OXI Means NO

55% youth unemployment
45% of retirees living below poverty line
35% rise in suicides
$2.5 billion in profit made by the IMF on loans to Greece

But the thirst of a leech is unquenchable.

The other day, I broke down sobbing as I was heading into work. Scanning my Twitter feed for updates on Greece as I do on the CTA every morning lately, I looked out the window and saw a man on the sidewalk of Chicago literally on his knees begging for help. As I got off the bus, I stumbled down the street until I found a place where I could curl up into the fetal position and weep.

Why do we allow ourselves to be ruled by leeches?

Later that week, negotiations broke down between the Greek government and its troika of “lenders”. After five months of negotiations with the newly elected Greek government, the troika refused to budge, insisting that Greece sign a new memorandum that was virtually the same as the last, one that would deepen the austerity measures which have driven the country into a deep depression.

But Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras refuses to sign and instead calls for a national referendum on the leeches!

Cue the most vicious propaganda campaign of fear-mongering and lies to ever hit airwaves. A VOTE FOR “NO” IS A VOTE TO LEAVE EUROPE! SYRIZA WILL TURN US INTO A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY! IT’S EUROZONE OR ZIMBABWE! (Never hurts to fan the flames of racism while you’re at it). Most polls show the “YES” vote with a narrow lead throughout the week. Banks remain closed, with capital controls restricting withdrawals. The media exaggerate lines at ATMs, using footage from other countries and claiming them to be Greece. “NO” rallies get 1 minute of coverage for every 6 minutes given to “YES.” Newscasters break down in tears on television lamenting the fate that awaits their proud country should the people vote “NO.”

July 5, 2015: Shattering all expectations, scoffing in the face of crocodile tears and poisoned lies, 61% of the people vote OXI! No to leeches and fear!

I cried tears of joy that day. I felt in my bones that day the blood of courage and resistance running through me, passed down from pappoudes who fought against the Nazis, who fought with the partisans, who survived the junta, who chased the American dream, who brought me here today.

Tomorrow, the Greek parliament will vote on a preposterous proposal, a financial coup d’etat aimed at stripping the Greeks of everything they have, from property to pride. The fact that Tsipras has even allowed this proposal to be put to a vote is a defeat in itself, one that had the masses of people who voted OXI last week reeling in the confusion and bitterness of betrayal. Even still, they did not miss a beat. Protests in the streets and a 24-hour general strike will take place tomorrow. Against false leaders and leeches alike.

You see, the thirst of a leech is unquenchable, yes. But its intestines are finite. And we have them outnumbered. And the strength of the human spirit cannot be bled dry. And we will not stop until justice is served. And it is not a threat, it is cause-and-effect, when I say (and you repeat): From Chicago to Greece, no justice no peace!

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Reflections Before the Greece Referendum

The last time I visited Greece was the summer of 2011. At the time, I was very politically naive (ignorant, really). I probably could have been classified as a liberal, a hippie-hearted humanist who always cared about social justice on some level but had no understanding of politics or the history of struggle. But the 3 months I spent in Greece that summer changed all that.

To make a long story short, I saw the encampment at Syntagma Square with my own two eyes, I lived through two transportation strikes, I fell in love with all the amazing street art and political graffiti in Athens, I visited the Polytechnic University and learned the story of the 1973 uprising against the junta, I talked to my grandmother about how the Nazis burned their village to the ground and killed my great-grandfather and many others from their village in WWII, I talked to my other grandparents about how they fought as Partisans in the civil war and were exiled to Russia, and I walked around every day in a country steeped in politics and a palpable sense of history–a history that birthed my own existence.

I returned to the U.S. in September, but decided to make a 5-day detour in Madrid, Spain first. There, I encountered massive open-air assemblies of everyday people discussing politics and economics–I would later learn that this was the “Indignados” movement. I think this is when I really began to connect the dots. I remember specifically thinking, “This is so cool! It’s too bad nothing like this would ever happen in the U.S.” Little did I know that as I was having that very thought, Occupy Wall Street had just begun in NYC. And less than a month later, I flew to NYC myself and joined the occupation in Zuccotti Park. I returned to Chicago after 3 weeks at OWS and threw myself into activism.

Now, four years later, it has all come full circle, and I’m organizing demonstrations in Chicago in solidarity with Greece, at one of the most critical moments in the country’s recent history. It feels like everything I’ve done in my life up until this point was merely a precursor to this moment. The personal and the political woven into a single fate.

I don’t know which way the vote will go on Sunday but the fact that the referendum is happening at all is already historic. Either way the vote goes, there will be major political shifts in response to it.

I hope that the OXI vote wins. I hope that the people of Greece stand strong against the fear-mongering propaganda. I hope that they remember their history, our history, of all that Greece has been through and all the times it has remained strong in face of attacks. Because a vote for YES is a surrender in this economic and psychological war that the European elites have waged against Greece. A vote for NO is a vote for dignity, democracy, and justice, not just for Greeks but for people all over the world. I hope the people of Greece know what the European elites certainly do: If Greece successfully pushes back against their neoliberal austerity policies and their undemocratic authoritarian structures, then others will be emboldened and follow suit. That is their worst nightmare–and our greatest hope.

Tomorrow, the people of Greece have the levers of history, and my heart, in their hands.

Radicalized: The 2-Year Mark

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The other day, I came across this piece of paper folded into a book I had decided to start reading again. Dated 10 Ιουλίου 2011, I realized it was exactly two years ago that I had been in Greece with my cousin Giorgo giving me a “Radical Athens Tour.” And I realized how unexpectedly significant this piece of paper now was to me, a symbol marking the beginning of what turned out to be perhaps the most transformative period of my life.

That hot day in July, Giorgo took me through the Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens, a base for radical activity in the city. There I saw the spot that 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by police in 2008, which sparked massive riots throughout the country. We walked through Polytechnic University, where I learned the story of the 1973 uprising against the junta that ended in bloodshed. I saw the segregation of the city into rundown “immigrant neighborhoods” juxtaposed by shopping districts where Greeks sipped overpriced coffee. And then I got to witness history-in-the-making when we visited the ongoing encampment at Syntagma Square. That’s where I was handed this piece of paper—an open letter to the mayor of Athens from The People’s Assembly of Syntagma condemning the government’s violent repression of their encampment and their movement (among other indictments).

At the time, none of it really made sense to me. A bunch of people choosing to set up a permanent camp in front of the parliament building to protest? Bizarre. Having never learned the history of social movements, this was a completely foreign concept to me. If you would have told me at that point that three months later I myself would be part of a similar encampment in New York City, I probably would have laughed at you.

But the radical transformation I experienced that summer in Greece did not begin nor end with this tour of Athens. Living in a country that is going through such profound crisis and revolt, you are constantly steeped in politics. With each breath you take, you are breathing in the air of social change. No one living there can escape this, though many try to remain unconscious to it. Myself, I am an extremely open and sensitive soul who cannot shut my consciousness off if I wanted to, so every breath I took that summer impacted me profoundly.

I can’t say exactly what brought me to Greece that summer. I mean, I could give you the reasons I had stated at the time, such as connecting with my roots, spending time with family, practicing my Greek, traveling, etc. But those were reasons that I conjured up after the fact, to explain a decision that was really driven by an unexplainable impulse. I didn’t have a plan. I just bought a one-way ticket and went to Greece. At the time, I understood it as a quest for adventure and enlightenment. I had no idea that that enlightenment would take the form of political radicalization.

After two and a half months in Greece, still not aware of the transformation that was happening to me, I decided to stop by Spain before heading back to the States. Again, this decision was not politically motivated, it was motivated by my love of the Spanish language. But again, I found myself steeped in politics. In Madrid, I encountered the Indignados movement—though I didn’t know its name at the time. All I knew was that there were masses of people gathering in public spaces to discuss the future of human society. All of the talk about economics and politics outright was largely lost on me, but I could feel the importance of it in every cell of my body.

I got back to Chicago on September 19, 2011, two days after Occupy Wall Street had kicked off, I would later learn. It wasn’t until Occupy Chicago began about a week later that I heard about the protest in NYC. And that was when everything I had lived that summer in Greece and Spain crystalized. All the things that hadn’t made any sense to me before suddenly made more sense than I thought life could ever contain. It was as if I had spent the first twenty-eight years of my life merely observing a series of unrelated, unfortunate dots and then, in a single instant, a switch was flipped and an intricate, infinitely large truth was illuminated in the paths between the dots.

So I bought another one-way ticket, this time to New York City to join the encampment in Zuccotti Park. Three weeks later, I returned to Chicago and joined the movement here. Now, two years later, I am a full-fledged Activist committed to revolutionary social change with a number of significant experiences under my belt. From the NATO summit protest to the Chicago Teachers Union strike and the fight against school closings, from demonstrations in solidarity with Greece and against their neo-Nazi party the Golden Dawn to picketing my local alderman for his decimation of social services, I have essentially been going non-stop over the past two years, throwing myself into struggle at every turn.

I feel myself entering a new stage now, a more reflective period, as I attempt to make sense of the ups and downs I’ve experienced through participating in these struggles. Of course, I will continue to be involved in the movement (it’s an addiction really), but I hope to at least slow down a bit in order to process what I’m doing and who I have become. Finding this piece of paper was a good start.

Verse Journalism

Check out my post on the JOT blog!: http://www.jot.org/blog/2012/03/22/verse-journalism-seminar-with-quraysh-ali-lansana/

It’s a recap of the three-part seminar I participated in, hosted by the Neighborhood Writing Alliance and lead by Quraysh Ali Lansana, poet, educator, and activist mentored by Chicago’s own Pulitzer Prize winner, Gwendolyn Brooks. The workshop focused on the technique of “verse journalism,” a term coined by Brooks to describe the method of using poetry to report the news.

Art has always played a crucial role in the fight for justice. Today, with our globally connected technology, we are also witnessing an unprecedented surge in citizen journalism. Verse Journalism weaves the power of art and activism into a single poetic punch.

The Evolution of a Revolutionary

I feel like a new Me was born in 2011. I experienced a definite, profound shift in consciousness that propelled me headlong into social activism. Occupy Wall Street is primarily to thank for that. And yet, really, all that OWS did was give me a space to become who I have always been, who I was always meant to be: a Revolutionary.

The minute I heard about OWS (at about Day 7), it was like the whole world shifted into a new gear. I knew that it was going to be big. I knew that is was big. It seemed so obvious to me. And yet no one I talked to in the first couple of weeks to seemed to share my excitement. Even people more involved in social activism than myself seemed unfazed. Or perhaps because of their long-standing involvement in social activism they were unfazed, unconvinced that this would be the movement they all had been waiting so long for. But it was.

For me, it undoubtedly was. Two weeks after hearing about it, I quit my job and bought a one-way plane ticket to New York. The rest is history, as they say. I’m now back in Chicago, as committed to the movement as ever, with revolution at the forefront of my consciousness and all other concerns on the back burner.

That’s probably the best way to explain it: my revolutionary spirit has now taken center stage, though it was always there in the background. As I look back further, I can see glimpses of a Revolutionary in all of my former selves. Like in 2007, when I inadvertently got caught in the middle of a student protest in Chile, complete with tear gas and military tanks on the streets, and I liked it. Or the inexplicable camaraderie I felt with the protagonist in The Motorcycle Diaries when I saw the movie for the first time in 2005. Or the fact that the only book I read in high school without resorting to Cliff’s Notes was Fahrenheit 451.

I have always been fascinated by human nature, deeply moved by the collective tragedies and triumphs of our species. It was only a matter of time before I harnessed my own potential and actively began working towards shaping the evolution of our society.

Isn’t it strange how everything seems to make sense in hindsight, almost as if our life “choices” were inevitable? And yet, in the present moment, we spend so much time worrying about our decisions for the future. For me, that fear has mostly subsided. I am no longer afraid of what decisions I will make in the future because I know that I’m already on the right path—the path of personal and global revolution.

The Other Side of Apathy

For every apolitical, apathetic citizen in the United States, there is an enraged activist doing jumping jacks trying to get their attention.

Ok, so it’s extremely wishful thinking to imply that the ratio is 1:1. Realistically, it’s probably more like 100,000:1. But, on the bright side of economic despair, I think the gap is closing more and more each day. As people’s economic situations worsen, they begin to ask questions—about themselves, about their situation, and, hopefully, about the larger system at play.

Eventually, most people reach a point where they acknowledge some level of systemic injustice. However, a majority end up either underestimating the scope of the injustice or, more tragically, underestimating their power to change it. Who hasn’t thought to themselves, Well, what could I possibly do to change anything? And while it is true that no individual has the power to single-handedly overthrow a system, it is also true that no system can be overthrown without a mass movement made up of individual human beings. This paradox is one that keeps the masses of people trapped in an isolated and isolating illusion of helplessness.

For those of us who have escaped this trap and made the leap to becoming “activists,” one of the biggest obstacles is overcoming the frustration that comes along with trying to awaken people out of apathy. In this frustration, we often leap to the other, equally unproductive, end of the spectrum. We can become so single-mindedly focused on the injustices of the world and how we believe they can or must be solved that we become intolerant of or impatient with those still unaware or apathetic to the cause. This in turn alienates the very people we need to reach in order to create a truly unified, peaceful and just world. This counter-productive frustration takes on many forms. As I become more active myself, I am increasingly aware of these impediments to revolutionary change, both within the various organizations and individuals I meet, as well as within myself, as my own activism grows and takes on new forms.

At the organizational level, it begins by accepting the paradox of sociopolitical organization itself: having a plan of action requires a certain amount of ideological confidence, and yet it is this very confidence that can turn into the self-righteous dogma that plagues the evolution of human society. No organization is immune to this. And if an organization is going to succeed, it must acknowledge this. Any organization that does not address this paradox as a core element is dangerous, in my opinion. We must appeal to and encourage people’s critical thinking abilities if we want to attract individuals to join and effectively contribute to a global, unified revolutionary movement. An organization that proclaims to have it all figured out will only attract blind followers, not future leaders.

At the level of the individual, we begin by practicing humility and patience. We must acknowledge that, as human beings, our selves and our ideas are imperfect. We must remember to not take ourselves too seriously and remain open to the possibility that our ideas may be mistaken or at least able to be improved upon. We have to listen to others respectfully and respond in earnest pursuit of the truth, not in defense of ourselves or our ideas. This is humility. But insofar as we are confident in our ideas, we must also exercise patience in relating them to others. Supposing that there is some ultimate good or truth that we are all aiming to ascend toward, we must be mindful that not everyone is at the same level of ascension and refrain from judging others based on their current situation. We must have the patience to try to help others ascend without placing expectations on them.

Myself, I have only recently made the jump from Passive Conscientiousness to Active Revolt. It has been a liberating, empowering, and dizzying transition. I’m still figuring out how to best channel my energy, how to pick my battles, how to engage other people in productive discussions, how to not get burnt out and frustrated. It’s amazing how quickly I went from relative passivity to immediately wanting (and, on some irrational level, expecting) the whole world to jump into activism with me. It is a lesson in humility and patience that I think I will continue to struggle with for a long time. On the other hand, I have also been devouring information and building the knowledge base that fuels my activism and increases my confidence. This too is a perpetual process of learning.

It seems to me that these two opposing lessons constitute the ultimate balancing act of an activist: finding the equilibrium between confidence and humility that allows us to keep ourselves and our cause moving forward. My goal as an activist, and as a human being in general, is to never give up on this struggle.