Syntagma, summer 2011: Tear gas and distrust of the media
I can’t forget the day in 2011 riot police fired 1,000 rounds of CS gas into Syntagma. I started at the top of the square, where the nationalists told me to get lost because I was “Zionist Media.” When I asked, “Don’t you want me to tell your story?” they replied, “It’s too late for that.” And it was only June 2011.
As the fighting intensified I tried to interview a man, face caked in Maalox; I could hardly breathe but he seemed used to it. Like almost every other person I met he was a small businessman, his business ruined by high taxes and the worst man-made slump in history.
I walked along Stadiou Street trying to make sense of it all, but the closer to Omonia I got, the more the poverty and closed shops and the graffiti and the homeless people made sense of it for me.
We were staying on the edge of Exarchia – in TV the tradition is you edit the video in the hotel room of the cameraperson. We did this for two hours, ignoring the clashes going on outside our balcony. When we’d finished cutting the piece I went to my own room to get my jacket – but I’d left the windows open, and tear gas and smoke from bonfires rises. The gas was so thick in my room that I had to crawl to the wardrobe.
Half an hour later I was live on air and commented that, unlike many of the anti-austerity protests in other countries, this seemed to represent people from the whole of society. Jeremy Paxman, the presenter, famously then retorted, “Come off it!”
He was right – if anything, it was the 2012 protest, on the day of the second memorandum, when the protest movement reached deepest into Greek society.
By 2012, amid the same kind of gas but a year wearier, it was becoming hard for cameras even to appear in the Syntagma crowd, because of the level of spontaneous hostility and in some cases targeting.
My producer, blond-haired Irish guy, got attacked because he looked German. But in the midst of it someone came up to us and said: “We’ve noticed that despite the hostility you keep coming back. Why?”
The answer to that question is much clearer now than it was then. Greece became the guinea pig for an experiment in cruelty, carried out by people who didn’t want to know the results. It was left to the media, for all its faults, to record them.
Paul Mason is a writer and broadcaster on economics and social justice.