Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Why I Protest: Katerina Patrikarakou of Greece

Katerina Patrikarakou, 30, is a businesswoman who returned to Greece from London to deal with a family company that had fallen on hard times. "I'm staying at a friend's house because I can't afford rent," she says. "I can't find a job because I'm managing this indebted business and sorting its affairs." She watched the protest movement grow in her country as the Greek government imposed austerity measures to deal with its huge foreign debt. She joined in the marches almost as soon as she got back. She spoke to TIME's Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Here is what she said:

When I go to a protest I go individually, meaning I never go with a particular bloc. I'm not involved nor participate in any party or union. I always hear about the protest and different meeting points through online media and especially Twitter. I usually meet with my friends, take the metro and get off at the nearest available station. During the recent protests, that station was Monastiraki. We get off there and start walking toward Syntagma Square [in central Athens, bordering the Parliament]. We stayed there as long as possible. The main objective was not to leave Syntagma, even when the police attacked with tear gas. We also always tried to keep calm, because causing panic is what can make things even worse and more dangerous.

Most of my close and real friends are at the protests with me. So we are all supporting and looking after one another. We have a common understanding of what's happening and what we need to do. For the rest of them that do not participate (and not because they actually can't) I don't really care for what they have to say. I do what I believe in.

For me, it's also really important to take as many photos and videos as possible and post them online so that people can see what actually happens during the protests. A photo, posted online on the spot, tells only the truth. Traditional media rarely do. So I try to take as many as possible and from as many different places and incidents. So my phone is something I never leave behind — along with my mask, glasses and Maalox spray bottles [to help deal with the effects of tear gas].

During a protest day, I never arrange anything else, because you can never know how the day will progress. You might end up staying at Syntagma or elsewhere for the whole day. It is really intense, and you only want to share it with people that can actually understand you. And if they are not there, they usually can't. So I don't really pay attention to anything or anyone else or what they have to say for that matter.

So far, I haven't felt any actual fear. Although I have run and been teargassed a lot, I haven't actually feared for mine or my friends' lives and well-being. Yeah, my adrenaline has reached a high, but no fear yet. I am pretty sure however, that if I had lived through the June 29 protest, I would have feared for my life, as most of my friends did.

It is true that protests are really exciting and bring your adrenaline to an all-time-high. However, I would prefer to live in a country where no protest would be necessary, and I'm sure I'd find the same excitement elsewhere. Nobody goes to the protests for the excitement alone. That's a by-product that comes with a high risk too.

The most memorable day of protests for me came long before austerity protests. It was almost three years ago on Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008. It was the day after Alexis Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old high school student, was shot by a cop for no reason at all. That was the proverbial drop that made the cup overflow and set off an awakening period, which has now thankfully evolved.

I was living at Exarcheia at that time. That's where the shooting happened and where the protests really began. The area was like a war zone. I remember I had to walk back home and cross the square, and I couldn't see anything because my eyes were watering so badly from all the tear gas thrown by the police. By the time I went in my house I thought I'd go blind. It was that same day, when I was sitting on my balcony watching what was going on in the square below, that police helicopters would fly at a relatively close distance and shine their headlights on me. It seemed like they wanted to intimidate me so I would go inside and not be a witness to what was going on outside. Needless to say I didn't leave the balcony. Instead I gave them the finger.

What was the most important day of the anti-austerity protests? I was away but from what I saw and heard it was June 29. The stories I heard and the photos I saw were insane. Cops were hunting down protesters throughout Athens and beating them in cold blood as they passed by on their bikes. They were even hitting women, dressed in heels, as they were going to the Herodus Atticus Theater to attend a performance. I have friends that witnessed it with their own eyes. Police brutality reached a maximum that day. The violence had been building up. Earlier that month, riot police threw a stun grenade at photojournalist Manolis Kypraios, causing him to completely lose his hearing. Needless to say he had identified himself as a journalist. I still can't digest that.

The most important lesson? It would be that you have to fight for your rights and what you deserve. Nothing will be handed to you if you don't try to get it yourself, or if you stay apathetic, watching the news on your couch. People need to get involved. If they don't want to protest, they can start helping the people in need. And there are plenty of them here in Greece.

The most surprising thing? Clapping. People clapped and cheered whenever a Molotov cocktail was thrown at Parliament and riot cops. People would clap and cheer. They were even supporting the anarchists and black bloc. And the people cheering were everyday people of all ages, who up until the October protests were against violence. It was as if they realized that this is the only way left for us to fight, since peaceful protests have had no result so far.

What has also touched me is that people in the Occupy movements have realized the true reason for what is going on in the entire world. That the entire system is the core problem — and not the Greeks who supposedly want to kick back and not pay anything. I get a sense of justice every time I see a banner or hear someone in favor of the Greek people and protesters.

And that I think is the most important lesson: we are all the same, facing pretty much the same problem. So we should unite, no matter where we are from. Solidarity and unity is the key to the solution: "Together we stand, divided we fall." I think that sums it up.

The protests haven't actually changed me to the core, but now I'm even more politically aware and active. I've also made new friends which I really treasure, as they are people of so many different backgrounds that I would never have met if I hadn't been involved. For that I'm grateful.