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.