Vive La Liberté

A week ago, I offered what may have seemed a rather romantic account of the still ongoing (if more sporadic) riots in Greece. I suggested that there was something noble and inspiring in such emphatic public expressions of outrage over the apparently unjustified police killing of a 15 or 16 year old boy (reports of his age have varied). It bears noting that the two police officers involved in the shooting are both in jail, one charged with homicide and the other of being an accomplice to murder. But what was clear at the time, and has grown clearer almost by the day, is that the killing of Alexandros (“Alexi”) Grigoropulos has come to symbolize something much larger, and not only in Greece.

One helpful analogy for a North American audience perplexed by these developments might be to connect them to the riots unleashed by the release of a videotape depicting several Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King, then the still more intense rioting that followed the initial acquittal of those involved in that incident. Clearly, the King case came to symbolize something of far greater moment: namely, the as-yet unresolved linkage of race and class—and violence—in contemporary US society.

Similarly, the case of Alexi Grigoropoulos has come to symbolize the plight of a curious and unsung “generation,” constituted by young people roughly between the ages of 15 and 25. In Greece itself, they are known as the “Generation of 700,” referring to the unliveable seven hundred euro-a-month minimum wage. In Spain, a country where this age group’s unemployment rate hovers near 30%, they are called “mileuristas,” referring to its thousand-euro-a-month base line. Similar warnings about the plight of this increasingly marginalized age-group have been voiced in countries as diverse as Turkey and Great Britain, warnings about the renewed radicalism of college-age and near-college-age youth, persons who understandably feel that their educational system is failing to prepare them for the uncertain economic times that have befallen us.

What has happened in Greece since the killing of Alexi Grigoropoulos in the Exarchia neighborhood on December 6th has been complex, and very hard to keep up with. Events have moved very far, very fast. What has been reported less prominently than the dramatic scenes of street conflict between student protestors and MAT (the Greek riot police) is arguably the more significant matter. We have witnessed a general workers strike involving something close to 80 percent of the Greek work force. We have witnessed a hunger strike throughout the Greek prison system. We have witnessed a manifesto of sorts published by Greece’s leading poets. We have witnessed anarchist banners draped on the Athenian Akropolis. And we have witnessed student occupation of many schools that calls 1968 to mind, for those with a longer historical view.

Nicolas Sarkozy of France has that view, necessarily, as leader of a country where taking to the streets can sometimes seem like a national past-time. But to view it this way is to trivialize the issues that lead to public restiveness as well as the possibility of such symbolic and ritual activities exploding into something far more dangerous and less controllable. Sarkozy knows this, and he understands the deep age-and-class divides that animate the current animus, in Greece and elsewhere.

“Look at what is going in Greece,” he warned ruefully, shortly after things began. “The French like it when I’m in a carriage with Carla, but at the same time they’ve guillotined a king.”

This connection, between Paris in 1798, Paris in 1968, and Athens in 2008 is an instructive one. It may help to explain the latest firebombing of the French Institute in Athens on Friday. The graffiti left by the youth who did it, written in French, makes it “Spark in Athens, fire in Paris. Insurrection is coming,” read one. “France, Greece, uprising everywhere,” read another.

Now, in one way, European students may bear the marks of these memories, the violent legacy of activism and protest, more than their American counterparts. Such memory may help to illuminate the symbolic value of current events in Athens, which are actually crucial to understanding what is happening there. The Exarchia neighborhood in Athens (laughingly dubbed “Anarchia” when I lived there) is a poor workers quarter, long home to the national communist, or workers, party. It is also right around the corner from the Polytechnic, the symbolic center of previous violent student protests. Indeed, it was the military junta’s decision to storm the gates of the Polytechnic, and the shocking killing of students that followed, that brought down the regime of “the Colonels” in 1974. Exarchia had also been the scene of intense street-fighting against the Germans in the early 1940s, against the British who insisted on disarming the leftist guerillas after “liberating” the city in 1945, and during the tortured years of civil war between 1946 and 1949, events destined to make Greece the front line in the Cold War under the aegis of the Truman Doctrine.

So it is that unjust state violence directed against a student in Exarchia quickly spilled over to the Polytechnic, then throughout Greece. To write this off as the rabble-rousing activity of people who are unemployed, or students on vacation, and therefore who have the time for this sort of thing, underestimates the importance (and longevity) of what is taking place. These students, and their sympathizers, have made time for this.

A more dismissive reading of events also ignores what Sarkozy understands well: the potential for this kind of violent activism, among these sorts of people, to spread. The youth of Greece are giving powerful voice to the failure of the government to serve the people. They are objecting to the violation of civil liberties, to the surveillance-and-incarceration society in which they live, to all the graft and corruption, to the indecency of their increasing inability to secure a living.

What they have expressed quite well, and what their elders who are listening have understood, is the linkage of several cultural fronts: the war on terror; the domestic suspension of civil liberties it has so often entailed; the staggering failure of conservative governments to pay their bills, in the name of “tax reform” whose real purpose seems to be the continual reduction of government spending and government services; the sudden and shocking revelation of the most corrupt aspects of corporate culture, worldwide. It is the college and soon-to-be college student who will be heir to these problems, problems which they now understand to be pieces of a larger and more systemic problem. As in 1968, students are giving voice to and for “the people,” and they explicitly link their affirmation of fundamental rights, equality, and simple human dignity to the rhetoric of the French Revolution.

This may prove to be far more relevant to the current collegiate environment in the United States than many of us who are educators have yet understood. A college education is no guarantee of anything in the current economic crisis, especially in the increasingly panicked cut-and-run culture of corporate America. The war, the economy, the failure of the state to provide certain educational and medical guarantees… these are of a piece, as well. Taken together, they speak not just to the uncertainty, but to the near inevitability, of the new youth generation (let’s called them the 655 generation, referring to the US federal minimum wage of $6.55 per hour) taking to the streets.

The revolutionary movements of 1798 and 1968 were aggressively secular in their appeal. This fact too bears further reflection. For the most visible student activism, and the most publicover the past 25 years has been religious, and it has been oriented, by and large, to the right. There is evidence to suggest that this too is changing, in the post-Bush era.

The widespread and renewed involvement of left-leaning college students in the last presidential campaign was notable for its thoughtfulness. Youth activists on the right and the left in the recent election cycle were far less concerned with the predictable array of culture-conservative issues that have a distinctly religious valence (abortion, same-sex sexuality, marriage mandates) than they were with the new Bermuda Triangle: the War, the Economy, the Environment. We should not underestimate the intelligence, nor the moral passion of the young. They get that something is happening, something that illuminates a sickness in the system that simplistic reforms or multi-trillion dollar bailouts will not touch. While one hesitates to wish student protests, or riots, or civil unrest, on any society, we would do well to listen carefully to what this generation is saying about the critical need for profound changes in flagging democracies around the world.

“Yes, we can.” And we will, very soon.

Shakespeare scholars and directors debate how old Hamlet must have been, or should be. Imagine him younger than 25, in this generation, on the streets in Athens. For Hamlet’s message was incisive and very clear: All is not well in this state. For the elders have, through their own shameless dealings, turned the place into a prison. The times are out of joint, and it may yet take violent acts of cursed spite to set them right.

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