State violence (the case of the K. Marousis store in 1991 remains controversial), but because of anti-State violence, because of the actions of people who took part in the march, who were part of it in a way—however marginal, and who acted in its name. The Molotov cocktails and fires had a pretext: they were an act of protestation, an act of anti-State, anti-capitalist, anti-government violence. We can disagree with them, but how can we deny it?
A little after the news was confirmed, various items started circulating. That the bank had no emergency exit. That there was no fire security. That the employers forced the workers not to strike. That the door was locked. Even if all that is completely true, it is politically and morally shameful to resort to it as an alibi, to claim that Vgenopoulos [the bank owner] is ultimately at fault, or to adopt the statements of Rizospastis [the Communist newspaper], enraging in their ridiculousness, that “the three employees were killed by the urban class, whatever sheepskin their instruments may have been disguised with.” Let our judgement not be clouded: this time the ongoing scandal of employer irresponsibility is not what matters. It wasn’t a lightning bolt or a cigarette butt that started the fire.
Thousands of stores throughout Greece lack fire security and emergency exits. It’s illegal, and it’s terribly wrong. But if it was the riot police that had thrown tear gas into one of them, or the Golden Dawn [neo-fascists] had thrown in an incendiary device, and we were now mourning the dead—would we be blaming the lack of emergency safeguards then? We should not trample on our common sense or our decency.
And as for the other opinion heard—that the bank should have shut down beforehand because it was a “target”: public opinion can say that, but we don’t get to say it. We, who have been shouting “To the street, to the street, break the terror of the State”—we don’t get to say that stores should close down, barricade, become impregnable forts, or else they will turn into deathtraps. We certainly don’t get to blame the owners responsible, because they failed to regard the protest march like an earthquake, a hurricane, a looming storm, a mortal peril. If we think like that, we have fully capitulated to a perversion of the meaning of protest: we have yielded to the dominion of fear and terror.
We left-wingers of all shades, anti-government, anarchist, libertarians, we are all struggling for social emancipation, for the spread of freedom, against the capitalist barbarism which crushes peoples’ lives and dreams, against the exploitation of people by people. Aren’t we? So what do our values have in common with the fetishisation of violence, violence which is raised to an utmost and unitary goal in itself, and—most terrifying of all—has contempt for human life? In dismissing human life, there is no emancipation: there is no service done to the struggle for freedom, justice, and a better life. We cannot but stand face to face against this, making no excuses.
We. I’m talking about us. Each of us, wherever we have staked our ground. Representatives of the government and the establishment can see the dead as an opportunity to get out an awkward spot. Investors can fear for the consequences in tourism. Scholars and scientists have to analyse the sociological, psychological, and other causes of the phenomenon. But the question is, what do we do. All of us, who have protested worker “accidents”, army suicides, the attack against Kouneva, the violence of the riot police, the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, the deaths of immigrants, and so much else, all with the common theme of defending human life and dignity: we don’t get to forget the three dead, or offload the blame anywhere we can, as quickly as we can—on Vgenopoulos, on the State, on “agents provocateurs”. We don’t get to speak cynically of collateral damage, and we don’t get to tally them up against the other dead. And that is nothing to do with bourgeois niceties: it touches on the core of our stance, in politics and in values. After all, what were we shouting in the march on Wednesday? “You’re talking about market dives, we’re talking about people’s lives!”
If we have a sense of how tragic what happened was, if we feel contrition, if we allow ourselves to mourn without looking to drown our sorrow in a sea of analyses and excuses—that would be a start. Even if it is belated, because many of us—and I include myself—should have thought of all this much earlier. Even now, we must convert this tragic experience into both individual and collective thought; each of us must acknowledge their responsibilities, different though they may be. We must try to understand. We must speak with honour. We must stand up where we ought to, morally and politically. Without trying to deceive the Others—or above all, ourselves.
PS: of the many texts circulating online, I’d like to refer readers to two: Kostas Svolis’ (indy.gr/analysis/tria-fantasmata-planioyntai-pano-apo-to-kinima), and Radical Desire’s (radicaldesire.blogspot.com/2010/05/greques-encore-un-effort-si-vous-voulez.html).