When I arrived in Athens in July, I sent an email to Delphina, an activist and blogger who was following the anarchist activities in the city. I was hoping she could show me around and fill me in on some of the nuance that I, as a non-Greek speaker, was missing in the political scene.
Activists in Athens are coping with an almost total absence of government. The financial crisis and the EU’s subsequent bullheadedness led to catastrophic austerity measures, leaving people hungry, homeless, and underserved. And in the middle of all that came a refugee crisis that surrounding states—the Balkans, Turkey, members of the EU—refuse to confront, even as thousands of refugees remain stranded in the already strapped nation. Into that gap a group of anarchists and other leftists has stepped.
“I would be happy to meet you for coffee,” she replied. But first she asked me to summarize my basic political leanings.
Fair enough. In every movement, from Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street in America to the anti-fascist groups in Europe, there are those who are there to work and there are those who are there to indiscriminately burn stuff. Outsiders, coming in with their own agendas, or simply rank obliviousness, are often all too happy to confuse the two.
“I believe anarchism can be a movement of creation and not just a movement of destruction,” I wrote to her. “I believe that anarchism calls for direct involvement in the community, rather than waiting for a government to solve the problems it made.”
Was I pandering to my audience? A little. But I was also sincere. Either way, it worked. She wrote back, agreeing to meet me a few days later in Exarchia. Exarchia had been in the news again recently; it was the source of all the photos I’d seen of Athens police officers, suited up in riot gear, clashing with gas-mask-wearing protesters while fires burned in the distance. But Exarchia is also the neighborhood in which anarchists are building shelters for refugees and organizing food and medical care. “Sure,” I said. “I can meet you there.”
I was in Athens to figure something out about my frustration with the American left. At almost every party in New York City I’ve been to this year, the conversation has inevitably turned to politics and someone has declared, “If Donald Trump wins the election, I’m moving to Canada!” Cue the sympathetic groans and laughs, plus a few “me too”s.
Feminist celebrity Lena Dunham has said she will retreat to a “lovely place in Vancouver” if Trump becomes president. Amy Schumer piled on, threatening to move to Spain. The Guardian ran a “how-to” for American citizens contemplating a post-election exit. When Mitt Romney had a shot at the presidency, or even back when George W. Bush was running for reelection, I heard similarly high-flown threats. But few people actually leave. Emigration is an arduous, destabilizing process, even if Canada does look like America-Lite. Start to read up on what it takes to emigrate, and the option of hunkering down for the next eight years with some Netflix and wine, waiting for the next Democratic savior to come, will sound positively tranquil.
I should groan and laugh with my political compatriots; after all, it’s just a bit of fun. And now that the Democratic presidential candidate is skating ahead in the polls, the “I’ll emigrate” talk has mostly dried up. Still, it angers me deeply. When progressives respond to elections with threats of emigration, they betray a disastrous disengagement from American society, along with an unwillingness to shoulder shared responsibility for the mess our country has become. If Trump wins the presidency (and inexplicably, he does still have a sliver of a chance), his opponents shouldn’t be turning tail and preparing to run; they should be rolling up their sleeves. The moment your nation is in trouble is precisely the right moment to exercise your patriotism.
Back in July, I was walking around the Kadikoy neighborhood of Istanbul with D, a young activist. It was a little while after the bombing of Ataturk Airport and a little before the attempted coup. Things had been difficult for D, and for her city, for years now. Her professor at the university where she was studying for a post-graduate degree had been arrested and put in solitary confinement for speaking out about the government’s treatment of the Kurds. The LGBTQ pride parade she helped to organize had been banned by local authorities. She had participated in protests that the police had broken up, sometimes fatally, with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Her friends had been jailed, beaten, harassed.
When I asked her, “Do you ever think about leaving?” D looked me dead in the eye and said, “It is my mission to save my nation.”
She is part of a group that works with the most vulnerable in Erdogan’s Turkey: sex workers, the politically radical, gay and trans people, young men hiding from the mandatory military conscription, and those who risked their lives to go into Kurdish territory and document the flattening of their cities and atrocities committed against the Kurds.
She is optimistic enough about the future that she is finishing her degree in the hopes that she will get to use it, and her life is normal enough that we talked about heartbreaks and difficulties with friends and books we’re reading. Her heroes are the journalists who face dangers from the police and the government every day to document Erdogan’s slide into tyranny. D is cautious, given that thousands of journalists, professors, and other civilians have been arrested on fictitious charges in the past few months. Her social media accounts are not under her name; nor is her email. She uses VPNs to mask her location (“No one in Turkey is barebacking with the Internet,” she tells me as she helps me set up a VPN on my own computer.) Still, her position is not as vulnerable as some, and so she tells me evenly that it is her job to stay, to fight for those at risk.
I managed to squeak out of Istanbul and land in Athens just a few hours before the attempted coup. I emailed to make sure she was okay. “I’m here,” she wrote. “Pray for us.”
In Athens, the difference between the anarchist-run and the government-run refugee centers is stark. The official refugee center in Athens, run by the government, is at an abandoned airport, far from the city center. There is very limited transportation, and the refugees here are dependent on the government and volunteers to meet their basic food and shelter needs.
The anarchists, who have a strong history of activism and advocacy in Europe, and particularly in Greece, responded by taking over a three-story empty building and transforming it into the Notara refugee shelter. Exarchia is often called the “anarchist neighborhood,” as it has often been the center of unrest and revolt. After an unarmed teen was killed by police in 2008, activists in Exarchia physically resisted and blocked the presence of police.
The refugee shelter relies on volunteers and donations, but the center is run by the refugees themselves. They cook and clean, they have organized school for the children, and because they are not confined to a tightly controlled and isolating camp, they are able to participate in the city.
In addition to anarchists and refugees, I spoke with many others who are doing their part. My friend Olga, the owner of a small clothing boutique, gives a percentage of her profits to charities. I met with an immigration attorney who is working almost full time on refugees’ cases pro bono. My friend Jeffrey helps run the unMonastery, which organizes meals for those in need, classes to teach the young to code, and a community network that can stand in for the police during neighborhood problems.
I spoke with Sophia Nikolaidou, a teacher and novelist in Thessaloniki whose book The Scapegoat, published in English in 2015, is about an apathetic teenage boy who resolves to become engaged in Greece’s future after studying its history of political resistance. Nikolaidou told me she was inspired by the question, “Is passivity in the face of injustice a crime?”
Nikolaidou brought to my attention the very real problem of the Greek “brain drain”: more than 200,000 highly educated young people left Greece during the first several years of the financial crisis. People want normal lives, and they do not see opportunities in such dire circumstances. But the question of whether it is immoral to leave a country to pursue your own desires—instead of staying and fighting to help the most vulnerable, those who do not have the money or networks to start over elsewhere—has haunted us both.
There is a certain segment of the political left in America that believes if they vote the right way and hold the “correct” opinions and use politically correct language, then they are doing their part for the greater good. Unfortunately, it is a large segment. While the elites fight over issues of identity politics and representation, the other-than-elites are so often left to look on and fend for themselves.
Even if Hillary Clinton wins this election, our country’s problems—things like economic inequality, hunger, inadequate access to health care, homelessness, an ineffective and violent police culture, mass shootings, and the unchanneled energy of apathetic and angry young men—will not go away overnight. Nor are they likely to be solved through governmental action when we have such a polarized, obstinate Congress.
The way we make our country better is by participating in our country. When Americans, whether they be celebrities or dinner-party jabberers, threaten to move to Canada if things don’t go their way, they reveal their sullen bad faith: they pretend that while their country has some sort of obligation to them, they have no obligation to their country.
We can learn a lot from our activist brothers and sisters overseas. The first lesson is how important it is that we stay. And fight.