Health, Safety and Publicness: Athens, August 9 – 14, 2012

22 August 2012

By  posted at Critical Legal Thinking

Five days in Athens. Five very var­ied days. I used to fre­quent Athens as a teen­ager with my par­ents. We were always transit vis­it­ors, en route to Kano, Nigeria where my late father used to work. Those vis­its where quick, two days in Athens, vis­it­ing ancient monu­ments, museums, tav­ernas, cafes, friends, and rel­at­ives. You see, post 1974 and the Turk­ish inva­sion of Cyprus a num­ber of our refugee rel­at­ives and friends made their way to Greece and par­tic­u­larly Athens to begin again the recon­struc­tion of their lives. Athens looked big, busy, excit­ing, express­ive and glam­or­ous through my youth­ful eyes. Athens looked like those old movies that Finos Film (Greek Pro­duc­tion Com­pany, 1943 – 77) used to make and expor­ted to Cyprus and the Greek Dia­spora. I am not Greek, I am Cyp­riot. I am a Greek Cyp­riot that grew up on Greek cul­ture, and can speak, write and read Greek rel­at­ively well, at the expense of never get­ting to know Turk­ish cul­ture or lan­guage. Let’s leave though this dis­cus­sion for another day. Let’s stick to Athens for a while. The Athens of my youth was a euphoric one and sim­ul­tan­eously it was an Athens that I got to know only through gen­eral terms: the Athens of the travel guide book. What I didn’t notice then, though it must have been there already, were the details, details that paint the psyche of this city.  These details, the col­our­ings of the city, are in danger of morph­ing the city into a black and white negative.

Years now, 25 or so years older with no par­ents to accom­pany me but vis­it­ing friends instead, Athenian friends, Athens shows its cracks and col­ours. The cafes that adorn its squares are not just pub­lic spaces of con­sump­tion as I thought in my youth; those hand moves are not just wav­ing but an extens­ive agora where every­day­ness, love and polit­ics are dis­cussed and argued over. Not just between friends and acquaint­ances but also amongst strangers. Athens is an agora, from the bus, the tram, the train, the les­bian bar, the res­taur­ant, the park, the taxi. Athens is an enorm­ous pub­lic space where Atheni­ans, demor­al­ised from four or so now years of aus­ter­ity vent their feel­ings about the state that they are in. They hide noth­ing in their express­ive lan­guage: dis­ap­point­ment, hard­ship, intol­er­ance, indig­na­tion. They have had cen­tur­ies of prac­tice express­ing them­selves in pub­lic. Noth­ing remains settled. They are the sons and daugh­ters of Dio­genes the Cynic after all.

Walk­ing between 28th Octo­ber Avenue and Stournata Street one finds Athens Poly­tech­nic. Its walls are graf­fit­ied with slo­gans and glued with posters for gath­er­ings, polit­ical and cul­tural gath­er­ings.  At its sight I was trans­posed. In my ears the voice of a young woman broad­caster from the poly­tech­nic radio of Novem­ber 1973 echoed: ‘Εδώ Πολυτεχνείο! Λαέ της Ελλάδας το Πολυτεχνείο είναι σημαιοφόρος του αγώνα μας, του αγώνα σας, του κοινού αγώνα μας ενάντια στη δικτατορία και για την Δημοκρατία’, as ‘Here Poly­tech­nic! Greek Nation the Poly­tech­nic is the flag to the struggle (agon), our struggle (agon), our com­mon struggle (agon) against the dic­tat­or­ship and for Democracy’.

On the 14th of Novem­ber 1973 the stu­dents of Athens Poly­tech­nic went on a strike against the dic­tat­or­ship. They locked them­selves in the Poly­tech­nic and broad­cas­ted through their pir­ate radio their demands for demo­cracy in Greece. Soon oth­ers, work­ers and stu­dents joined them out­side. On 17th of Novem­ber 1973 the mil­it­ary sent tanks to supress the occu­pa­tion and its momentum. Civil­ians were killed that day. The same spirit is still in place — its walls say it all. A poster urges the people to make a choice: ‘Stop finally the mock­ery. Mono­pol­ies or the people!’ (my trans­la­tion; see pho­to­graph 1). Images of the Greek indig­na­dos of the last two years in Syn­tagma Square keep flood­ing my mind. ‘Yes’ … I say to myself … ‘the Greeks know how to res­ist any­thing that curbs their free­dom’. ‘Uncompromising!’

We soon turn into Stournata Street. We are mak­ing our way to Exar­heia, Athens’ well estab­lished bohemian, lefty and anarch­ist area. Evi urges me to stop tak­ing pic­tures. She keeps say­ing that my mobile is expens­ive and is at risk of theft. For a second I don’t under­stand why she is say­ing this. I’m still absorbed in my thoughts and look­ing at the Poly­tech­nic whose entrance is on this street. I look around me for a second. On the pave­ments people are shoot­ing up and exchan­ging drugs. Some are stand­ing almost tilted down­wards 90 degrees. ‘Caouch­ing’ I think. ‘They must have over­dosed or taken some really badly cut “staff“‘. I sober up from my own day-​​dreaming. I stare. I can’t dir­ect my look straight ahead. I don’t want to take a photo. No pho­to­graph could have imprin­ted the eerie silence of the pave­ments. The pave­ments on the left and the right were pop­u­lated by silence. Greeks, Immig­rants, together in silence. An agora of silence. ‘What are they say­ing?’, I kept won­der­ing: ‘a silent res­ist­ance to aus­ter­ity?; we are opt­ing out?; we just want to dream oth­er­wise?; we have no home this street is our only home?’

We move slowly from Exar­heia towards Psiri; from a space where anti-​​government, anti-​​police slo­gans and gor­geous graf­fiti provide you the pulse of dis­sent, to an area well known for its res­taur­ants and cafes.  The streets are quiet. It is early after­noon. Five o’clock mov­ing towards six on a Sat­urday. I see a young Asian man look­ing through black plastic bags. I notice him. He is the only per­son on the street except for me and my two friends of course. We walk past him.  He keeps scav­en­ging. I glance once more towards him. Sud­denly about eight police officers and a man point­ing at him sur­round him. ‘When did this hap­pen?’ ‘How did this hap­pen?’ ‘What did he do wrong?’ I ask myself. I pick my mobile ready to record, a habitual move from my legal observing days. A bearded man without a uni­form com­mands us to go away and I to stop record­ing. I ignore him, I keep try­ing to record. He comes near me and asks to see my phone. He author­it­at­ively states that he is a spe­cial branch officer and aggress­ively reports that by law only journ­al­ists are allowed to record. I give him the phone. Why did I give him the phone?

I am asked to see the Chief Con­stable. He was present on the scene and in uni­form. He looks at my phone. He sees noth­ing of interest. He explains that they are merely check­ing whether the young man is a doc­u­mented immig­rant. He let us go. And I walk defeated and shaken. Why did I not stand up more for this young man? Why did I not stand up to this bullish atti­tude? I am both dis­ap­poin­ted and angry with myself. The man who got the young Asian immig­rant arres­ted ran after us to explain. ‘I’m a health and safety officer. I am a lefty, I belonged for years in Ant­ar­sia (the social­ist work­ers party) and then my heart (lit­er­ally gave in and had to get a job). I was doing my job; I repeatedly told this young man to stop scav­en­ging through the black plastic bags and lit­ter­ing the place, the neigh­bours were com­plain­ing…’ he kept apo­lo­gising, giv­ing his account. I wished he did his job less well. Why has every­body become a little sov­er­eign gov­ernor? ‘Judith But­ler and Gior­gio Agam­ben where astute when they were writ­ing about the change in the way power is oper­at­ing in the 21st cen­tury’, I reflect. We are all in the little sov­er­eign gov­ernors. How to res­ist? How to stop the force of fear and intimidation?

Han­nah Arendt writes in We Refugees:

Before this war broke out we were even more sens­it­ive about being called refugees. We did our best to prove to other people that we were just ordin­ary immig­rants. We declared that we had depar­ted of our own free will to coun­tries of our choice, and we denied that our situ­ation had any­thing to do with “so-​​called Jew­ish prob­lems.” Yes, we were “immig­rants” or “new­comers” who had left our coun­try because, one fine day, it no longer suited us to stay, or for purely eco­nomic reas­ons. We wanted to rebuild their lives, that was all. In order to rebuild one’s life one has to be strong and optim­ist. So we are very optim­istic.1

On Sunday 12/​08/​2012 I read in H Kaqh­mer­inh2 that on Fri­day 10/​08/​2012 a police oper­a­tion, oper­a­tion Xenios Zeus3 ‘swept’ (the dis­course that is used in every day dis­course) 6,690 illegal immig­rants from the streets of cent­ral Athens. Accord­ing to the art­icle by Cos­tas Onis­enko Greek inhab­it­ants of cent­ral Athens were delighted with the change. They were now less afraid to walk in the streets and they were hop­ing that their busi­ness would see a hike. They blamed illegal immig­rants, the threat of theft, and drugs for a down-​​turn in their incomes. The same reporter points out that out of these arrests 1,555 of those arres­ted were illegal immig­rants. In addi­tion, he writes 172 women were charged with pros­ti­tu­tion and ten of them were HIV pos­it­ive. Now I under­stand more what we wit­nessed on Sat­urday. The arrest of the young Asian man, (accord­ing to the same news­pa­per, most illegal immig­rants are Asian or African. They came to Greece post 2004 and the Olympics, believ­ing it to be the prom­ised, hos­pit­able land) I ret­ro­spect­ively acknow­ledge as being an exten­sion of the police oper­a­tion Xenios Zeus.  The viol­ence of the racism and xeno­pho­bia that Athens is pro­du­cing is try­ing dis­guise itself under ‘health and safety reg­u­la­tions’, under claims of illeg­al­ity, under claims of aus­ter­ity, under so many things that can’t dis­guise it.

I think of Arendt’s words above while I try to ima­gine the optim­ism that every immig­rant may hold in his or her heart when they sail away from the land of their birth. I think of the black woman that slapped a Greek man on the tram on my last day in Athens after he assaul­ted her (sexu­ally or oth­er­wise I was not able to verify). I think of the optim­ism or per­haps des­pair that might have taken for her to raise her hand against a viol­a­tion? I think of the energy that may be needed for immig­rants to be able to sur­vive fear, intim­id­a­tion, viol­ence on an every­day basis.  ‘How do they man­age?’ I ask. I have no answer. I am speechless.

In the streets of Athens, dogs roam alone or in packs. Cats do the same. They belong to the city, to all and no one. The state attends to their health. Indi­vidu­als feed them. At ‘Myro­vo­los’, a les­bian bar, there are three such dogs. They have been given names — I can’t remem­ber  them.  An old lady comes to ‘Myro­vo­los’ and sits alone at a table. She looks sol­emn and patient. She doesn’t order a drink. Ten minutes pass by. The bar woman comes and gives her a pack of food. She takes it and leaves. She doesn’t pay. On walls all around Athens the same graf­fiti is prom­in­ent: bas­anizwmai (‘being tor­men­ted’; my trans­la­tion; see photo No 2).

Bas­anizwmai, tor­men­ted. Athens tor­men­ted. Bas­ano ‘ori­gin­ally (from ori­ental ori­gin) a touch­stone; a Lydian stone used for test­ing gold because pure gold rubbed on it left a pecu­liar mark…’.4 Tor­ment is intol­er­able. We con­demn the tor­ture of pris­on­ers, of polit­ical pris­on­ers, of all pris­on­ers, of all. So we should. But if we, if a city, a nation is in tor­ment, if it is already in the pro­cess of try­ing to find a ‘truth’, of excav­at­ing some­thing that goes bey­ond the national polit­ical dis­course, then it needs to rub against the lan­guage and prac­tices of health and safety reg­u­la­tion. It has to stop tor­ment­ing oth­ers in order to find the truth. It has to rub against the con­crete­ness of its situ­ation for some ‘truth’ and stop assim­il­at­ing dis­courses of resent­ment: aus­ter­ity, external threat, secur­ity, san­it­a­tion. It may be hard.

Bas­ano is a stone of ori­ental ori­gin (the dic­tion­ary pro­nounces) but more pre­cisely from Lydia, a King­dom in the Iron Age that occu­pied the whole of west­ern Anato­lia. A stone of for­eign ori­gin gave the Greek lan­guage a word to express its tor­ment. This is an enabling word, a word that forces one to ‘catch’ another image of one­self. Judith But­ler writes:

…the kind of rela­tion­al­ity that is at stake is one that “inter­rupts” or chal­lenges the unit­ary char­ac­ter of the sub­ject, its self-​​sameness and its uni­vo­city. In other words, some­thing hap­pens to the “sub­ject” that dis­lo­cates it from the cen­ter of the world; some demand from else­where lays claim to me, presses itself upon me, or even divides me from within, and only through this fis­sur­ing of who I am do I stand a chance in relat­ing to another.5

If a bus driver is able to stay past his work­ing hours at a stop to give a lift to three women who were erro­neously wait­ing for a bus that stopped com­ing, if  any bus driver is able to find in him or her some­thing that breaks ‘health and safety’ – health and safety reg­u­la­tions – then some­thing tells me that there is some­thing in all of us, Atheni­ans or not, that can see that we are ‘pressed’, ‘inter­rup­ted’, ‘divided’ by each other. There is still some­thing, a stone, a graf­fiti that urges us to acknow­ledge not only that we share this earth, this world, but moreover that we are transit pas­sen­gers here, like busses that pass by. There is still some­thing that forces us to see the world in col­ours, col­ours bey­ond black and white. If this could be the case so much can hap­pen: the Agora will not remain a museum rem­nant, but it may as well trans­form itself, it may trans­form into a plat­eaux of action; a plat­eaux, where words are no longer ossi­fic­a­tions of opin­ions but open­ings to a dif­fer­ent world. This world is pos­sible, as pos­sible as the one that acts in black and white. And it is up to us, not the state, not the police, not the health safety officer to restore its col­ours, to invent new colours.

For Chrys­anthi Nigi­anni. Many thanks to Chrys­anthi Nigi­anni and Evi Michalaki for show­ing me Athens as it is. Thanks to Brenna Bhandar also for her help­ful observations.

Elena Loiz­idou is Senior Lec­turer in Law at Birk­beck, Uni­ver­sity of London

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