This past weekend another prominent politician became the victim of “yaourtoma”. This time it was the minister of the Department of Interior, Haris Kastandidis. The minister was at a movie theater in his district in Thessaloniki (Greece’s second largest city) and was watching a movie when a group of angry college students burst in on the theater and threw yogurt at the minister protesting the government’s austerity measures and handling of the economic crisis (click here for video footage). The minister attempted to confront the students without success and had to be escorted away by his security guards.
Even though there is no cultural tradition of “food fighting” in Greece, the act of throwing yogurt at people is not without precedent. Rebel youths in the early 60s in Athens were infamous for throwing yogurt at unsuspecting bystanders. The act became known as “yaourtoma”, and to “yogurt someone” meant to hit someone (usually in the face) with a small yogurt cup. It became such a wide spread phenomenon that harsh laws were passed in an attempt to stop it. The State voted the notorious “Law 4000” that penalized the act with public humiliation. The perpetrators, referred to at the time as Teddy Boys,
had their heads shaved and were paraded in public holding signs proclaiming their “crime” for all to see. The act of “yaourtoma” was featured in the Greek cinema of the time, with most movies portraying those engaging in such behavior as alienated youth in need of a more traditional moral code.
During the past few decades “yaourtoma” had become a rare phenomenon. When committed it was usually against a public figure, and media, politicians, and public opinion most of the time condemned it as an inappropriate act committed by fringe elements. The last 2 years, however, throwing yogurt at representatives of the government has taken on epidemic proportions. The vast majority of the cases involve politicians, mostly from the ruling party. A traditional variety of Greek yogurt, made from sheep’s milk, is the most common food item used in public acts of indignation and resistance, although occasionally eggs and tomatoes have been used in a similar manner. Unlike the rebel youth in the 60s, modern yogurt throwing is popular with Greek men and women of all ages. It is not uncommon to see students marching with bags of yogurt cups ready to be thrown at a politician or at a police officer. Quite often retirees indignant at the government’s austerity measures that have had a significant negative impact on their pensions use yogurt against politicians and members of the Greek security forces. At the height of the Greek economic crisis “yaourtoma” went mainstream. It has become so common an act of public indignation that this past week, Socratis Ksynidis, the vice minister of the Department of Development and Competition, in an interview in one of the most popular radio stations argued that “yaourtoma” is an appropriate “punishment” for the government’s (failed) policies. In addition, the archbishop of the city of Giannena –one of the largest cities in Greece- gave his blessing to those who engage in “yaourtoma” arguing that it is a just course of action. There is even a Facebook page called De-criminalize Yiaourtoma and a word search on Greek online Press reveals a great number of “yaourtoma” incidents this past year, almost all involving either politicians or members of the Greek security apparatus (police officer, special strike forces etc.).
To understand why yogurt is the favorite item to be used as a projectile we need to look at the association it has with Greek ethnic identity. The sheep’s milk yogurt in question belongs to a category of objects (feta cheese, olive oil, etc.) that are strongly associated with rurality and by extension with Greekness. Rurality has long been a target of objectification and fetishization in the service of national identity projects. Moreover, certain food items through everyday practices lend themselves to closer associations with ethnicity. We saw that in the incident in the Greek Parliament last week discussed in my previous post, the Chairman in his comment associated milk and bread with rurality but the MP’s actions linked those very same items with gender and class identity.
The polluting power of food running down someone’s head and clothes identifies “yaourtoma” as a symbolic act of indignation that aims to ridicule and punish those whom the public considers guilty of government cronyism, incompetency, and the continuing mismanagement of the Greek economy. Paying attention to what the demonstrators themselves have to say about the economic crisis brings us closer to understanding why yogurt is the preferred food to be used as projectile. During the past year the crisis deepened and it became increasingly obvious that the austerity program was not working. The government responded with more and stricter austerity measures, under the direction of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), its European equivalent, the EFSF, and the European Commission, the three agencies in charge of the Greek bailout program headed by the IMF. Since the beginning of the crisis these agencies have pressured the government towards a restructuring of the Greek economy based on classic neo-liberal economic principles: reduction of the welfare state, privatization of public services, market deregulation, and lowering wage labor cost. This has been presented to the public as strategy to make the Greek economy more competitive by increasing its exports and revenue and eventually reducing its deficit to manageable levels. In fact these policies, along with the over-taxation of the working class, have led to a deeper recession and reduced standards of living for millions of people. Although, the three agencies in charge of the bailout program have come to be called the Troika, most people refer to the functionaries of these agencies as Troikanoi, an adjective that indicates a person of foreign ethnic or national origins.
During the past year, more and more people who had never before protested in public are finding themselves in the streets demonstrating against the austerity measures based on IMF policies. They are also protesting against a neo-liberal vision of society that they judge to be foreign and incompatible with the local moral economy. Many do not share the IMF’s vision of a country with flexible labor laws, low wages, and high unemployment always ready to provide a work force at a very low cost. The fact that yogurt is strongly associated with ethnic identity has its significance since the victims of “yaourtoma” are the representatives and implementers of policies and ideologies considered to be hostile and foreign. Furthermore, the physicality of the contact between yogurt and the bodies of those doing the throwing and those getting targeted is one way to engender resistance to the foreign and hostile nature of the IMF’s vision for Greece, by literally covering the representatives of these policies in the viscous Greekness of sheep’s milk yogurt. In the video footage showing the students throwing yogurt at the minister of the Department of Interior Affairs the students’ angry comments are clearly audible: “You have ruined our lives! You have condemned us to unemployment! Aren’t you ashamed? You need to leave Greece! All of you need to leave Greece”. A type of yogurt with strong associations to ethnic identity, Greek rural life, and social values embodies the radical clash between the protesters’ vision of a growing economy regulated by a competent and just welfare State and the IMF’s vision of Greece, which as the adjacent political cartoon published this week indicates, is for many Greeks alien and monstrous.