Grief and Loss
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November 17

[inspired by Kim, Dominique, and my father, always.]

Decades ago

“We are not armed. We are not armed. We are not armed. […] Brothers, brothers, brothers-soldiers, you will not raise your guns. You will not shoot to kill your brothers. [audible tanks rolling up to the gate] Brothers soldiers, brothers soldiers, how is this possible! How is it possible that you would shoot your brothers! How would you allow Greek blood to be spilled. [begins to recite Greek national anthem]”

In the beginning of November 1973, a civil resistance movement gained momentum against the military junta that had ruled Greece since 1967. On November 14, 1973, students locked themselves in the Polytechnic University of Athens to protest against the censorship and restrictions of freedom and civil liberties that had occurred during the dictatorship. The students set up an independent radio station and began to broadcast non-violent messages of civil resistance. The clip translated above was the last broadcast before this happened:

In the clip of the student begging soldiers not to fire, one can hear tanks rolling on the streets around the university. In the clip above, on November 17, 1973, a tank demolished the university gate and the government violently quashed the civil resistance movement. It is unclear how many died between November 14 – November 17, 1973. Numbers range from 18 to 73 and, as is the case in all movements, there are skeptics, conspiracy theorists and agent provocateurs who claim that all this was a figment of political imagination. The junta did not immediately collapse, but its blatant violence against unarmed, peaceful fellow Greeks was the beginning of the end of its rule.

Historical memory becomes political with the passage of time, for reminiscence is partial and partisan. Yet, as a Greek who has grown up among violent protests, Molotov cocktails being thrown at banks, deadly clashes between youth and the police, I cannot help but wish that we could form a non-violent movement of civil resistance that commits itself to persistent, meaningful change. In a presentation at Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Non-Violent Conflict, a leading scholar of civil resistance joked: “When I say ‘nonviolence’, people think I have fallen off the deep end.” The misunderstandings and connotations of nonviolence are endless: hippies, idealists, romantics, ineffective resisters, lazy people. Yet, in a phenomenal talk, Dr. Erica Chenoweth debunked six myths about insurgency, nonviolence and civil resistance. The myths, as paraphrased by Daryn Cambridge and myself, were:

  1. Violent insurgency is effective.
  2. Insurgents use violence because they have to.
  3. All insurgencies begin non-violently and adopt violence when non-violent resistance fails.
  4. Resistance movements have to adopt violence to take on brutal regimes.
  5. Societies need quick and decisive victories to be stable enough for democracy to thrive.
  6. All insurgents can be persuaded to substitute non-violence for violent resistance.

Greece has been in turmoil and, occasionally, in flames this year. As I look back at both the Polytechnic university anniversary and the lessons of FSI 2011, I realize it is easy to say “it does not work for us.” It is easy to reject non-violence as “suitable for other places, but not for Greece/Palestine/wherever you live.” It is easy to want a quick victory or to cite outrage as a justification of the use of violence. But movements do not just happen — they are studied, created painstakingly, slowly, strategically. And there is hope for everywhere, from Cairo to Athens.

Years ago

He passed quickly and painlessly, in a few breaths. He knew he was going to go, but none of the rest of us did. There was no time to think that we might lose him, even though his years of smoking five packs of cigarettes a day should have prepared us. I was a world away when he took his last breath. For years, I have tried to remember what our last conversation was. All I can remember was that I had called, he picked up the phone, and said “κορίτσι μου!” “My girl!”, with that unique excitement that a father can muster for his daughter. The day of the funeral was the crisp, brilliantly blue November glory that only Thessalonik can offer. I had developed an eye twitch, so I looked like a pirate. This morning, I woke up, searching for grief inside myself, like a soldier who has been shot and is feeling around for the wounds. After all these years, all the remembrance, all the love, there is no wound, no blood. Yet, twistedly and miraculously enough, my right eye is bloodshot, painful, throbbing. “My little pirate,” Elijah said this morning. I smiled, acknowledging that once more, the universe was winking at me.

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