Greece: 'Two years ago we sang. Now we just fight'

Helena Sheehan, Professor Emeritus at DCU blogs about her participation in the 24 hour strike organised by trade union in protest at austerity policies in Greece on Thursday. Photo by @damomac.

Eventful day. General strike. Shops closed. Flights grounded. Public services suspened. Little traffic on streets. Hotel shuttered down with minimal staff. Two buses of riot police at the entrance in the morning. There were two main assembly points for marches to Syntagma Square. Made a quick visit to Omonia Square, which was where PAME, the KKE trade union organisation, was gathering. It was early, so not many there yet, but there was a strong atmosphere, with red flags flying and rousing left songs playing.

There was a number of PAME groups marching into the square. Ran into Damian Mac Con Uladh and we walked together to the Archeological Museum where the main trade union bodies were gathering along with left formations such as Syriza and Antarsya. I met Syriza comrades by arrangement in a café there. I had a good talk with Haris Golemis of the Nikos Poulantzas Insitute there too.

Eventually we marched. Met lots of comrades in the process. Very hot. Some chants (although they sound better in Greek): We won’t let capitalism kill us. The time of the left has come. Athens, Lisbon, Rome, all Europe. (No mention of Dublin!). As we approached Syntagma Square, Syriza comrades got word that the air was full of chemicals: tear gas, pepper spray, etc. They gave me a gas mask. They also said it was time to rub the packet of Riopan they had already give me on to my face. Lots of people in the square had their faces smeared with it.

Enterprising immigrants were selling water, tissues and gas masks. I didn’t get the worst of it. Just felt some itching in the eyes and throat. Riot police were out in force. There was a menacing atmosphere in the square and protesters were being forced to march around the perimeter rather than assembling inside the square. One comrades said to me: “Two years ago we had mothers and babies and we sang songs. We had concerts when we got to Syntagma Square. Now we just flight.” There were scuffles, molotov cocktails, stun grenades, injuries, arrests. One man, a member of KKE, who was marching with PAME, died, apparently of a heart attack.

I marched on with Syriza around the square and then toward Omonia. I left them at the university and headed back to Syntagma Square, where I had an appointment to meet Georgios Ayfantis, diplomatic advisor to Alexis Tsipras, at the Plaza Hotel. The way to it was being blocked by a line of riot police. I always make a point of arriving at appointments on time, so, with normal determination ad surprising clam, I walked right through them. I obviously don’t look very threatening and I got away with it.

When I got to the Plaza, it was shuttered down and a consierge said that I had better come inside, because there was trouble brewing just outside it. Then they shut down completely, meaning that I was locked in and he was locked out, ascertaing each other’s position by mobile phone. Being a wily Athenian, however, he found his way in through the back and we had an enlightening conversation. By the time I left, Syntagma Square was calm again.

Now I am preparing to go, finding it hard to tear myself away, but it is time. It has been illuminating and intense.