Sparks of Democracy

Flowers against the Police in Athens

Despite various extreme interpretations, the rebellion of Greek December was not a revolution. But neither was it just a reactionary outbreak of violence. Today, Greece is in a deep economic crisis. The general Left either discusses and proposes bourgeois solutions, or presents no solutions at all. The experience of December 2008 can help draw the contours of a radical solution.

The uprising found very creative forms to express itself. It consisted of more than demonstrations and conflicts. These forms were so persistent and unusually strong that we can interpret them as expressions of the need of people to reclaim the streets of the city they live in. Or even to reclaim their life. This democratic impulse was also obvious in several squats. There were massive occupations of schools, universities, and other buildings of importance, like media stations (television and radio), or the offices of the country's main labor union, the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE). Also, cultural interventions in cinema movies and theatrical plays took place in various forms.

But this squat tactics evolved and also targeted public buildings that are symbols of local power. It was like a, mutatis mutandis, Greek version of a revolutionary tradition: many occupations of city halls occurred, accompanied by the call for popular assemblies.

This situation resembled the French habit of the 19th century, when the revolutionaries where marching to occupy the city-hall, because it was (and still is) the symbol of genuine popular power. It expressed the possibility of the return of power to the people themselves, through municipal grassroots institutions. It was amazing to see something similar happening during the days of the riots, even in a limited scale.

Occupations and assemblies

Occupations of city halls occurred in Athens (Agios Dimitrios), in Thessaloniki (Sykies) and in Ioannina as people were calling for popular assemblies. Many other popular assemblies took place in neighbourhoods of Athens (Halandri), Thessaloniki (Ano Poli, Ambelokipi) and other cities.

One can say that there were two distinct phenomena. The occupations in general and the specific occupations of city-halls and the call for popular assemblies. The former were simply parts of the protests, and the latter introduced the issue of power in the events. This signified the potentiality for democratic institutions that could seriously challenge the status quo and work in the direction of municipal restructuring.

It is clear though that the people engaged in these actions were not certain of themselves and their aims, and that they did not have a concrete plan in mind. The simple meeting of people is not an assembly, unless some formal structures exist and also a concrete and responsible way to deliberate and decide. Collective decision-making as such is not direct democracy, unless it is institutionalised and consolidated. During the December uprising people were disillusioned because the so-called assemblies they attended were chaotic, without any serious co-ordination.

Within these meetings, or popular assemblies, two main tendencies existed. The first one was directing these assemblies to be simply a part of this rebellion, to be organising spaces of this specific protest and struggle and work as centres of alternative information concerning this uprising and some crucial issues, like the solidarity to the arrested protesters. The second tendency, apart from the above functions, was arguing that these assemblies should be seen as potentially democratic institutions. They could form the basis for direct popular power in each municipality, becoming arenas of struggle for local and general crucial issues. In the prospect of their empowerment and even cooperation and unification they could challenge capitalism itself.

In Thessaloniki, where I live, with other libertarians, anarchists and politicized citizens and students, we occupied the city hall of Sykies and we called there in the evening for a neighborhood meeting (naming it “popular assembly”). In Greece the big cities are administratively divided in smaller municipalities. Sykies is one such municipality in the city of Thessaloniki. We became example to others who formed assemblies in other boroughs too, in Ano Poli and Ampelokipi. We ourselves were in turn inspired by the occupation and assembly in the city hall of Agios Dimitrios in Athens.

It was an important try to give another direction to the events. But in the long perspective, nothing really important survived out of this. Disappointment gradually prevailed. Today the meetings in Sykies still exist but very few people participate.

Lost opportunities

In our first meeting, the same day when the occupation occurred, the mayor of Sykies, Simos Danielides, appeared in front of 200 people. He presented himself as a politically progressive and he said that he is also strongly condemning police brutality. He ended by stating that he is willing to offer us this municipal auditorium (next to the city hall) in order to have our assemblies. He even suggested that this assembly could officially co-operate with him and the city council. All of these statements maybe were populist or electioneering tactics from his part. This is not the most crucial thing to worry about. Still, with greater self-confidence we could ask him directly to institutionalize this open assembly. Since he presented himself as such a democrat he could pass to it power about some local issues, in a way that he would be just the mandate of this assembly concerning these issues, the person who would simply implement its decisions. If he denied this, then the democratic mask would have fallen in front of many citizens. If he did accept, the next assembly would be far more successful because people would have a strong motive to participate to the popular meeting. In any case, the issue of power and democracy would become central. We were unprepared and we lost the chance to present a radical alternative. Mayor’s statement was followed by verbal attacks on him by some anarchists. In the next meeting we were 30 people and the mayor didn’t show up.

The organizers of Ano Poli assembly were inspired by our action in Sykies and called for a neighbourhood meeting in Ano Poli (it is the old town that belongs administratively to the central municipality of Thessaloniki which is the biggest). Unfortunately, when 200 people appeared, the organizers did anything they could to hold this assembly to the level of pure protest concerning the events, destroying thus its democratic potentialities.

Present and future

Generally, with lack of power and formal structure these meetings have degenerated as popular organs. What is really interesting though is that nowadays, some of these assemblies are still functioning, even with small participation. Even more interestingly, the recent months, some popular meetings were formed again so that the citizens can deal with the recent outbreak of the Greek crisis (for example in Thissio in Athens but also in the centre of Thessaloniki).

The true spirit of an era, the aspirations of its people, can be latent in minor but important events like those described above. In the conditions of an uprising, many things that seem difficult or problematic can finally become successful because within society, ideologically and practically, everything is put in doubt and people are more open to radical proposals and innovated actions. Whether these simple tendencies and potentialities can form the basis for a truly democratic society is depending on our struggles in the years ahead.