Headlines suggest Europe is about to undergo a profound change,and Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s new Prime Minister, is the man responsible. I have been following Greece’s leftist anti-austerity party Syriza andit’s leader Tsipras, a young politician who ran on a platform of hope and anti-austerity,for some time now. A few weeks ago, Syriza won 149 seats out of a 300-seatparliament–two short of an absolute majority. Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodmanstated that this is the “first time since the economic crisis in 2009 that a member of the 19 nation Euro-Zone will be led by a party rejecting German-backed austerity.” It still remains uncertain if the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund–commonly referred to as the Troika and heavily financed by Germany–will budge and forgive part of Greece’s debt.
In his victory speech, Tsipras stated before a roaring crowd “Greece is turning a page. Greece is leaving behind catastrophic austerity. It is leaving behind the fear and the autocracy. It is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain…Today, there are no winners and losers. Today, Greece’s elite and Greece’s oligarchs were defeated…Our victory is also a victory for all the people of Europe who are fighting against austerity that is destroying our common European future.” Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders remarked “The Syriza victory in the Greek elections tell us people around the world will no longer accept austerity for working families while the rich continue to get richer.” The elation feels contagious but whether or not Syriza’s Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis can negotiate Greece out of austerity, remains unclear.
Malik Miah, editor of Against the Current, argues that “instead of increasing ‘business confidence’ and competitiveness, austerity has led to stagnation.” At the onslaught of Greece’s financial crisis, far-right neo-fascist (and often cited as neo-nazi) party Golden Dawn took hold of the moment and organized pop-up food pantrys bearing loaves of bread and other food as gifts bundled with anti-immigrant rhetoric blaming ethnic-minorities for the critical state of Greece’s post 2009 economy. Similarly, in the U.S., members of the far-right ultra-conservation (and often cited as racist) Tea Party cry for a slashing of social services from the nation’s budget while at the same time blaming “illegals” for stealing “their” jobs and supporting mass-deportation.
Austerity doesn’t distribute itself equally. It impacts minorities and working class folks at a magnitude much higher than other groups. For instance, “before the recession, non-Hispanic white families (in the U.S), on average, were about four times as wealthy as nonwhite families, according to the Urban Institute’s analysis of Federal Reserve data. By 2010, whites were about six times as wealthy” (2013 Miah). While Black folks wealth has been affected similarly, if not more extremely, Miah also adds that “the impact is worse for African Americans, who suffer racial discrimination and profiling — something working-class whites haven’t experienced.” Tispras says he has a plan for getting the Troika to back down on austerity but has yet to provide a clear cut plan for dealing with the violence inflicted upon immigrants and ethnic minorities that has amplified in recent years. Human Rights Watch recently provided some suggestions for the new government. Golden Dawn in televised interviews suggested “migrant scum” may be a bigger problem for Greece than the economy. Their racist propaganda created a fertile feeding ground urging anyone listening to redirect their fear and anger towards those perceived as other.
Greece was called-out during the summer of 2013 when the Human Rights Watch released a 52-page report titled Unwelcome Guests: Greek Police Abuses of Migrants in Athens which “documents frequent stops of people who appear to be foreigners, unjustified searches of their belongings, insults, and, in some cases, physical abuse. Many are detained for hours in police stations pending verification of their legal status.” Walid Omar, An Iraqi Kurd legal citizen, told The Guardian in an interview during the fall of 2012 that he was sitting in an internet café one day when a police officer entered and detained everyone who didn’t “look Greek” including his self.
Eighteen year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo was in Chicago last night for a game he played in against the Bulls. He is 6’10” and was recently drafted into the NBA by the Milwuakee Bucks. Up until that point, he lived in Athens where he was born and raised alongside his three brothers. In interviews, including this 10-minute mini-documentary from VICE, he is never asked what it was like growing up as a black man in Athens amindst the rise of hate crimes and raids on people who didn’t look Greek. Nikolaos Michaloliakos, Golden Dawn’s leader, described Antetokounmpo during a television interview as a “chimpanzee.” Greece’s basketball federation chastised the party’s leader and soon after Antetokounmpo was invited to meet with former Prime Minister Samaras. He congratulated the young athlete who was about to make a trans-Atlantic journey saying “I hope you drive them crazy with your slam dunks. All of Greece is so excited for you.“ Antetokounmpo is currently adjusting to life in the Midwest as he steadily improves his game. Golden Dawn, despite campaigning mostly from behind prison bars, still managed to place third receiving roughly 6% of the most recent election’s vote.
Austerity has had negative effects on the majority of people in Greece. BBC recently captured a story about a makeshift volunteer run pharmacy in Athens that collects donated unused pharmaceuticals from around the world and re-distributes them to people in need at no cost. Though when coupled with racism, the negative effects are compounded. In August of 2012, a 21 year-old Pakistani man was accused of attempting to murder and sexually assault a 15 year-old young tourist on the island of Paros. On the following day, he was transported in a police vehicle on a ferry sailing towards the mainland. This video captures the moment upon arrival at the port when a mob of Golden Dawn members and supporters ran into the ferry’s cargo area and smashed the windshield of the police vehicle before the it managed to escape the angry crowd. Not too long ago here in this country Black men’s fabricated threat to white women was one of the most widely used excuses by angry White mobs when they set off to harass, beat and lynch Black folks.
“While Blacks in the U.S. are 12% of the population, they are nearly 40% of state and federal prison populations. Not only does this lead to loss of voting rights in most states, it makes it nearly impossible to get hired once released. The private Prison Industrial Complex is growing across the country” (Miah). The Human Rights Watch report illuminated that within a year between 2012 and 2013, Greek police “forcibly took almost 85,000 foreigners to police stations to verify their immigration status. No more than 6 percent were found to be in Greece unlawfully.” Another report from August of last year cites approximately 13,000 immigrants and asylum seekers being detained in “squalid” facilities “with grossly insufficient sanitation” designed only to hold 9,000 people. Imagine living in an overcrowded, cold, moldy cage without plumbing. Now, acknowledge that there are corporations and people who actually profit from building, constructing and maintenance of these facilities. Capitalism can be a heartless bastard. On Valentines Day (Feb 14) Reuters reported that the new Government pledged to shut down the detention centers.
This month, the people of Greece overwhelmingly voted in support of leftist anti-austerity party formed amidst Greece’s street protests. Their leader Alexis Tsipras, a Communist Youth of Greece member while in high school who protested education reforms and Youth of the Coalition of the Left member while studying civil engineering in University, has sprinted to Greece’s highest position in record time. He is a fan of motorcycles and futbol and his partner “in life and social struggles”, whom he met in high school while organizing student protests together, entered into a civil partnership instead of a marriage and have two-children together. Tsipra’s makes it a priority to maintain what little privacy his family has by not using them as political props for votes. When he was sworn in as Prime Minister, he opted out of the traditional ceremony led by a Greek Orthodox priest and instead opted for it to be secular. Am I foolishly letting myself believe again in a politician’s campaign of hope?
Syriza has stated in the past that blaming immigrants and asylum seekers for the economy, and not austerity, was at best a distraction for the real cause of the increased struggle felt milions across Greece. After his well prepared victory speech, Tsipras proudly proclaimed that “hope has won” and said after five years of sadness it was finally time to dance! Pictures of crowds huddled together cheering, some in tears, as they heard the good news could be share a similar quality to some taken in Chicago’s Grant Park almost eight years ago.
In a few hours we’ll find out if the Troika accepts Greece’s proposed reforms in exchange for a 4-month loan extension. The letter from the finance minister is not the FU to austerity lots had hoped for. Instead, it’s a bargaining tool meant to give Greece some time to figure things out without having to bow to more cuts. The proposed budget mentions social justice more than once and states they will halt foreclosures and beef up support and welfare for those struggling the hardest. They plan on doing this by shrinking bureaucracy, closing loopholes and targeting the rich in an effort to force them to pay their fair share.
Today, Chicagoans will vote on whether or not mayor 1%, Rahm Emmanuel, will be forced into a run-off with progressive-reformist Chuy Garcia. It will be an impressive feat if Chuy can pull it off considering the millions upon millions Rahm has at his disposal. Yet, I’m not ready to be 100% jaded and cynical just yet. I know that we don’t have a real democracy. I also know that money and power corrupts and always wins and those fighting the power almost always end up murdered. But this is a classic underdog drama and I can’t look away. I can’t help but feel excited when someone stands up and fights back whether it’s in the streets of Chicago, Ferguson, Oakland, New York, Mexico City, Pretoria, Christchurch, Cairo, or some guy named Alexis Tsipras halfway around the world who is promising, with a fist in the air amidst hip graphic design, to fight for the people of the land where part of my ancestry lives tucked away in the mountains, sea and the blood soaked streets of Athens. At the same time, the other part of my ancestry, the people who’ve come from lands colonized by Europeans remind me that change never comes from the top–but always from the ground up.
Maybe my great-grandfather, killed during Greece’s civil war that broke out after the Nazi invasion, didn’t die in vain. Maybe, just maybe, protesters blood is nourishment for the roots of revolution.