City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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08
Nov2012

The Urban Memory of the Memorandum

The Urban Memory of the Memorandum image by Ross Domoney

Etymologically, the word memorandum shares the same root with memory. It stands for a note or record outlining what should be remembered. But as anthropologists of memory know well, stating what things one should remember simultaneously implies what things are not worth remembering. For example, the phrase “public expenses for health care should be cut, because we have to rationalise the system”, additionally (if mutedly) “states” that people will die because they will no longer afford the medical treatment necessary for their condition.

The so-called third memorandum of understanding between the Greek government and the ‘troika’ of the IMF/EU/ECB was voted as a state law by the Greek parliament, by a thin majority, on November 7th, 2012. The first memorandum accompanied the first loan installment, in May 2010. This latest memorandum was presented as a prerequisite for yet another loan installment and brings along yet another austerity measures package. Let me outline some examples of these:

  • First, the further privatisation of medical treatment. This includes setting an even higher tag for hospital admission — from now on, any patient admitted to hospital will be obliged to pay up a flat fee of 25 euro even before getting started with their treatment. In a country with approximately 30% unemployment, this obviously means that thousands of people will no longer afford health care. The Union of Hospital Doctors labelled these new measures concerning public health “the gravestone of public health in Greece”.
  • Second, the new austerity measures include the forced redundancies of thousands of civil servants,  and some further decrease in salaries, pensions and benefits — targeting disability benefits in particular.
  • The new measures also include an increase in the retirement age for civil servants, which is going up to 67 years. Last but not least, they include a retrospective (and therefore unconstitutional) change in the national agreement of labour. In a rare move, this last measure was challenged by the scientific committee of the parliament itself as it, too, is unconstitutional.

 


The second memorandum of agreement, which had led to the implementing of similar measures, was signed in the summer 2011 — again in exchange for another loan instalment. But neither of the three memoranda were signed by politicians in parliament alone. They were also signed with blood, on the streets of Athens. The vast majority of the austerity packages brought upon Greek society since May 2010 have also been signed with blood in the streets: One of the most recent violent outbursts of such took place on 12th of February 2012, when Athens was in flames again yet another of the myriad austerity packages. Throughout the night, over forty buildings were set alight in the city centre. Clashes took place between forces of the police and people of some widely diverse social background, united by their participation in the anti-austerity demonstration of the day. Already from early afternoon, police had stood waiting for known activists outside their dwellings, detaining them much before they would reach the rally point. A couple of hours later, the police persistently attacked several hundreds who had tried to march from the occupied Athens Law School to Syntagma Piazza to join the main protest rally. Approximately one hour later, at about 5 pm (the time that the rally was scheduled to begin), police started attacking the first few thousands who had already reached Syntagma Piazza. And so, as this early crowd was being pushed away, many more who were on their way to the rally joined in with it in the surrounding streets, having being violently prevented by the police from reaching Syntagma. A short moment later, wide-spread clashes and rioting started occurring all over.


That Sunday night, the Greek parliament had been discussing the latest austerity package at the time. That particular package brought — among other things — minimum wage for full-time employment down to approximately 500 Euro per month. The document outlining the austerity measures, approximately 600-pages long, was passed on to MPs by the government with a 24-hour notice — along with a recommendation to conclude parliamentary “debate” and its voting before Monday morning, when the stock-markets would re-open. Some of those documents were not even translated into Greek but remained in English instead, since they were forwarded directly by the loan-offering institutes (IMF, EU and ECB). At the exact same moment when intense street-fighting was breaking out in the Streets of Athens, the vast majority of Greek MPs (199 out of a 300 total) obeyed and voted for the new package.

What happened in the streets of Athens that February night bore resemblance (to greater or lesser extent) to some of the general strike marches the country had witnessed since the government signed the original loan agreement with IMF/EU/ECB troika; for example, the general strike of May 5, 2010 or the general strikes at the time of the Syntagma Piazza Movement (June 15 and 28-29, 2011). This idea of resemblance between these events was reproduced – from a rather different perspective – by many corporate and government-friendly media, who talked about the centre of Athens  “burning once again”. Simply enough, the implication here was that all ‘public disorder’ situations are invariably instigated by the same, marginalised usual suspects. And yet, as noted already by many of the people involved in Athens’ street politics,  resemblance between the events of February 2012 and their preceding ones was phenotypical alone — based on aesthetic similarities and upon the common location of these events:  Athens’ city centre. In other words, the spread of protests, clashes and fires across central Athens all signal a social diffusion of these images and tactics across popular imagination and praxis. As time passes by, however, the context of these actions changes rapidly — what with sky-rocketing poverty and the collapse of the welfare state hitting the majority of the country’s population. What is more, both the numbers and the social and political diversity of the people hitting the streets is now swelling, as does the numbers of those having violent encounters with the police. And so, as previous political configurations collapse under the weight of the crisis, their pre-existing practices and discourses are picked up by new social actors, triggering new events in return.

A number of questions therefore emerge out of these observations. First comes a question about the ways in which the social and spatial-material agents involved in the latest events might "remember" previous instances of protest and police repression in the city. Second, how this memory dialectic might play out on the street level. Third, a question on why the government (both in its core and its wider plexus) appears to push for a radical altering of the demonstrations route in central Athens (currently centred around Panepistimiou Avenue, which is allegedly planned to be pedestrianised). Last by not least, why might the government coalition have chosen, after a whole thirty years, to eradicate the so-called "academic asylum" (namely, the law which had been banning police from entering university premises in the name of academic freedom and democracy). What might this ban mean, given that central university campuses in Athens comprised a major focal point for protests, and continue to do so?

 by Dimitris Dalakoglou

 

 

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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...