ATHENS – The crowd returned despite the burned trash on the broken sidewalks, the shattered glass on the streets, and the lingering sting of tear gas. By noon on Thursday, Oct. 20, Greeks filled Syntagma, the square across the street from the parliament building. They knew parliament would approve the latest austerity measures and they knew Prime Minister George Papandreou had insisted that the measures would save the country from bankruptcy. But it felt more like a death march than salvation.
It was the second day of massive demonstrations this week. By midday in Syntagma, old men set up stalls to sell whistles, miniature Greek flags, and the sesame-encrusted bread rings called koulouria. Bangladeshi men sold bottles of water. Protesters sprayed liquid Maalox, the stomach antacid, on each other's faces to close their pores and counteract the effects of the tear gas. Young men in black hoods, a few of them holding sledgehammers, pulled on gas masks.
Hundreds of riot police surrounded the sand-colored neoclassical parliament building. The young men in hoods wanted a fight. But in their way were about 100 middle-aged men who had locked arms, blocking a main path to parliament. The men seemed like unlikely defenders of the most hated building in Greece; they were blue-collar workers from PAME, a strident union affiliated with KKE, the country's old-school Communist party. PAME protesters never missed an anti-austerity demonstration, and they were often the first people to march, with bullhorns and bright flags, to Syntagma. They chant against plutocracy, capitalism, and bankers, but they are more likely to throw yogurt than Molotov cocktails.
PAME has a small but hardcore following all over the Athens area. Just before the big strikes began, a few elderly PAME supporters marched along a busy street in Galatsi, an Athens suburb. They held a hand-painted banner that read "Enough is Enough!" They were trailed by a white-haired man who was driving a tiny, battered truck and chanting "Everyone hit the streets!" through a scratchy bullhorn. Vassilis Langadas, a 30-year-old technician at a mobile phone company, was drinking hot chocolate at a nearby cafe. "You've got to give them credit," he said, watching them with bemused pride. "They're my grandparents' age but they've got more stamina and faith in their cause than most Greeks."
They may be professional protesters, but PAME was hoping their call would be heard by that silent, suffering majority in Greece that says austerity is erasing people, not the country's massive debt. This fatalism is shared by nearly everyone. If this is salvation, they say, screw Europe. We'd rather go up in flames.
According to the polling firm "Public Issue," only 12 percent of Greeks support the memorandum of agreement between their government and international lenders, which imposes austerity in exchange for billions of euros in bailout loans. Austerity means pain, they say, and a loss of sovereignty. Even deputies in the ruling center-left PASOK party are questioning the tough medicine prescribed by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, especially in the latest round of austerity cuts. MP Thomas Robopoulos, one of the lawmakers representing Thessaloniki, resigned his seat earlier this week saying the measures "are unfair and against the people." Home Affairs Minister Haris Kastanidis told a Vima 99.5, a private Greek radio station, recently that the demands of international lenders "were driving Greeks to an unbearable point."