Solidarity from Carlisle to Greece: eyewitness report

Stephen, Hazel and their two year-old daughter, left the UK back in April in order to travel to Greece on a three-month solidarity trip. Stephen resigned from his permanent job in order to travel to Greece; Hazel took an unpaid sabbatical from work. They doubled the length of their mortgage term so that they could afford to travel. Here are some reflections from their trip.

Stephen and Hazel at the mass ‘Oxi’ (No!) demonstration outside of the Greek Parliament in Athens (29 June)

Stephen and Hazel at the mass ‘Oxi’ (No!) demonstration outside of the Greek Parliament in Athens (29 June)

We are in Athens now as the Eurozone crisis comes to a head. During the last three months, we have travelled the length of the country, meeting with academics, activists, politicians, and journalists, as well as the typical ‘person in the street’, to find out first-hand what is going on in the country and how people in Greece are coping with, and fighting against, austerity.

We wanted to show solidarity with people in Greece who are struggling in the face of huge adversity and we thought this a good opportunity to build international links on the left. We wanted to learn from the experiences of the left in Greece. And with communities all across the UK already being ripped apart by cruel austerity programmes, and with yet more cuts to come, we thought this an important trip to make, and now the time to make it.

During our time here we:

  • Took part in anti-austerity, anti-fascist and workers’ rights demonstrations across the country
  • Met with many politicians and activists, including some from the governing Syriza party’s central committee and the Left Platform
  • Visited with community kitchens and community food distribution networks
  • Visited the worker-controlled Vio.Me [1] factory in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city
  • Visited an Immigrant School in Athens. Here, immigrants – regardless of their legal status – are provided with support and given free access to Greek language lessons
  • Visited the Metropolitan Community Clinic of Helliniko. This centre provides free healthcare for people who can’t afford to access support otherwise [2].
  • Attended many events, including media events with top international journalists and lectures/presentations on politics and economics.
  • Bought and gave out food to homeless people on a regular basis using our own money and also money donated to us by friends and family in the UK.
Pro-immigrant graffiti in Athens

Pro-immigrant graffiti in Athens

Observations

There is a huge amount of poverty and depravation in Greece – much of it obvious to even the most unobservant short-term visitor here: many people begging on the streets and on the metro, large numbers of people scavenging in wheelie bins out on the streets.

Also appalling is the sheer inhumanity faced by people who have to sit on street corners or on the steps of metro stations exhibiting the worst effects of their health conditions or disabilities just in order to scrape together enough money to get medicine or buy food. It is a very common sight. And all this in a developed country, part of the European Union.

But there is a different kind of desperation that only becomes apparent once you have been in the county a while. You get talking to a lot of people who have had their wages cut or in some cases have not been paid for months, and who are really struggling to get by. You hear many stories of pensioners who five years ago were providing financial assistance for their children, and who now rely on their children for money just to keep going.

You see people, wearing ‘normal’ clothes, just going about their day – but being forced to search through bins for food. These are people who have been only recently pushed into desperation and who still have the trappings of their old way of life, who still have clothes for work and smartphone contracts they can’t get out of. They go to different neighbourhoods to scavenge so that people they know don’t see them.

However, there is also a great deal of resolve here. People of all political persuasions are willing to stand up for what they believe in and take to the streets to voice their anger. Everyone seems to have an opinion and we’ve found that there is a high level of political awareness and readiness to act. We’ve found it refreshing to live in a country where political graffiti, radical posters, mass meetings and big demonstrations are simply the norm. The left is large here (albeit fractured), and left politics seems to have much more of a foothold than in the UK (not surprising, of course, given the modern history of each country).

Organisation and experience here is key: activists here seem constantly ready to move quickly and pull together large demonstrations – and they are very good at it. For example, there were two days’ lead-in time before the large ‘OXI’ demonstration in Syntagma Square (29 June), but it was slick, effective and massively well attended (from 20,000 to 70,000 people, depending on where you get your information).

We have experienced inclusiveness wherever we have travelled in Greece. The fact that we have been politically active with a two-and-a-half year-old has not caused any problems – we have found this quite remarkable. Even for serious political meetings, our attendance with our daughter has been actively encouraged.

A banner in the Vio.Me worker-controlled factory. It reads: “If you can’t do it, we can!”

A banner in the Vio.Me worker-controlled factory. It reads: “If you can’t do it, we can!”

Lessons learnt

It was interesting to see how the International Workers’ Left party (DEA), a revolutionary group within the Syriza coalition, handled the contradiction of being part of a reformist governing party. We met many DEA activists during our time in Greece – which is testimony to the sheer ubiquity of their members. DEA is only around 300 people strong, but they seemed to be active at every meeting, demonstration and event we went to. What has become apparent to us is that, despite their small size, DEA seem to really punch above their weight and that there is much to learn from the way they use their resources. Alongside their active campaigning, they run a fortnightly newspaper, run a number of social solidarity projects particularly in the area of anti-fascism, operate a printing press, translate and print radial books and posters and participate in Syriza’s Central Committee.

However, they have their critics: some members of other radical left groupings, such as Antarsya and the Spartacus League, have described DEA as ‘compromised’. Whatever your view on this, it appeared to us that during our time here, as we observed internal battles being played out within Syriza, that DEA did indeed succeed in pulling the coalition leftwards and proved a constant thorn in the side of the party leadership. Comrades can judge for themselves just how valuable they deem such efforts in relation to the bigger political picture.

One of our major areas of interest is radical strategies for tackling climate change. In Greece, it didn’t feel to us as though environmental issues figure high up the agenda at the moment (with the exception of local environmental concerns such as the anti gold mine campaign on the Halikidi peninsula). This is understandable given the number of immediate social, political and economic crises currently occurring. We feel that the knowledge many people have gained here by participating in solidarity networks and through projects such as the Vio.Me worker-controlled factory, would directly translate to successful implementation of the Million Climate Jobs programme. This would help deal with the high levels of unemployment, while lessening the country’s ludicrous dependence on fossil fuels (given the obvious availability of solar energy). One for the future perhaps…

Our experiences in Greece have also brought home that acts of solidarity really do make a difference. During the 29 June anti-austerity ‘OXI’ (No!) demonstration, we stood on Syntagma Square with a banner which read: “SOLIDARITY with the people of Greece from Carlisle, England”. Throughout the evening, we had literally hundreds of people coming over to us to thank us, to say how much it meant, hugging us, kissing us and taking photos. Many were crying, which made us cry too. (So if you were thinking of organising any kind of Greece solidarity event, just do it!)

There is a lot of anger and growing levels of political understanding among working class people here that isn’t going to go away, no matter which way the country votes in the Sunday (5 July) referendum. The ‘NO’ campaign is powerful and there is hope here, but even if on Monday the ‘Yes’ vote is victorious, the left in Greece will not back down for long. Our feeling is that, regardless of the referendum outcome, they are only going to get stronger.

Further sources of information:


Notes

[1] When the owners abandoned the building materials factory without paying the employees’ wages four years ago, the workers decided to occupy and run factory themselves. They now produce ecological cleaning products in order to provide for themselves and their families, despite legal efforts of the former employers to liquidate the business.

[2] It is staffed by doctors and nurses who provide their time for free alongside their other full-time medical work. They use medicines donated by members of the public, often by families of those who have passed away.

 

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