Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Why We Protest: Natalia Klossa and Antonis of Greece

Natalia Klossa, 41, met Antonis, 33, on the second day of the takeover of Athens' Syntagma Square, the central plaza of the Greek capital, which borders on the country's Parliament. They later became a couple. But their involvement in protests hasn't been without cost. Antonis, who used to work for a printing company, did not want his last name published for fear of fascist gangs he says have already attacked him. He covered his face during his photo session with Natalia. He has several moving stories, however, including one about the morning a man in his 60s came to Syntagma Square to see the occupiers. "He burst into tears," Antonis recalls. "He left two euros on our bench, raised a fist and said: 'For a couple of bottles of water.' It was so surprising, so unexpected. Four or five grown men stopped what we were doing and cried like babies." Here is Natalia's account of her experience at the protests — and her relationship with Antonis. Both spoke to TIME's Joanna Kakissis:

I was living a double life with work. I mean, I work at a bank! My job really runs counter to everything I was working for at Syntagma. Banks are in many ways the biggest enemies in the economic crisis. I work in communications in the bank, and I told them I was involved in the Syntagma protests. They knew that when I was leaving work, I was going to the square. I took vacation days to go to the sit-in, and they knew it. They were very reasonable and gave me the freedom to do what I wanted in my spare time, and so I have no complaints. They were also open to listening to me. I think I may have even changed a few minds! Some bank employees and even a few department heads even came to the demonstrations! I realized that sometimes it's good to be "in the system," so to speak, because then you can influence people in it. They trust you, and they're open to talking to you. I'm trying to make the best of this job and also give the best of me to my co-workers, so I can maybe change their minds.

I met Antonis on May 26. We knew each other a long time before we fell in love. I'm rational about feelings, and I didn't want to get involved with someone at Syntagma because our movement was important and I didn't want anything to ruin that. But I loved talking to him. He was so open and excited about everything, and so committed to the cause. We talked about everything and saw that our views really meshed. We'd leave Syntagma together very late and then continue our conversations over a drink. Once, when he got teargassed very badly and was feeling terrible, I told him to come over, and he slept on my couch. I just wanted to keep an eye on him, since he lived by himself. We were very good friends, and then, yes, we fell in love.

I was one of the people who wanted to do something about the state of our country long before the Syntagma Square protests. Despite appearances at protests, most Greeks don't get out and demonstrate or complain, at least in a public, organized way. When the Syntagma sit-in was first organized and I saw so many people, I thought, wow, there's hope for Greece. I thought that after so many years, here was a big gathering of Greeks that had nothing to do with political parties or the Polytechnio [the anti-junta uprising on Nov. 17, 1973]. I had tears in my eyes when I saw so many people with the aganaktismenoi [Greek for indignants]. I was so moved. I got onto Twitter and started getting organized with them. We started talking, and I loved participating in it.

As altruistic as we say we are, I don't think people get involved in protest movements only for altruistic reasons. That is simply human nature. If it doesn't mean something for us personally, if we're not trying to change something for ourselves personally, then it is hard to invest so much time in it. Also, if it doesn't mean something to you personally — if you don't believe in your heart that you are doing it to change something — then you're not going to do anything.

The two most important days for me in the protests were June 28 and June 29. We had a big concert on June 28, and I remember the police started pelting us with tear gas even though the square was full of people who would have never been in Syntagma if it hadn't been for the concert. They were totally unprepared to deal with tear gas. There were elderly people there and people with children. I thought it was inhuman, what the police did. The next day, on June 29, the police just blanketed us with tear gas. They even threw tear gas at first-aid workers who were trying to help people who were having breathing problems because of the tear gas. It was just disgusting and infuriating. I was ashamed and saddened to see something like this in my country.

On June 28, right before the concert, the police had already thrown tear gas. So we formed a human chain, and many of us tried to clean up the square to get rid of the remains of the tear gas. We all worked together. We didn't know each other, yet we all worked together. I've never felt so warm and connected to other people in my whole life in Athens. There was this strong group of thousands of people who wanted to work to make our gathering peaceful and meaningful. And even though we were already full of tear gas ourselves, we worked together to clean up that square so the concert could go on. And it did.

I made so many good friends at Syntagma. Friends I will have my own life. We believe in the same things and have the same morals and ideas about the world. Many of us cleaned up our lives — we had to let go of people who were keeping us back or had become closed-minded or who couldn't open up to change. I had to leave superficial relationships behind because they no longer made sense to me.

When we believe in something and we really want to make something happen, we can make it happen, even if we don't know exactly how to do it. I learned to trust patience, that patience and discipline can really make things happen. And above all, after living so many years in a culture where people don't trust each other, I realized that, yes, you can trust people. They will have your back, as you will have theirs.

I was never scared for myself. I am a risk taker, and I'm not afraid of anything. I've been in front of fights with police and protesters and taking photos and not worried that maybe the police would arrest me or beat me up. Even on June 29, when the tear gas was so bad, I didn't leave out of fear but out of exhaustion and an inability to leave. Antonis was trying to drag me out of there, but I wanted to stay.

But then, on Oct. 28, some of us showed up at a march that memorializes the day Greece refused to let Mussolini's troops into the country. It's called Okhi Day [okhi means "no" in Greek], but we wanted to remind the powers that be that we wanted to say no to austerity. We were adamant but definitely not violent. Then a few fascist punks showed up and started beating up immigrants who were selling flags. It was disgusting. Antonis defended one of the Bangladeshi men, and as a result, the thugs attacked him. He was beaten badly enough to require stitches. I may have never been scared for myself, but when he got hurt, I was scared because I love him.