Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Real Democracy Now! The call from the Athens occupation of Syntagma Square

“Being in Syntagma these days is like being at a festival! And that makes me feel uneasy.” My friends sentiment sums up a lot of what’s amasing, and also uncertain, about the Syntagma Square occupation, now in its sixth day.

Inspired- or perhaps egged on? – by recent occupations across Spain (rumours have it that a message from Spanish protesters about the inactivity of Greeks spurred on the creation of the campaign to occupy the square), the occupation of Syntagma Square (and now at an estimated 120 other sites across Greece) came about initially via a Facebook group calling for “Real Democracy Now!” The intentions that brought people together are broad: a general sense of anger that the social fabric of the country is being torn apart after a year of extremely harsh austerity measures, a complete lack of faith in politicians to make things any better, and a need for some drastic changes. The idea of real democracy offers a powerful image with a multitude of interpretations.

When the occupation begun last Wednesday it was interesting that the people I spoke to about it were dubious; An ‘I’ll go if you go’ kind of attitude. I felt the same. Lots of people remain dubious, but now many of those same people are becoming more interested in what’s going on there. They have more interest and faith in it. More people are offering help and are getting their tents out to join the increasingly established crowd. More people have invested something of themselves in the process.

The momentum is growing and things are getting more organised. Solid outcomes are still thin on the ground, but then reaching consensus with 150 000 people of all political stripes was never going to be easy. Syntagma remains a non-partisan space and there is collective agreement to keep it that way (all-out scuffles between protesters and those who have attempted to erect banners or distribute propaganda have occasionally broken out). There is a strong feeling that all the partisan politics of Greece has contributed to – rather than eased – the mess that the country is in.

Performers entertain the crowds at Syntagma
The people facilitating its progression so far seem to be doing a good job at guiding people through a practical process of organising whilst also limiting the creep of political bias (one side effect of the momentous amount of protest among Greeks over the last 3 years, especially from the 2008 riots, is experience among many of how to practically organise).

The occupation is developing its own geography. The protesters who gather in front of the Parliament building itself make the most noise, but the feeling is that these are the less politicised and committed participants. On the right hand side you have the right wing supporters. Here you find the Greek flags (although most of these flags remain on the stalls of the people selling them, rather than in the hands of protesters). On the left hand side you have the left wing supporters. I guess this is a predictable split.

Moving into Syntagma Square itself, the space is a mishmash of tents, people and souvlaki stalls, all arranged around the street furniture of the squares fountains and cafes. Camps are divided into a barrio system, whereby each barrio fulfils a specific task for the occupation. Representatives from each barrio attend daily assemblies to feed back and contribute to the decision making. So far, the occupation is exhibiting the direct democracy they are ultimately calling for. There is a real sense of possibility at Syntagma; that something more lasting could be nurtured out of this collective anger. There is also awareness that what exists so far is fragile.

The support and success of Syntagma so far lies in its broad supporter base. But how do you make something specific and concrete out of something so broad? What can everybody participating agree on? It’s the age old dilemma of depth versus breadth.

The occupation has been praised for its diversity, particularly in terms of age and class. But the occupation is also incredibly white. Talking to a friend from Bangladesh who has lived in Athens for a year, he said he had no interest in Syntagma. Why would he? His experience of Greece has so far been one of unemployment and harassment. Why should he show interest in problems affecting Greeks? In that sense, there remain parts of the community – especially those who might consider themselves excluded from it, such as ‘illegal’ migrants and refugees  – who don’t see an opportunity in Syntagma; that this thing doesn’t speak for them. Syntagma is diverse, but within certain boundaries, primarily of nationality and race.

As a (white) brit living in Athens, the occupation feels Greek. Indeed, it is an outcry of anger to some definitive Greek problems (regaining Greek sovereignty from the IMF, World Bank and EU, for example, or the specific nature of Greek clientalism and political corruption). But issues of debt and fraudulent democracy are issues that extend beyond Greece and are shared with the wave of occupations across Europe and North Africa. The occupation currently feels like it has enough nationalism in it to exclude those who don’t identify themselves as Greek and to limit its connection to these other sites of protest. There needs to be more space within the discourse of Syntagma for the global dimension of its crises, for Syntagma to link up with the other occupations across Europe and Africa and really embrace the global nature of these protests.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

'Activists' 'migrants' 'natives'

The last few days Sally has been staying at my place. She is interested/involved in migration issues in a way similar to me and is here in Athens for a few days before spending a month in Patras as part of her studies and activism. So, we are having some interesting chats about stuff!

Yesterday we continued talking about how you overcome the hierarchies that exist between ‘migrants’ and ‘natives’ and ‘activists’. Exarchia is very much a little bubble of ‘activists’, but it is also a district isolated from the violence migrants experience in Athens. Exarchia is a fairly white neighbourhood. So one of the ways that hierarchies are perpetuated is through a physical separation. This got me thinking about my Greek class, and also about the Afghan occupation...

Talking to a friend after my Greek class earlier that day, I was saying how I wished we could find some practical way of showing solidarity to those students who still aren’t coming to class these last weeks. He said that he didn’t think there was anything the centre could really do; too little resources and too little free time; That also this was their struggle and they needed to organise themselves to find a way to overcome it.

But after our conversation I was thinking how that is exactly the way of looking at it that perpetuates the hierarchy / divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’; it’s an issue that we can choose to engage in or walk away from. The people living in Omonia or Victoria or Agios Pantelimonas
don’t have that choice. Every day there is the violence of poverty and physical attacks and they don’t have a choice to ignore it. So far, many of the students at the Greek class seem to have ‘chosen’ to stay at home. The real conflict between migrants and natives in Athens is the result of a whole multitude of processes. The presence of migrants is a visible part of it. But this act is far from the beginning or the end of the processes that led to it. It’s not just their struggle because we are also a part of that process and to view it that way is also to perpetuate the idea of ‘migrants’ as scapegoats. They get the rough end of a stick that we are complicit in creating.

We all contribute to creating the situation that migrants and natives face on the streets of Athens, and Exarchia, as a place central to creating the idea of an activist community, actually feels very isolated from the realities of life for them.

So the more I turn these ideas over in my head, the more I come to the conclusion that in order to show solidarity you need to ditch your ability to walk away from it all and remove the spatial divide between yourself. Why am I living in Exarchia? Why am I not living in Victoria?

Does this bring us a step closer to true solidarity? Is solidarity similarity? Is this a step towards breaking down – as much as possible – the barriers between us?

Monday, 16 May 2011

I have been attending Greek language classes at the migrants social centre for about 6 weeks now. Normally its attended by about 20 or so people from all over the world. I have talked about it in previous posts. Anyway, today there were only three of us; me and a Romanian couple. We are also usually the only white students. We three students and the 2 teachers sat in the centre and talked about why the turnout was so amazingly low. We were certain it was because of fear after the recent wave of random fascist attacks on anyone who looked like a migrant in central Athens. It was so sad and disappointing to be sitting there, the white skinned students able to attend class, the black skinned ones afraid to come. I suggested organising some kind of car pool, to bring people to the centre. Let’s see if it’s possible. Constant participation seems like a very positive form of resistance to people who think the colour of your skin a) identifies your nationality b) is in some way important.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

It feels like a war in Athens

So, lets look over what happened in Athens this week...

Monday – A demonstration of Afghan and Iranian refugees, blocked from reaching the Ministry of Citizens Protection by riot cops, then granted a meeting with the minister only to later find out he wasn’t even there.

Tuesday – One man stabbed to death over a stolen camera. It is assumed that the murderer is an immigrant.

Wednesday –A general strike is held. Shops are closed and people demonstrate in the city centre. 67 demonstrators are hospitalised by police, one guy remains in a coma. Later that evening two anarchist squats (Skarramanga and Villa Malias) are attacked by fascists but defended. Fascist mobs roam around central districts of Athens attacking anyone who looks like a migrant. 17 are hospitalised.

Thursday – A Bangladeshi man is stabbed to death. Unplanned protests from anarchists against the extreme violence shown by police during Wednesdays demo are held.

Saturday – A car bomb goes off outside the police station in Exarchia, and across the street a motorbike, mistaken for a police bike, is molotoved, sending a massive plume of smoke down the packed Kalithromio market. One woman is treated for burns. Greek language schools gather for a celebration in Kipseli market. Anti-fascists turn out to show solidarity, but many migrants stay away.

The weeks events have left a lot of people in shock. Yesterday, having just been in the market when the bomb went off, and feeling a little bit shaken up, me and Kostis reflected on what had gone on during the week.

On the one hand you had the actions around the general strike. Anarchists and police fighting each other. This didn’t seem like anything new, but what was new, Kostis said, was the level of violence meted out against marchers on the day. Apart from the physical attacks, police used so much tear gas, that the demo was virtually inaccessible for anyone without a gas masks. And it’s illegal to mask up, so if you do try to protect yourself from gas, you’re equally liable to be arrested.

On the other hand you had clashes between fascists and migrants and activists. Kostis thought this level of public, violent presence by the far right was something new too. Talk in the newspapers is of dirty immigrants, worsening the economic situation, who need to be sent home. There is a tangible shift in support for anti migrant sentiment, which made the attacks of this week some kind of watershed. How did it get to a point when fascist thugs can roam neighbourhoods stabbing people?
Mainly the clashes here have been between fascists attacking black people. While anti-fascists made a visible presence at Kipseli market yesterday, what were the fascists doing? There needs to be a different tactic that turning up at known events. Fascists don’t come, cause they don’t wanna fight people who are ready and prepared to fight them. Kipseli market is protected. In the meantime, the people who are really being targeted remain vulnerable

I feel a sense of helplessness and dread. I’m sorry to say that I’m afraid of cops, but I’m more afraid of Fascists. How it must feel to be black in this city right now...

Monday, 9 May 2011

The hygienic wall that makes me sick

I'm fucking angry.

Having just come home from a demo with the Afghan refugees who have been campaigning for the Greek government to respond to their claims for asylum, I start reading the news online (OK. I admit. 1 source. The Guardian) and there are 2 headlines: “Nato units left 61 migrants to dieandArabic exodus likely to lead to stricter border controls in Europe”. This second article is about Europe proposing to re-introduce its internal borders in an effort to block refugees from the Arab Spring.

3 examples of how European politicians are willing to sit back and continue to erect a wall to protect its wealth and privilege whilst others die. And 3 examples of how Europeans are prepared to sit back and let it happen. It happens because we are able to keep the realities of the effects of such decisions at a distance. There is a hygienic wall between 'us' and 'them'. But the idea of 'us' and 'them' is what’s wrong, and is caught up in the idea of 'our nation' and 'their nation'.

I am angry because the realities for the migrants that those articles portrayed was made real for me at the demo today.

The demo was organised by the Afghan Refugee community of Athens and attended by maybe 150 Afghans and Iranian refugees, many of whom have been in Greece years awaiting a decision on their asylum claims. The Afghan refugees have occupied a space outside the university in the centre of Athens for over 5 months now. Since the beginning of their occupation they have suffered numerous attacks from police and fascists. Back in December, 9 of them begun a hunger strike, sewing their lips together in protest and desperation. 5 months later, and the hunger strike long over, the occupation still continues.

It continues because they have still not had a response from the government. And perhaps this is the most shameful thing. That the authorities do not even bother to address them; those that are losing their marbles after 5 months of waiting and fighting and still trying to support themselves and their families. So once again today the campaigners and their supporters headed for The Ministry of Citizen Protection (the name says it all) to demand a response. And they were stopped from reaching the building by lines of swaggery riot cops smoking fags. Were the campaigners breaking the law? No. They are trying to claim asylum. Were the campaigners violent? No. But they sure have a right to be. Why were they forbidden from reaching the building?

After a fairly brief confrontation with the cops, we retreated to a distance away from the cops (who had threatened to start using force. And there were kids there, for God’s sake) as a delegation of campaigners went into the ministry. A meeting with the minister was what the campaigners were aiming for (unfortunately if you wanna get their rights, they still have to ask the state!) so spirits were high, So, a few hours after the protest began, me and Phil headed home and will await the result.

These 3 things: the treatment of these campaigners by the state; the reintroduction of borders to keep people out, and the wilful killing of so many refugees. It’s disgusting. It’s shameful. I am ashamed.

Reinforcing and increasing an uneven division between wealth and right is damaging for everybody.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

International Workers day in Athens

A few weeks ago I read an article in The Guardian talking about the real possibility of Greece defaulting on its loans, and about how civil unrest is also on the rise. The article featured a photo of the riot cops up against the powerful and ongoing protest of activists, fighting against the building of a Euro-dump in the Athens suburb of Keratea as one of several examples of civil unrest right now. It suggested that the country was reaching boiling point and post article comments said this was the chance for the Greeks to sod the banks, sod the politicians, make the default and begin making their own destiny. My hopes were high that Mayday might be the day to galvanise all these dissenting voices and really make a play for a popular uprising and new possibilities.

So, this morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, me and Phil headed down to join the migrants rights block of the radical left demo (in another example of how "The Life of Brian" is the prophet of real life on film, there were 3 major meet ups put out, each by a different kind of leftist political group and each in different locations at different times). We got there late and I just assumed the heaps of crowds were behind us. But then we - the 5000 or so demonstrators - started marching. Through the city centre, up to the Parliament. Sombre drum beats, a few chants and speeches marking our way, our path pre-emptively walked by lines of riot cops. All was as a demo is. Still I had some expectation that something would happen.

And then the march disbanded. And everybody left. And that was the one thing I didn’t expect!

Of all the things, I really didn't predict that nothing would happen. On Mayday. In Athens. In the middle of the worst of financial times this country has seen for who knows how long. In a country that's like the European version of the mothership of public protest. Why was the turnout so small and so weak?

Talking to a guy from a Filipino migrants association, he said that their turnout had been low (around 20 or so) because despite the large Filipino community in Athens, many were afraid to demonstrate for fear of losing their jobs at a time when everyone is losing work, but migrants are being hit first and hardest. So, people are afraid and their looking to protect what's theirs in times when many are losing out.

Retreating back to a cafe in Exarchia afterwards, me and a friend - Alex - talked about it. He was really disappointed but had expected things to be small and uneventful in the end, because people were depressed. At the same time, all this political splitting (to reference "The Life of Brian" again) meant that the Mayday marches hadn't got the backing of the major unions, themselves in the pockets of the politicians and so untrusted, who have called for a separate general strike on May 11th. On the one hand people don't trust the unions, but what remains is fractured and uncoordinated. People have no faith in popular politics here, but they also have lost faith that taking to the streets will do anything either.

For sure, marches can be symbolic and hollow, simply demonstrating weight of opposition rather than actual ability to change that which they oppose. But, like the recent student demos in the UK, they can also be the culmination of lots of smaller, diverse actions and can mark a watershed when new things really are possible. 

If it is the case that civil unrest is growing in Greece in small and diverse ways (such as the huge support for Keratea, or the growing won't pay movement), then perhaps the poor turnout today is just a sign that people have lost their faith in marches, but not in creating alternatives. Perhaps it’s also a sign that the alternatives offered by the groups that organised the marches are themselves hollow.

I sat in the square, it slowly filling with returning protesters (and a little tear gas. Obviously something had happened somewhere), thinking that what I witnessed today was a disappointment, but that there still feels like the possibilities for dissent and change still exist here. Mayday so far has been disappointing but that in itself is not an accurate measure of things. And the day is also not over yet.