Democracy Now! producer reporting from Athens, Greece. He is in Athens covering the pending departure of the U.S. aid ship, The Audacity of Hope, as part of the 2011 Gaza Flotilla.
As our broadcast went to air, lawmakers in Greece were voting on — and later approved — a new round of sweeping austerity measures amidst a general strike that’s brought tens of thousands into the streets. Riot police have fired volleys of tear gas, smoke bombs and stun grenades in a bid to clear the masses of Greek protesters surrounding the parliament in Athens. The chaotic standoff began Tuesday when police stormed the adjacent Syntagma Square, where demonstrators have camped for over a month. Democracy Now! producers Aaron Maté and Hany Massoud were there just as the unrest broke out and spoke to many of the demonstrators who refused to leave the square. “They sell our country,” said one protester. “They sell our national dignity. They have signed away the ability to defend our constitution!” Another person said, “We need the solidarity of working-class people and youth around the globe... The only way to make them back off and stop the cuts and the attacks and the austerity packages is only by struggling. And this includes everything—strikes, demonstrations, occupations of squares, and uniting the different movements around the world.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Lawmakers in Greece are voting on a new round of sweeping austerity measures amidst a general strike that’s brought tens of thousands into the streets. International lenders have demanded the $40 billion package of spending cuts, tax increases and privatizations as a condition for a massive bailout to avert the eurozone’s first default. But the austerity plan has sparked uproar in Greece over what opponents call the selling off of their country.
Riot police have fired volleys of tear gas, smoke bombs, stun grenades in a bid to clear the masses of Greek protesters surrounding the parliament in Athens. The chaotic standoff began Tuesday when police stormed the adjacent Syntagma Square, where demonstrators have camped for over a month.
Well, Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté and videographer Hany Massoud are in Athens and were there just as the unrest broke out. They filed this report.
AARON MATÉ: We’re walking toward Syntagma Square. You can hear explosions pretty close by. The tear gas is overpowering. People have bandannas and water to help their faces. As we’re getting closer, there’s riot police and people running down. Obviously what’s going on now is a full-on confrontation in the streets of Athens. People are really angry over these austerity measures, and it’s come to a head. We’re being told by protesters that they were gathered in Syntagma, as they have been for the past month, when they say they were rushed, unprovoked, by police. And it’s now spilled out into the surrounding streets.
So why are you protesting?
PROTESTER 1: Because the new policy with the IMF and all the decisions that they are taking are against us. We don’t have jobs. We don’t have [inaudible]. We don’t have any, you know, insurance, hospitals, nothing. They want everyone, everything to be sold.
PROTESTER 2: The government is preparing to give a vote inside the parliament in the new memorandum, in the new—all the consequences that are coming because of the new agreement with the troika—IMF, European Bank, and the rest. What is happening right now is that five hours after the demonstration descended on Syntagma Square, we are still having people around Syntagma Square, trying to remain in place, because they feel that there is an obvious threat, the police to take the square and finish in this way this occupation.
AARON MATÉ: This has been going on all day. The police have fired tear gas repeatedly. But people keep coming back. The tear gas is still very powerful in the air, and now chants are getting louder.
So, what’s happening now?
PROTESTER 3: We think that maybe the police have taken the square. So we have to take it back.
AARON MATÉ: Take the square back?
PROTESTER 3: Yes.
AARON MATÉ: Protesters are defiant. They’re not leaving, even though police have fired multiple rounds of tear gas and smoke bombs. Now we’re seeing more riot police deploy. It’s looking like they’re going to set off more tear gas. We’re right by a new standoff with the riot police. As you can see, they’re everywhere. They’re assembled in front of the parliament. They’re in different locations. All have gas masks, and they’ve fired a lot of tear gas, and it looks like they’re ready to fire more. But these protesters are defiant. Their message is that they’ve had this square for a month, and they’re not going to give it up now.
PROTESTER 4: For $800 U.S. per month, you serpents in the grass, they sell our country. They sell our national dignity. They have signed away the ability to defend our constitution.
AARON MATÉ: Police are approaching us right now. We’re in between this group of police and protesters that are undeterred, refusing to give up their square. And the standoff continues. We’ve just avoided a line of riot police that were firing tear gas at a group of protesters, trying to push them away from the square. We’re going to go back, as protesters refuse to leave, still trying to hold the center of their protest, the heart of their protest, where they’ve been for over a month. And now today, as the general strike gets underway, police have tried to disperse them, but these people are refusing to leave. They’re adamant. They’re chanting, "The students, the workers must go on together." And here I’m holding the remnants of a tear gas canister that’s made in the U.S.A. by a company in Pennsylvania. They’ve been fired everywhere. They’re littered across these streets amongst the debris.
PROTESTER 5: They want the people back in their homes, so they can pass the law that they want, all the laws that they want.
AARON MATÉ: Now, they want you to leave the square.
PROTESTER 5: Yes, yes, they want us to leave the square. That’s right.
AARON MATÉ: Are you going to leave?
PROTESTER 5: Me? No, I’m not going to leave. No, until tomorrow night, they are going to—they are going to vote for the program. I don’t know the word in English, middle something, but I’m not going to leave the square until the government folds or there will be elections or whatever. I don’t know.
AARON MATÉ: So the police now are backing up just a little from their standoff, right next to the heart of Syntagma Square. What were you saying?
PROTESTER 6: I’m calling them to retreat, because when they are here, they provoke the people, and it is obvious that this will continue to happen. We don’t know—we don’t want dead among them, among them or among us. We want it to stop now, peacefully. We try, since this morning. They are provoking. They are entering the square. They are entering between the people. The people is provoked. And we have all what you see. We want it to end now. We are peaceful. Look at this. Film this. Look who we are. With our civilization, we are trying to throw them away.
AARON MATÉ: So now what is seen here, protesters are now standing up to police, pleading for them to stop, stop and look. Now protesters are saying, "Stop throwing stuff. Stop throwing bottles. Stop throwing bottles." They’re trying to calm the situation down. It’s a remarkable scene. They’re asking for no objects to be thrown at police. They’re saying, "Don’t throw anything. Don’t throw anything."
They’re chanting and clapping and are asking then to leave the square. And now police are backing up. The police are backing up. Police are—and police are backing up. They’re chanting. And with their chanting, the police are retreating. The police are retreating back into the parliament. And the protesters at the front have this very organized. There’s a front line trying to calm everyone down. And now look at—the protesters have backed up the police, peacefully. They’ve stopped other protesters from throwing bottles. You can see nothing is being thrown now. And now they’re clapping as the police walk away, back into the parliament. They’re applauding the police as they walk away.
What are you saying? What are you saying?
PROTESTER 7: I am saying that it is a revolution for all Europe!
PROTESTER 8: For me, it’s very, very important to throw out the police, and not by using stones, because—not because I’m totally against the violence, but because I believe that, OK, we have to be very, very organized to do it, because they are stronger than us. So, it’s very, very important to do it massively and very, very—you know, it’s not exactly peacefully. It’s another kind of violence; it’s emotional violence. We try to do it by moving inside, in front, in front, in front. We were in the front in the last level, let’s say so, of the square and trying to moving back, back, back, back, back. And as we saw, they did it. OK, they moved back. They moved back, and they were back in their homes, we hope.
PROTESTER 9: We don’t want something special. We want our lives. So, we ask about that. Give our lives back, because we are young, so we have got dreams with all that, not only now, and for the other 20 or 30 years. How I can make family with all that? It’s important. And it’s not only here in Greece; all Europe is like that.
AARON MATÉ: We’re walking down to the square. Just a short while ago, this place was chaos. There was tear gas everywhere, and police controlled this street. But now, defiantly, protesters have taken it back by chanting and refusing to leave. And now, as we come across the square, we can see it’s back to normal. Cleanup effort has begun. People are forming these long lines, starting at the water fountain, and they’re passing these bottles down the line, up into the streets, to pour on the ground to get rid of the tear gas.
PROTESTER 10: There is a lot of dust, because of the gases the police threw at us before and because of the air. The dust goes up in the air again, so we have to clean the street, so we can stay here all night.
PROTESTER 11: Today when we backed the police—backed the police off, we all felt very proud and strong and united, and we all feel that together we can accomplish many things. I hope this will never happen again, but this is their only—their only way to tear us apart, to make us leave, to make us go back to our houses, sit on our couches, and just believe whatever they say and accept whatever they choose. This is the first time in my life—I’m 26 years old—that all Greek people, and not only Greek people, but also immigrants, were also united, and we want the same things, and we fight for the same things together.
AARON MATÉ: What do you want to tell the people of the United States?
PROTESTER 2: Well, obviously, we need the solidarity of working-class people and youth around the globe and from the United States, too. We are aware of their heroic struggle in Wisconsin, United States, recently, with the youths in a very massive movement, resisting in the attacks and the cuts that the American federal government, central government, is organizing against American people, too. We believe that the austerity packages and the attacks and the cuts, in reality, I mean, what we face is that there is no place in the globe where working-class people and youth is not facing attacks or cuts in their living standards. What we would like to say is that the only way to make them to back off and stop the cuts and the attacks and the austerity packages is only by struggling. And this includes everything—strikes, demonstrations, occupations of several squares, and uniting the different movements around the globe.
AARON MATÉ: Protesters stood down tear gas and smoke bombs and retook the square, forcing the police to retreat. As you can see behind me now, they’re just guarding the gates of parliament. But tensions are still high. Protesters have now come up to the barricades and are chanting, livid over what’s happening inside, with the vote set to happen on a new round of austerity measures. So although today saw a victory for this protest movement in retaking their square, filling it with people after it was filled with tear gas, there’s no doubt that this protest and this struggle continues.
For Democracy Now!, I’m Aaron Maté with Hany Massoud in Athens.
AMY GOODMAN: And people continue to be in the streets of Athens, tens of thousands, as they await the vote of the Greek parliament. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll talk about the significance of this for Europe, for the United States, for the world, and also the appointment of the new IMF chief, in a minute.