When Politics Becomes a Barrier, Rather than Leverage

Thessaloniki  I was lucky.  With little time and information, people we had met in Brussels with contacts back home in Greece were able to pull together ten or so activists of various stripes and persuasions agreed to come together to learn about ACORN and community organizing on a Saturday evening in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in the country with more than a million population.  We met on a main street, originally a Roman thoroughfare, in the city center, and after ashtrays were found and some got coffee, we launched right into discussions that turned into a vibrant give-and-take lasting for hours.

There’s some interesting things happening through pure pluck and sweat, since most of these efforts are spliced into the activists lives between work, family, the ongoing economic crisis, and their need to be engaged and part of the fight.

I heard about a self-managed workers’ factory that had been in business selling health and natural products for the last five or more years.  One of the leaders was there as well as a woman who was professionally a family therapist, but also organized assistance through a workers’ “clinic” there that included a doctor and others.  I asked if they were familiar with efforts after the crisis in Argentina, and it turned out that they had recently visited there as part of a conference that included others involved in similar, small worker-run enterprises.

I was taken by the stories of one man who was part of an organizing effort to resist foreclosures and stop evictions.  Others in the room gently joked with him about the number of court cases he had pending.  There was discussion of efforts to privatize water in Greece, which is a fight we know well from the US, Peru, and elsewhere.  There were labor activists, a radical journalist, a woman from a solidarity network, a radical professor at the local university, and several former or current trade union activists.

The one thing that seemed to unite them was politics in the sense that they were all alienated and angry at the way that the left party, SYRIZA, known by its abbreviation which stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, founded in 2004, that had won power in Greece in 2015 and through various crises, back and forth, continues as the governing party.  The left had come together to oppose austerity and the European Union’s conditions behind SYRIZA banner, and with SYRIZA’s eventual acceptance of the terms imposed by the EU, the left has splintered in opposition to the party, feeling betrayed.  The other thing that all of them had in common was their division, since though opposed to SYRIZA and more conservative parties, they are also divided among themselves.  Two women were there who had been in one case a former SYRIZA cabinet office who resigned when SYRIZA reneged on its pledges to fight austerity, and the other was a former parliamentarian.  Both are now active in Left Unity, one of the more active of the small parties of which there are fistful.

Some responded well to the ideas of ACORN and a different way of community and labor organizing.  Some were intrigued by the fights around housing, living wages, and banks.  Others, especially the politicos, seemed almost threatened by the notion that an independent, democratic, autonomous and mass-based organization could be built that was not aligned or attached to a party, and that confusion of politics versus power, and parties and politics as leverage rather than purpose was hard to reconcile.

Nonetheless, the dialogue and debate were scintillating.  It will be interesting to see what – if anything – develops among those who were most intrigued.


Pedestrian Right-of-Way Becomes Interesting Tactic

Sofia   When walking the streets of Sofia with colleagues, as always I’ve been all eyes and ears to new experiences and amazing sights, but I have to admit, I’ve had trouble adapting to the cavalier way many of them approach street crossings.  Unless there is a clear light with a red or green “walking man” symbol, they see a crosswalk and seem to be oblivious of the traffic, often neither looking right or left, but simply bolting into the street with the full expectation that cars will stop for them.  Admittedly, I live in a city where the streets are “open season” on pedestrians and crossing can be a kill zone, so I’m always dragging a step or more behind colleagues as they brazenly jump into the street, and I tentatively hang back to see if I will have to pick up the pieces.

A journalist for a weekly paper, described as one of the few independent papers in Sofia, interviewed me at some link about community organizing and how it worked.  The session was several parts questions and several parts a debate, as he tried to sort out whether ACORN’s organizing model might be adaptable to a Bulgarian context.  Finally, as we neared the end of our session he rested his main skepticism of the “trust.”  He was a young man, but the legacy of Communism he argued was pervasive and that it had destroyed the people’s ability to trust.  He felt it would be impossible to have people join together in a membership organization such as ACORN because they would not trust each other.  I was mystified, because of all of the principles that hold people together, I would not have rested an organizing program on trust, as the essential ingredient or glue.  More profoundly, I was convinced that my friend needed to get out on the streets of the city more often.  On any street corner, watching people, almost mindlessly, jump into the intersections as cars come speeding forward in all directions towards them is an amazing popular manifestation of trust.

Visiting with several environmental organizers and activists for dinner the night before I had also heard an equally powerful tactical adaptation of this kind of community recognition of trust.  They had heard that a minister of government was seeking to meet with a banker about a development they opposed.  They convened with a small, less than 50, group of associates that they called a “flashmob,” in the busy streets around the Parliament near where they had information this might be happening.  The tactic they used was to break up in small groups and go back and forth across the streets, taking advantage of the pedestrian right-of-way so common to Bulgarians, and so crazy to me.  They were 30 and 45 minutes late for their meeting with us, because they had so succeeded in creating a traffic jam in the area at rush hour that they were unable to break through it themselves.