#StayatHome* or #StayatMoria… ?
By Ilias Pistikos
*hashtag used in the campaign by the Mitsotakis government during the lockdown in Greece.
Last Saturday (March 14th), one day after the government announcement to close down a large part of the market (restaurants, bars etc.) and the recommendation to #StayatHome, two demonstrations took place in Mitilini (the capital city of Lesvos island). The final decision on whether to go ahead with them or call them off was taken one day earlier, on Friday. These demonstrations had an anti-fascist character and strongly denounced the policies of the detention centres and the “ghettoization”. These specific demonstrations were criticized by the entire range of the conservative, fearful, patriotic and nationalistic spectrum. This was to be expected, either way. However, there was also some criticism by people who would have supported the demonstrations if it were not for the coronavirus issue, namely comrades of this struggle. The thoughts that follow are addressing that latter group of people.
We could categorize the comradely critiques into two groups. The first one, in the face of the real danger posed by the spread of the coronavirus and the perfectly understandable need to limit it, questioned the social responsibility of the people who participated in the demonstrations (“you are irresponsible when dealing with the coronavirus”). The second, directly linked to the first, concerned the consequences it could have on the wider antifascist dynamic if these demonstrations are connected to issues of social responsibility as they emerge from the public dialogue about coronavirus (“you are damaging the antifascist movement”). The coronavirus issue and its managing is crucial and the critical arguments expressed were serious and were heard. I do not dispute them, therefore I will not repeat them. The concept of #StayatHome is based on understandable needs. However, the intensity with which these arguments were articulated in many cases shows a lack of political composure or/and a perceptual distance from the narrower frame in which the decisions to carry out the demonstrations have been taken. To the degree that this is true, the thoughts that follow do not deal with these critical arguments, but attempt to complete them, revealing some of the aspects of the particular framework of Lesvos.
The first – and only one to date – case of coronavirus in Plomari (a small city close to Mitilini) appeared at a time when more than a quarter of the island’s population resided at Moria Reception and Identification Centre (RIC), inside or around the perimeter of the camp, trapped in inhumane and degrading living conditions. Namely, for a quarter of the population, #StayatHome and recommendations for hygienic responsibilities and avoiding crowds sound like a bad joke. The pogroms against NGO workers that preceded (and continue) have led to the suspension of much of these organizations’ humanitarian activity. Regardless of how we position ourselves in relation to the bio-political and economic role of the humanitarian industry, this specific development has an impact on the – already insufficient – covering of the basic needs of this population. For better or for worse, the covering of these needs was taken on in a neoliberal and almost contractual manner by NGOs and this disorderly removal from the field, combined with the emphasis on preventing and further undermining welfare policies, exposes the population to increased risks and, therefore, the related concerns.
March 1st is a landmark date for two reasons. First, the right for asylum applications is cancelled for the people who enters the country from that date forward. Second, with an arbitrary decision taken at a meeting with the participation of the New Democracy MP (ruling party), the regional governor, the mayor of Mitilini and the community leader of Moria village, a particular separation was formed between the island’s two municipalities. Militias were organized at the municipality limit lines aimed at controlling the people who move from one municipality to the other (Lesvos region has two municipalities) and obstructing the transportation of people who arrived to the shores of the Municipality of West Lesvos to the Municipality of Mitilini (Moria reception centre is in the municipality of Mitilini). The arson of Stage II at Skamia, where new arrivals used to spend the night until being transported to Moria, had preceded. These developments resulted in the ceasing of the transportation of people who reached the Municipality of Western Lesvos to Moria’s RIC. All people arriving to the Municipality of Mitilini after March 1st live under a peculiar detention regime at the port or a transport ship, while those who arrive to the Municipality of West Lesvos live outside in scattered groups under restrictive police or coast guard supervision, sometimes even with the presence of Frontex. In some cases, we are allowed to approach the new arrivals, while other times not. However, under no circumstances are workers and NGO volunteers allowed to approach them, except for the UNHCR (the UNHCR is not an NGO). At the points where approaching is allowed, the lack of care for these people and their exposure to various risks is obvious (just a few tents have been set up and many sleep outside in the cold, their food supply is disorganized, there are no toilets and essential needs, they cannot charge their phones and communicate with their relatives and friends, they have not been kept informed, they receive no health care, and so on.).
I wonder, how easy is it to abide to #StayatHome when you look out your house window and look next door and see mass misery? The question is not addressed to those people who will close the shutters, but those people who have repeatedly denounced these peoples’ condition of invisibility. Under the conditions I describe, the ease to answer the question #StayatHome or not, begins to be limited, the dilemma acquires another experiential intensity, the issue of public health now ceases to be presented purely with terms of individual and social responsibility on one, and terms of government measures supporting the public health system on the other. The parameter of mass wretchedness “in the neighbourhood” bastardizes the clarity of the above terms. The decisions for the demonstrations were taken right on the contradiction created between the absolutely understandable recommendation to #StayatHome and the equally serious reality #StayatMoria (#WeHaveNoHome). Thus, the difficult decision to carry out the demonstrations was taken not by socially irresponsible people, but people who experience this contradiction. However, there remains one question? Why demonstrations? Why a mass gathering? A brief review is needed here.
The rapid developments and suffocating media atmosphere prevailing so far have not allowed the circulation of a processed information about what happened on the islands, to the rest of Greece (Evros is a “black hole” in any case), let alone the development of detailed positions on the importance of these developments. Thus, all the questions remain open and topical: What happened? What is the meaning of what happened? In which ways does it concern the rest of Greece as well? Therefore, a large part of the people who have for years followed the developments at the borders rightly wonder how from “the Lesvos of solidarity” we suddenly went to “the Lesvos of shame”. I am not trying to answer those questions, but to reveal some aspects of the Lesvos context regarding the understanding of the decisions to carry out these demonstrations.
Focusing mainly on Lesvos, we could say that up to 2015 was dominated by the dogma of “preventing illegal immigrants”, while on a street level dominated the antifascist dynamics, dynamics of solidarity to refugees (no public space was left for organized far-right activity). From 2015 up to mid 2019 dominated the dogma of “rescuing refugees”, while the solidarity activity acquired more professional and voluntary characteristics (we sometimes call it “NGOization”), in a broader context of weakening the social movement processes all over Greece. That was the four-year period of the Lesvos of solidarity, nominated for a Nobel prize, awarded by the UNHCR, visited by the Pope and the celebrities of Game of Thrones, etc. In addition, it was the period of degradation of the village of Moria and the intense disruption of its citizens’ sense of security, but also a period of local competition between the tourist industry and humanitarian industry, a period with intense changes in the island’s economic geography (entertainment and dining venues increased, available rooms in the wider Mitilini area were occupied, the houses were rented out, rent prices went up, public transport means were full, car rentals were working all year long, there were many job offers, especially in 2016 and ‘17, while there was an appearance of para-economy activities, profiteering and exploitation, particularly against the first Syrians who began to arrive, who came from the middle social strata). It is early to try to name this new dogma that began to prevail, but it obvious that the “rescuing refugees” dogma reached its end and the “solidarity island” sign that triumphed for more than four years in Lesvos was taken down in a hurry, while six weeks ago a banner was put up on the prefecture building that reads “We want our lives back”. Whatever symbolized the “rescuing refugees” dogma has been violently targeted (arson of Stage II and One Happy Family school, attacks on Mare Liberum rescue boat, the targeting of activists, pogroms against workers and NGO volunteers, beatings and targeted attacks on houses, suspension of operations of Lighthouse (a rescuing NGO in Skala Skamias), harassment of journalists and the coordinator of the UNHCR, militias obstructing the transportation of people, etc.).
However, no sign can degrade the heterogeneity and complexity of the social reality and composition. In 2015, the “Lesvos of solidarity” prevailed overlapping voices of skepticism, conservative, fearful, xenophobic, racist, far-right or/and fascist. These voices existed, even at a molecular level. It didn’t mean that the entire island united and poured out to the paths of solidarity, but that the above change in dogmas and the already quite organizationally prepared solidarity dynamic dominated in the public space, media and territorial, overshadowing other voices. Respectively or vice versa, we now experience a far-right dominance in the public space. But what we saw appearing with intensity and violence, was latent in numerous previous molecular processes, while only fragmentary giving us organized aspects of its existence (like, for example, the major pogrom at Sapfous square in the spring of 2018). The voices that were repressed by the “Lesvos of solidarity” now come to the forefront, sometimes angrily and sometimes organized, but definitely with an anti-social face. This is how we reached the vicious emergence of the far-right after the previous elections and the violence we saw these last six weeks.
The danger is not so much in the organized fascist activity (most people are recognized Golden Dawn supporters or members), neither maybe the fact that it is supported by a large part by local government. The danger lies in that, with the rapid way this organized fascist activity emerged, it is difficult for us right now to perceptually and symbolically delimit it from the wider local society. What do I mean? From a united, mass pan-Lesvian resistance against the operation of a new detention centre (I am referring to the mass resistance to the arrival of the riot police), within a few days we moved towards a rapid intensification of organized fascist activity. Just when we drowned out heterogeneity with a mass reaction, the next day already we were confronted with fascist groups and militia blockades, while the larger part of the people who reacted to the riot police who came to impose the new detention centre’s building returned to the villages where they reside. This rapid transition from the mass reaction to the riot police on one, to assault battalions on the other, conceal the degree in which organized fascist activity is rooted in the wider society. From an angry reactionism to anything that has to do with refugees, to the various localisms, and from fascist-like attitudes to the organized activity of assault battalions the ground is especially slippery, let alone during a period of tension between the Greek and Turkish state, dangerous governmental manipulations and intentional media support for patriotic and nationalistic instincts. The period of 2011 and 2012, during which it would be relatively easier to show the connection of fascist activity with nazism and in this way delimitating it in a sense from broader society, passed. Now, the various manifestations of patriotism (as they manifest in a context of riot police invasion, militarization of the refugee crisis, especially in Evros – the northern land border with Turkey –, the nationalistic elation against the Turkish state and government rhetoric that supports fascism) blurry the ideological field even more, further complicating the delimitation of organized fascism by wider society. We are living through a period of intense far-right emergence with a possible impact it might escape from the border-zone and affect Greece in its entirety.
Amidst a public space, digital and territorial, drowned out from far-right activity, with the dominant mass media almost entirely controlled by the government, with bleak incidents erupting not just every day, but literally every hour, there was a strong need for collective expression that Lesvos was not overrun by fascists. The demonstrations were the channels of collective expression of the Lesvos of solidarity, but also the attempt of antifascism to come to the surface of this suffocating scene and breathe, state its presence, before its overrun by the bleakness of coronavirus. The particularity, what made the need for these demonstrations to take place even more urgent, is that Lesvos is trying to state its presence not so much to the outside world, but first of all to its own self. The aforementioned violent far-right wind emergence found the anti-fascist dynamics and its collective processes too weak, collective tools were long unused and relations inactivated since that previous period. The two weeks preparing the demonstrations were weeks of intense anti-fascist work, in an attempt to regain as much lost ground as possible. In any case, more generally, during each demonstration, besides the explicit collective claims, there is also something latent at stake regarding the thickening of the relations of those people and spaces involved, their actualization, the crystallization of political goals etc.
The people who participated in the demonstrations that Saturday are therefore not socially irresponsible, they are not people who do not experience the pressure of the way the media is managing the coronavirus and the subsequent human fear. Rather, there are people who experience the recommendation to #StayatHome within a context of different pressures than what goes on in most places in the rest of Greece. One foot at home and one foot in Moria. Moria and the people detained and abandoned on the beaches are not just a media spectacle, nor a reason to demonstrate, but a miserable reality in which a quarter of the island’s residents lived, which concerns all of us in various ways. As it’s been apparent for a while now in Lesvos, the discussion around every Moria reflects in the clearest way the social tension there is between patriotic and nationalistic orientations of action on one, and class ones on the other. In addition, Moria is not a news topic with which we occupy ourselves when there are no other more crucial news, but the field in which the bio-political dimensions of our civilization are imprinted in the most obvious way.
It should be noted that, in Lesvos, the public discourse agenda was dominated by the discussion about the coronavirus with some delay compared the rest of Greece. This is because of the intensity, speed and severity of the events that preceded the arrival of coronavirus or, better yet, that coincided with its arrival. The people of Lesvos saw the manifestation of violent, shameful and mean behaviours, organized and not, from another distance. Carrying out the demonstrations was a crucial step in the attempt of the anti-fascist dynamic to start standing on its feet mentally and organizationally, thicken its activity, extend its anti-fascist relations, reactivate older relations and strengthen the already active ones even more. In the state of emergency we are living, the above might sound meaningless. They are not. The intense and violent far-right emergence we witnessed promise many things for everyone’s future, not just the people of Lesvos. On the other, for a world that felt it was drowning in this gloom in such a rapid, violent and intense way, the above might be crucial in the attempt to meet the demands of this state of emergency.
Besides, as serious as coronavirus is as a pandemic, it is equally as serious as a case of capitalist competition and bio-political management. I believe that a politically calm stance is primarily driven by the recognition of this balance. We often say that the fear of coronavirus must not lead to social cannibalism, but it should also not lead to phenomena of political panic.