Dimitris Christoulas was a retired pharmacist whose neighbors said he had enormous dignity. At 77 years old, he looked forward to a comfortable old age. He had saved during his 35-year career and did not expect government to, at all, be involved in his pension.
But the austerity budget that Greece has imposed on its citizens reduced Christoulas’ pension. So he killed himself, writing in a suicide note that he would rather have “a decent end” than forage through garbage to find enough “rubbage to feed myself.” Neighbors say he wanted to send a political message. They say the law-abiding man was a committed leftist, so meticulous that he paid his condo fees ahead before he took his life.
The Christoulas suicide has mobilized many in Greece, some of whom describe his act as one of fortitude, not simply despair. Some describe it as a “political act” because it took place in a public square during the morning rush hour. Generally, Greece has a lower level of suicide than the rest of the countries in the European Union, but last year suicides rose by 45 percent, giving it, now, one of the highest rates. Many attribute the increase in suicides to the economic crisis. Anecdotal cases are reported–of the anchorman who killed himself when his contract was not renewed, of the couple with a disabled child whose public sector jobs were eliminated who threatened to throw themselves off a balcony, of a man who set himself on fire when a bank foreclosed on his home.
The United States is threatening an austerity budget. We are threatening, like Greece, to balance the budget on the backs of the least and the left out, on the poor and the needy. We have maintained the Bush tax cuts even though we do not need to, because Republicans want to respond to their donors, not to working people. And as I read that the Newt Gingrich health think tank has gone bankrupt, I wonder that this man would dare run for President of the United States when, he has set up a fiscal flimflam house (one of his creditors is his wife).
President Obama had it exactly right when he railed against Republican values. The most recent statistics about poverty point to its upward trend not downward decline. To be sure, these data measure challenges between 2009 and 2010, and many think that when data come out in September to speak to 2011, poverty rates may trend down, just as unemployment rates have. At the same time, too many Americans live in hardship. The unemployment rate in Greece is 21 percent. The unemployment rate in Black America exceeds 25 percent.
Yet, we Americans are docile recipients of our poverty and unemployment. Except for the Occupy movement, there has been extreme silence about our current conditions. Still the Christoulas suicide makes me wonder what silent acts of desperation Americans are experiencing because of economic austerity. How many robberies or suicides are economically motivated, and how many are unreported because they don’t take place in the public square? How many seniors are actually foraging for food, or lining up at soup kitchens because they don’t have enough to eat? How many young brothers feel that they improve their lives by going to jail where they at least get “three hots and a squat”? How many folk care enough to explore these questions and find answers?
Christoulas has a bevy of friends who say he didn’t really commit suicide, that killing himself was a message and an act of protest against the ways that Greece’s financial crisis has an unequal impact on the wealthy and the poor. While killing oneself is an extreme way to protest economic inequities, it has also been a way to rivet Greece’s national attention on the hardships that too many in that country are facing. What does it take in the United States, with unemployment still high, with foreclosures still out of control, with too many people managing “underwater” mortgages? What would happen if the economically aggrieved showed up in a public square?
Would Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum even pay attention?
The Christoulas suicide shines light on the human effects of austerity budgets, not just in Greece but also in the rest of the world. We should take heed of his public action, as it is repeated, though silently, behind closed doors.
Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.
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