Leiden Anthropology Blog

The Anger of Athens

The Anger of Athens Syntagma Square, Athens Demonstration. © Metje Postma

On July 15th, Metje Postma was caught up in the angry demonstration in Athens against Parliament’s impending vote to agree to Tsipras's deal with EU leaders. The protest got out of hand and was broken up by the police using tear gas.

The daily life of Greeks in crisis

For the past 10 days I have been staying in Athens to contribute to a summer school in Visual Ethnography at the Netherlands Institute in Athens (NIA), which is situated just under the Acropolis. The summer school is a cooperation between the University of Leiden and the NIA. The organiser is our former PhD student Tryfon Bampilis, who is responsible for the social sciences programmes organised in cooperation with universities in Greece and the Netherlands at the NIA.

It is surprising how life goes on despite the tense situation in the background. Tourists roam around the magnificent ruins and happily eat their ice creams. The students of the summer school go out into the streets of Athens and try to ‘capture’ the crisis in the daily life of the Greeks and of migrants by making 10-minute films. Every day we have discussions with Greeks – staff of the NIA, summer school participants, and people in the streets – to try to fathom what is going on.

Freedom and principles

All Greeks acknowledge that previous governments have made a mess of the economic situation and that they themselves are responsible for the debt. Yet they feel terribly humiliated by the attitude of the Northern European countries. There is rage and deep cynicism with regard to the conditions that were imposed to get the bail-out accepted and especially with regard to the rigid attitudes of Germany, but also the Netherlands, Finland, and the Baltic States. The sense that Greece is part of a large family whose members support each other is completely gone. Nevertheless, all Greeks I discuss the matter with (mostly intellectuals) agree there is no other way than to stay in the EU.

I myself am also deeply shocked to see the monster Europe has become, disregarding the sovereignty and democratic processes of the poorer nations. A country should be allowed the freedom to put the wellbeing of its citizens first. If such a right is denied to her from outside, there is something wrong with the basic principles of what Europe stands for.

In the midst of the protest

On 5 July I was there at Syntagma square at the celebration of the OXI vote, and now, this fateful Wednesday 15 July, I am at the square again. I arrive at 9 in the evening. There is a huge crowd, but otherwise all is quiet. However, when I try to leave the Metro station, I find the Syntagma square entrance closed. In the Parliament building all lights are on, some windows are open, letting in the warm evening air. The Parliament is voting to pass the laws that are the condition for the 'agreement' the European Union imposed.

I take some photos with my smartphone. My video camera is still in my bag. I sense anger all around me. Then I start to realise that the people in the square are mainly young and all dressed in black. Suddenly, in front of me, I see some men pulling on black masks. Minutes later, a whole cordon of at least 50 masked men in black run through the crowd in pairs, two behind each other, charging at the police. Petrol bombs explode at the foot of a luxurious hotel on the left side of Syntagma square, across from the Parliament building. Then they start throwing petrol bombs into the crowd, too. I am terrified of the fire. From being an outsider at a spectacle, I have now suddenly become involved.

Panick, tear gas, and humiliated anti-governmentalists

Everyone starts pushing and running. I am scared of what a panicking crowd can do. But that doesn't happen. Everyone here seems to be experienced and expecting this somehow. It was me who was naive. They all walk away quietly. Still in the square in front of the Parliament building, I find shelter behind a lantern and start taking out my video camera, but suddenly I am overwhelmed by tear gas and can no longer see. The gas is nauseating and burns my throat. I run along the square and start filming.

I’m not a good journalist. I wasn’t prepared for this, and I don't know what to film. The men and women in black scream at me not to film. I hold my camera down while I’m filming, but feel like an amateur. The images are disappointing, but at least the soundscape reflects some of the atmosphere.

The police push the crowd away from the square. More tear gas. Then those fleeing the police catch up with a large anti-government demonstration. People feel betrayed by Tsipras’s U-turn. They call the European leaders fascists and revert to the discourse of WWII atrocities. These protesters would rather go back to the drachma than be humiliated by the conditions imposed by Germany. In their eyes, the conditions are tantamount to the colonisation of the South by the North.


Syntagma Square, Athens Demonstration 15.07.2015 by Metje Postma

The sacred Zorba grape-vines

I walk with the crowd on the Avenue Warilisis Amalias; the demonstration is huge. I am shaken and want to leave the vast stream of people, which seems never-ending. I then cross the lines to the other side of the street. Street vendors are trying to rescue their wares. I turn my back on the crowd and wander through the unknown alleyways to find my way back to the Acropolis, at the foot of which, by this mountain of ancient Gods, stands the NIA.

Directly behind the main street, I find myself in another world. Tourists are dining, seated under romantic pergolas with grape-vines hanging down, listening to innocent Greek folk music; I faintly hear Zorba's music carried on the wind. This is how the surreal reality of Greece's future is played out: between the desperate need to protect the main source of income – the tourist industry – and the grim reality of a crowd angered by the lack of political ability to solve its economic problems and secure its future. 


#Freedom440

'Freedom' is the motto of our 440th anniversary celebrations. Scientists from the Leiden University highlight this issue from different disciplines. Read the blog posts from other scientists about this on our Leiden University Blog (some posts are in Dutch). Please share your thoughts or images on what freedom means to you on Twitter: #freedom440.

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