In 2011, at a time of financial crisis and in opposition to impending austerity measures, Greeks of all ages came together to occupy Athens’ central square and inspire a resurgent form of political protest across the world. Two years on, where are the occupiers now?
2013 is shaping up to be a quiet year for political protest in Greece. You won’t have heard about the riots, protests, or running street battles. There aren’t any. With talk of a slow ‘Grecovery’, Athens is no longer the epicentre of financial and political news.
But it certainly remains the pressure point. Social upheaval continues, frighteningly exemplified by the wandering unemployed father and child I met at a community kitchen who move from free meal to free meal looking for food; or the underreported but frequent shootings, stabbings and beatings of migrants by Golden Dawn (see openDemocracy) and those that support their racist and extra-judicial violence .
2011 occupation of Syntagma Square
This year feels sheepish in comparison to 2011; a year of surging grass-roots politics, a global political ‘moment’. Back then, Greeks of all ages and most political persuasions had occupied Syntagma, Athens’ central square and most prominent public space, alongside occupiers in the US, the UK, Spain, Israel, Egypt, and beyond .
Niovi Laúd, who co-runs a fair-trade cooperative café in Athens, was there: “I saw things I hadn’t imagined”, she tells me, sitting outside her café. From day one it felt like a new way of doing politics; a politics distinct from the slanging matches of the past. Syntagma produced discussions across fractious ideological lines that were notably civil, unusually tolerant. It was an unprecedentedly constructive and energetic coming together, at a time of imposed and impending austerity, mass protest, racism, police violence, and memories of 2008’s riots.
But that was two years ago. Today, the effects of austerity are everywhere entrenched, lagging behind the legislation and memoranda. So what happened to the energy of the occupation? There are reams of pages written on Occupy Wall Street’s fallout (see the Financial Times’ roundup), but where are the Greek occupiers?
Back to the neighbourhoods
They went home. Or rather, they returned to the neighbourhoods. At Syntagma, like in many of the other occupied squares across the Arab and Western worlds, seasoned activists mingled with the erstwhile apolitical. “For the first time, neighbours met their neighbours in a political setting”, Niovi says. “They saw that people they knew from their suburb or their street were troubled by the same problems”. The occupation provided the setting for indignant people of all political colours to form the strong social networks that are the basis for today’s surge in localised, grass roots activism.
Indeed, immediately after Syntagma’s occupation, it was through these localised networks that the ‘Do Not Pay’ (Den Plirono) movement against near-punitive taxes on housing, was so well supported by those with so different a political tendency. And it’s through these networks that, two years on, local people are attempting to help those worst affected by the crisis, those who’ve slipped off the bottom rung .
Criss-crossing Athens, most neighbourhoods have established their own non-hierarchical assemblies, regularly meeting to discuss and act upon what they see as local issues. And most impressively, solidarity kitchens regularly feed the city’s poor and act as a focal point for community togetherness. Increasingly, neighbourhood groups have also started their own doctor’s surgeries, pharmacies, tutoring services, and psychotherapy sessions. The locals are stepping in where the state has stepped out.
‘There were two Syntagmas’
“I’m not really sure what happened at Syntagma. I think there were actually two squares, two geographies: one in the square itself, where the assemblies took place, and one up the steps, outside Parliament”. Georgia Alexandri, who is finishing her PhD in urban geography, was also at Syntagma. She wants me to think about it visually: Syntagma Square is a large, sloping marble plaza with steps at it’s eastern end. Climbing up the steps leads you to wide pavements, four lanes of traffic and, behind ceremonial guards wearing a Greek permutation of the kilt, the pinkish Greek Parliament. It’s here, up the steps, that most political protests and marches begin, end, or at least pass. And it’s here, up the steps, that “they were angrier, simply shouting at the politicians”. Georgia tells me she doesn’t want to “beautify” the occupation; what happened, who was there, and what the outcome was isn’t as clear as some would have it. Yes, as you might expect, strong leftist, anarchist and autonomist networks were created and broadened in the main square, through the ‘people’s assemblies’. But the anti-political surge also attracted enraged citizens who felt their problems might be better solved by the far right.
Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London aimed to expose the financiers, not the politicians. That’s why they occupied public space in the financial districts. Although a false distinction everywhere, those with power and those with money in Greece really are a bit more indistinguishable than in the US or the UK. Perhaps Syntagma was simply the most central space, or perhaps the Greeks were making a point about how in cahoots political parties were (and remain) with most problematic aspects of Greek society.
Either way, Parliament overshadowed the occupation. The actual assemblies held at Syntagma were, by and large, constructive. But Georgia thinks that it was up the steps that those newly disillusioned by party politics began to be inculcated by the far right. She thinks many of those who were there purely because they were anti-politics, eventually ended up supporting Golden Dawn (the Greek Nazi party built on generations-old legacies of fascism).
Two types of local networks
So on one side, we have the previously apolitical, the leftists, the anarchists and the autonomists, all helping those worst affected by austerity through localised, neighbourhood groups. And on the other, there’s Golden Dawn. The party and their supporters, clad in black t-shirts and combat pants, help ‘only Greeks’ through media-friendly and provocative ‘Greek only’ food giveaways or ‘ethnic Greek’ blood donations.
Their involvement signals another development in Athenian localised politics: perhaps unfortunately, altruistic responses to austerity – solidarity kitchens or doctor’s surgeries – are now being used for party political infiltration. Yes, Golden Dawn are organising monthly media stunts. But Syriza, a parliamentary political party, are also getting in on the action. It feels as if what was an extra-party-political movement now isn’t.
Where are the occupiers now?
Syntagma Square’s occupiers forged strong networks of thriving – if underfunded and under-equipped – neighbourhood assemblies that provide the services the state has cut. For the most part, these services are open to everyone; Golden Dawn media stunts are the exception. But what of the other 2011 occupations? Where are the occupiers now? Will basic community service provision on a volunteer basis work elsewhere? Indeed, will it work in Athens, in the long-run? Whatever your politics, running a public doctor’s surgery without state funding is hard, if not impossible.
 A ballooning police force are also now enforcing tightened immigration policies in Athens. Often, their methods are brutal, several eyewitnesses I’ve met here talk of beatings of illegal immigrants being commonplace. The experiences of some foreign tourists, mistaken by the police for illegal immigrants, is testament to this.
 These movements were occupying, developing structures and debating for different ideological reasons and in country- or even city-specific contexts. Yet, they are intimately linked because they all concurrently – and sometimes in solidarity with one another – adopted the same form of protest: a semi-permanent occupation of a public space; non-hierarchical organisation; and open, decision-making assemblies.