Written by Yavor Tarinski
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed,
but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.
In early March a group of motorized policemen reaches a public square in the Athenian neighborhood of Nea Smyrni. There they begin checking people whether they have done the proper procedures according to the government’s anti-pandemic measures. Soon after that, the policemen begin issuing fines to those who they deem to be outside of their homes in violation of the measures, which provokes non-violent disagreements among some of those gathered around. Enraged by the calm and reasonable arguments of a young man, some of the officers start hitting him mercilessly with iron batons (that are not part of Greece’s standard police equipment) all over his body, while he and all those around him beg them to stop. The whole incident is captured on video by many of the passersby.
This incident, coming after a long and painful series of other similar vicious acts of police brutality, is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The hard-right government of New Democracy has invested heavily, since it took office in 2019, in strengthening and untying the hands of the police. Characteristically, it has used the pandemic as a pretext to further advance its police-state agenda, while ignoring the demands of healthcare workers, unions, political organizations, and citizens for more essential measures directed towards contact-tracing, strengthening of the health system, and public transportation.
So, with the images of a young man being viciously beaten by police, for simply “daring” to argue with them, a huge wave of popular anger is unleashed – dissatisfaction with a dogmatic neoliberal handling of a pandemic that has targeted marginalized and poorer communities, human rights and liberties, but also, more generally, the leisure time of most people. And all of this while the ruling elite has cynically violated its own measures time after time and has used restrictions on gatherings in order to advance its authoritarian agenda.
This anger, however, was expressed in a different way from the traditional forms of protest, so typical for Greece. Instead of mass demonstrations in the city center, led by political parties, labor unions, and ideological organizations, citizens began gathering at public squares of their neighborhoods. Immediately after the incident, a massive demonstration took place in Nea Smyrni, where the police provoked riots but were forced to retreat and several officers were hospitalized by the enraged and enormous multitude. In the weekend that followed (13-14.03), gatherings took place in almost all of Athens’ neighborhoods, as well as in most major Greek cities.
It seems that the scenes of police thugs brutalizing people for simply being present in the public spaces of their neighborhoods have tweaked with certain genuinely civic instincts that were latent in Greek society. Their spontaneous response is a clear example of citizens striving to reclaim their cities away from the claws of a mindless, profit-oriented bureaucratic machinery and its repressive forces. It is a practical articulation of the right to the city, in the sense of people claiming control over the urban environment of which they and their everyday activities are an inseparable part.
Whether this energy will be used to reinvigorate the urban fabric with civic and democratic significations in order for our cities to stand a chance against the crawling bureaucratization of everyday life and the dogma of unlimited growth has everything to do with whether lasting forms of popular participation will be established, or will political parties and traditional groups succeed in exploiting these civic instincts for electoral benefits or to justify their ideological doctrines. It is an open question that is always present in such social movements and its outcome is dictated by our actions or inactions.
Below are photos from some of the gatherings that took place:
 Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (London: Vintage Books, 1997), pp37-38