Sunday, December 21, 2008

Greek Fire

A little fixated this week.

I can’t stop going back to these images. They aren’t the greatest photos ever taken. Some are pretty damn good, but it is content over composition, connection over color that devastates me. I just keep going back. I keep shaking my head and finding myself at a loss for words. I scroll down to the mannequins on fire, or the yelling-man’s face, or the boy offering the flower to the cop, or the fist dripping blood, and I wonder how big a sin it is to sit on the couch and listen to the ticking of the clock.

When I first saw these pictures, my immediate impulse was to quit my job. I wanted to sell everything that I own except my camera and laptop and get over there now. Go to Greece. Be there. Experience it, and capture it. This is real life. This is one of those moments that defines history.

Because, in a way Greece’s history defined riot and rebellion.

Where else in ancient times were argument and dissent glorified rather than squelched? Who first applied democracy on a grand scale? Greece: where science and reason replaced religious authority as the foundation of knowledge. And even before that—before Percales and Socrates—Greece was the place where you go to war for ten years over one woman, where you are admired more for your craftiness than your virtue, where the gods were noted more for their faults than their feats, where Prometheus would rather push a boulder up a hill until the end of time than tell Zeus he was sorry.

Later a Macedonian named Alexander would take this attitude to the rest of the known world, and Rome would establish Greek culture as the West’s most foundational influence for the next 2000 years.

No, it wouldn’t be the first time Greece made history with a good fight.

Writers and historians love to trace social disturbances, be they riots, revolutions, or world wars, back to some single act of violence: a lone bullet, the spark that set off the powder keg. The Boston Massacre, catalyst of the American Revolution, started when a British Soldier struck a boy on the side of the head with his musket. World War One was triggered by a gunshot assassination. A single drunk driving arrest sparked the Watts riots. These are the shots heard round the world. Tiny butterfly wing things unmasking society’s towering jenga-like structure. When the right lynchpins are yanked, down she comes.

In Greece, December 6th’s lynchpin was 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, shot dead by police officers in a ghetto-esque district of Athens. It has not been determined whether or not the killing was intentional. Defense attorneys claim that the officer fired warning shots, one of which ricocheted into the boy’s heart. Early forensics reports seemed to agree, but the latest analysis suggests that the bullet entered his body directly.

Murder or accident, the angry demonstrations began within minutes of the shooting, resulting in violent confrontations with police. By Sunday many of the demonstrations had turned to riots. Two weeks later the outbreak continues, resulting in dozens of protests throughout Greece, while demonstrations of solidarity spread across the continent from Spain to Moscow. And yet all this energy is not really about Alexandros Grigoropoulos. He was only the trigger to a chain of explosives set by high unemployment rates, a Greek economy in Catch-22, and the weakness of a corrupt government desperately clinging to power. It is a familiar feeling to hear people speak of the majority of Greece’s wealth in the hands of a tiny minority. Is this the economic fate of all democracy—hidden oligarchies?

I was not surprised to discover that Greece’s recent past has been shaped in part by student uprising. Post-WWII. Like so many other small nations Greece was caught up in the Cold War between the US and the USSR. In 1974 the US-backed Junta was overthrown, due in part to the aggressive protests of students. The rebellious student activity took place in the Polytechnic University in Athens, and though military tanks and soldiers eventually put down the rebellion, the students’ impact on the social consciousness dealt a crippling blow to the Junta. Since then protests and activism have been placed in a position of high political esteem. It is now conventional for the police to stay out of the Polytechnic campus, allowing students the luxury to plot their demonstrations, and to regroup and rearm. In short, protest is all part of the process in Greece. I don’t know about you, but this makes me a little jealous, living in a country that is supposed to be grounded in dissent, but too often reclines to disillusion.

For the record, I never grew up around riots of any kind. I didn’t go to the WTO protests in Seattle. I didn’t even make it to the tense arrival of the Hells Angels in Missoula, an event that brought out cops in riot gear, possibly for the first time in Montana history. I’ve never been beaten or tear gassed or arrested. So I have no experience, and I’m a little self-conscious writing about it, for fear that in my ignorance I will over-glorify something that doesn’t deserve the glory. But something about my American heritage has given me a permanent hard-on for revolutions, uprisings, and people coming together to get shit done. I know all about the tyranny of the masses and the irrationality of mob mentality. I know that most police are out there because they love their community and want to keep it safe. Both sides are doing what they feel is right, and if there’s any real enemy he is probably cowering behind locked gates. Like wars, riots and revolutions are often leverage mechanisms for a power-hungry few. But when an uprising is spontaneous (and it’s hard to know when it is), for good or ill, it is the realest of the real. If we could figure out how to extract the passion from the violence, we’d be better off. Until then I can’t help feeling that fighting back is always better than lying down and taking it.

For weeks the fires of Greece have merely simmered on the horizon of America’s consciousness. In the shadow of world economic tremors, the Mumbai attacks, and the first black President, maybe the flames of Athens aren’t very interesting. Or maybe nobody feels like wondering aloud whether these riots are a harbinger of things to come. We get occasional headlines, and images like these, but most of us have no idea what civil unrest is really all about. We’re a far cry from the protests of the 1960’s and the rebellions of the 1760’s. Wherever Greece ends up in the next few months may greatly impact what the rest of the world feels capable of. There is an awareness of the need for some sort of revolution, peaceful or otherwise. There is a general consensus that these economic problems are a result of a deficiency in the system, and that system needs a rapid overhaul. I’m not saying the consensus is entirely conscious, but when you have the President of the United States saying things like: “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system”, you can see how the cracks are starting to show.

I try to imagine what an uprising would look like in this country. Some days it feels like we’ve outgrown them; other days they feel a hair’s breadth away. I see hundreds of houses mashed together, apartments filled with humans and all their weird-ass stories and vibrating emotions. What social configuration might set the stage for the flinging open of these doors in the middle of the night? What lynchpin would pour strangers into the streets to release their pent up frustrations, to get out and burn, tear down, and destroy—to decide today is the day to do something about it.

Often the catalyst is an abuse of authority. The police bullying instead of protecting, a government corrupt and self-serving. When it goes on unchecked, what else do you expect to happen? Over the past couple months my own neighborhood has seen several incidents of police violence against homeless youth. In Golden Gate Park, a kid named Ashtray was sitting down playing guitar, perpetrating what he called “Random Acts of Music”, when cops started beating the shit out of him. What became of this abuse? A printed story, words passed around the streets, percolating emotions—but not enough to spark an uprising. Maybe our society is no longer configured to shudder and strike when our lynchpins are pulled.

I don’t know what’s needed. I won’t even pretend to have a clue. What I do know is that the pictures of the Greece riots have grabbed me by the balls. There is something going on over there that is lacking here. Maybe it’s just that passion and a willingness to take big risks for what we believe in. Maybe it really is a bit of broken glass and bloody fists. When the looming threats are as unwieldy as global economic collapse and climate change, perhaps it takes some old school anger to get things done.

The difference between riot and revolution lies mainly in the outcome. In a revolution the mob wins; but riots don’t have enough power to hold out against authority. Revolutions put down tyranny; riots are themselves eventually put down. Revolutions are an intoxicating shift in power; riots are more like a power hangover. But take a look at how many riots and rebellions broke out across the colonies before the “real” American Revolution started. Riots are unorganized outbursts of raw passion that can pave the way to real change, and that’s part of the beauty of this particular series of pictures. The riot itself may be ugly, but the passion can still be beautiful. The passion I see in these images is not just raw violence. It is desperate to make a place in which desperation is no longer the norm. And it is exploding out of the very rocks upon which the Western world was built. The roots revolt against the tree. Maybe all that passion will be squandered, maybe it’s counter productive and stupid and wrong, but at least it tells the world that something troubling is lurking in the shadows, and that there’s more that you can do about it than sitting on the couch and wishing things were different.