When Slav-FYROM members of the community burnt Greek flags at their protest last Sunday, to the chant of “F*ck Greeks”, I became distressed. Had they chanted “F*ck Greece,” I would have been just as distressed, but I would have understood that they were venting their frustration at a country that in their opinion, seeks to deny their identity.
To direct the imperative to all Greeks, however, is to include, me, my family, my friends and all those of us who live side by side with Slav-Fyromians, go to school with them, work with them, befriend them and marry them.
It is, in fact, an act that promotes racial hatred in one of the most tolerant, vibrant and multicultural cities of the world. It incites all those who think in the same way, to dehumanise the entire Greek people and if taken literally, to violate them sexually. The next chant, an unintelligible “Ελλάς, Ελλάς, πουτσολιάς,” I suspect, though sexually charged, was not a reference to the upcoming visit to Australia of the reputedly well-endowed Evzones, on the occasion of Greek national day. Again, it was not clear whether those gifted by nature euzones had any connection to the “Occupied Macedonia” referenced in various irredentist placards.
When Slav-FYROM members of the community paraded bearing a banner which read: “Greeks and Pontians out of Macedonia,” effectively calling for ethnic cleansing, I felt sick.
Sometime later, it emerged from reports that a bunch of hoons, not content with making displays of racial intolerance at their demonstration, rampaged down Lonsdale Street (they think it is still Greek), and bearing flares, attacked Spiros Caras in his iconic Caras Music store, spitting on him and spraying water around his store.
On Sunday morning, in contrast, it became known that the schismatic Slav-FYROMIAN church in Preston was vandalised, the slogan F*ck Skopje, ΕΛΛΑΣ ΕΛΛΑΣ ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΑ graffitied on its exterior fence.
Members of the Greek community, myself included, immediately banded together to publicly condemn this heinous and disgusting act of desecration. Some of these Greeks even offered to pay for the cleaning of the graffiti itself.
Similarly, the appearance of a banner proclaiming: “FYROM = Albania” suspended over a pedestrian bridge and presumably created in response to an earlier banner during the week which read: “Greeks = Turks,” and yet another proclaiming “Macedonia, Never Greek,” was also excoriated by the consensus of the Greek community, as unhelpful. All this took place even though, on closer inspection, the Δ in ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΑ appears to have been written as a Cyrillic Д, giving rise to uncomfortable questions.
Furthermore, in the days before the Slav-FYROMIAN hate rally, the Greek community mobilised against one group’s stated intention to attend that rally and stage a counter-demonstration, protesting against the way in which they perceive that community has conducted itself during this time.
Passions were high, the youth were inflamed. In their anger, they accused various members of the Greek community of being “soft” or not fully committed to the “national cause.” After an exhausting round of appeals and counter-appeals, in which Neos Kosmos took an active role and even bureaucrats and Greeks embedded within the political system weighed in, the aggrieved group, while remaining unashamedly attached to their opinions, resolved to listen to their community elders.
They chose not to stage their counter-demonstration. Instead, they published a list of their grievances and stated that in the interests of harmony and cohesion, they would refrain from any acts that could provoke racial conflict.
These internal checks and balances exemplify our community at its best.
They suggest an organised community that though steadfast in promoting its own views about topics of concern to it, is mature enough to, on the whole, express those views in a focused way, without resorting to the vile racial slurs, acts of intimidation and violence that seem to have permeated through the recent Slav-FYROMIAN approach to protest in Melbourne.
They also suggest a community that is possessed of a strong sense of social responsibility, viewing itself, not as an isolated entity within a vacuum, but rather as an integrated constituent of the multicultural fabric of Melbourne and sharing the priorities of that diverse and tolerant city.
As a Melbournian institution, therefore, the Greek community is able to identify potential ruptures within the social fabric and to move quickly to neutralise these in the interests of social cohesion. The fact that it was able to convince the enraged potential counter-demonstrators to desist, shows just how precarious the existence of that social cohesion really is. Had those persons witnessed the derogatory slogans chanted at the Slav-FYROMIAN rally, had they seen Greek flags being burnt, had they seen the placards de-legitimising the victims of the Greek genocide, had they witnessed the attacks upon Spiros Caras, no doubt they would have felt compelled to respond. And then, all hell would have broken loose.
However, it did not. There was no inter-ethnic violence because our community at large is able to see past the political issue, past the nationalist rhetoric employed by both sides and to focus on what is intrinsically important to our existence as an entity here: the human being. No-one deserves to have the national symbols they hold dear burnt, so we refrain from doing so.
No-one deserves to see their friends and family attacked so we refrain from doing so and intervene to stop others from doing so. None of our children deserve to be exposed to raging mobs threatening or delighting in potential violence. When we see that there is a potential for conflict, we defuse it. When unspeakably disgusting acts such as the vandalism of churches take place we condemn them. And we do all of these things despite the criticism of armchair or keyboard warriors who call all those who exercise such leadership as “soft,” call their patriotic credentials into question and seek, in the social media, “an eye for an eye.”
In the end, our sense of civic responsibility prevails over our hurt feelings and any reactionary instincts. We can, bar a few unsavoury incidents, be very proud of the manner in which we have conducted ourselves.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that there is a marked difference in the manner in which the Greek and the Slav-FYROMIAN communities conducted their respective rallies.
It is understood that owing to threats made by members of that community, Victoria Police placed six police officers at the Hellenic Australian Memorial for the commemorative events of New Zealanders that served in both wars in Greece, which was being held concurrently, attended by the NZ High Commissioner and the Greek Consul-General. This establishes a terrible precedent.
As a result, Melbourne itself is much diminished. Now that the protests have been and gone, and the governments of our respective homelands have consigned both of them to the dustbin of politics, both communities now have to exercise leadership in coming together to engage with one another, rather than ignore each other’s existence, an isolation which permits people to view their co-citizens as ‘the enemy’ and thus facilitates the terrible incidences of hate speech, vandalism and racial intolerance we have all been subjected to and borne witness to lately. Our communities must find common ground, not in the naming dispute but in co-operating with each other to minimise the racism and hate speech that seems to be endemic to this dispute and must begin this process immediately, using our own successful internal mechanisms as a guide.
We owe it to each other, but most importantly to the tolerant society in which we live and which has allowed our communities to flourish. When history will write that our communities focused upon hatred rather than positioning themselves to meet the challenges that lie ahead, linguistically, socially and culturally, our legacy, no matter how much we may proclaim we embrace our “identity” in the crudest of forms, will be a very poor one indeed.