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Protest, October 5, 2011 (Photo credit: Michael Fleshman)

Beyond the Permanent State of Emergency 

A conversation between a participant in Occupy Wall Street and a Greek activist and spatial theorist

Not long before the Twin Towers fell, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben resurrected a concept anathema to the liberal notion of progress—the idea that unrelenting crisis is not necessarily exceptional. First introduced by Nazi political philosopher Carl Schmitt, the “state of exception” is the idea that a single person in power, a sovereign “decider,” possesses the ability to go beyond the rule of law in the name of what he deems the so-called public good.

As a new epoch of relentless warfare began after 9/11, Agamben employed the image of “the Camp” to describe the space and time “when the state of exception begins to become the rule.” Pointing to both Auschwitz and Guantanamo, he summoned the specter of the camp as an articulation of state power, a space outside the state in which the normal juridical order is suspended, such that citizenship disappears and the rights of inhabitants are stripped. With the explosion of refugee camps throughout Europe as a result of the Syrian Civil War and the multiplication of concentration camps throughout the United States since the last presidential election, the metaphor of the Camp may seem less abstract and philosophical to many of us than a couple years ago.

Agamben’s metaphor may help us to better understand and come to terms with the times we live in, but what about navigating, and maybe even transforming, the space we dwell in? What other option have we, beyond habituating ourselves to this seemingly permanent state of exception? For that, I suggest turning to the new book by the Athenian activist and spatial theorist Stavros Stavrides. In his new book Towards the City of Thresholds, just out from Common Notions, Stavrides pointedly suggests that we can “transform exception into a potential threshold,” in somewhat the same way we can transform a boundary into a threshold simply by moving through it.

What defines a threshold is not any particular physical boundary, however, or even its transgression. Rather, as Stavrides introduces it, the threshold can be seen as a space of passage which inherently invites movement. Stavrides recalls the way the revolutionary Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, established a network of communities that were not fixed or stationary, but rather, comprise a moving territory: “The Zapatistas said, ‘There is no road. “We are making it as we walk it.”

Living from crisis to crisis

“To cross the sea, the sailor must actually invent a passage, a poros,” writes Stavrides, translating essentially the same concept to the Greek archipelago. Oriented by metis, a form of wisdom which guides “decisions on the spot, with limited time, exactly as in the case of a sailor facing situations that mostly require fast and accurate decisions,” navigation necessitates constantly “changing in order to cope with change”; and indeed from the start of Greece’s debt crisis in 2009 through the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, Greece seems to have had no other choice but to continuously change in order to cope with change.

Indeed, when the debt and refugee crises came together, many Greeks managed to transform a prolonged state of emergency into a space of possibility. When Greece’s porous island shores greeted immense waves of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran, those who lived on the northeastern Greek islands came rushing to the waters, and even into them. Rather than turning their backs on those seeking refuge and letting the refugees fend entirely for themselves, locals offered medical care, a meal, a bed. Organizing according to autonomist principles, aid centers organically emerged along the waterfront. And for several years, Greece was an open space, a safe haven along the way for refugees headed to countries where they could support their families.

But in 2016, under pressure from the EU, the Syriza government ignored its leftist mandate and pushed these self-organized spaces out, inviting international aid organizations as it delimited the refugee population to military bases. As the way north out of Greece closed, the island camps almost immediately overspilled their boundaries and escaped containment. Tens of thousands lived in island camps with a combined capacity of 4,500. At the same time, many migrants barred at the Macedonian border as a result of the EU-Turkey Deal backtracked south to Athens, where residents of all kinds sprang into action, offering shelter to refugees and forming dozens of anti-hierarchical clinics, kitchens, and free stores. In the spirit of mutual aid, rather than charity, the anarchist community helped the first waves of refugees to independently squat unoccupied schools, hotels and apartment blocks in other parts of the city, and a central coordination assembly launched within weeks. These self-organized spaces gave thousands of refugees voice and agency, in stark contrast to the militarized refugee camps established by European governments and guarded by the European Union’s military border patrol, Frontex.

Sadly, the years following the closure of Greece’s northern border saw a backlash against the refugees and the leftists who supported them. At this time the historically left wing Athenian neighborhood of Exarcheia became a critical space of sanctuary for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran. Exarcheia (from the ancient Greek roots, ex, “outside” and arch, “rule”) has long projected a reputation as a police-free autonomous zone. This is particularly significant for the refugee population given that police in Greece have known ties to xenophobic gangs, in particular, Golden Dawn, a party with Nazi roots. While the police stood at the imagined perimeter of Exarcheia’s center in their militarized riot-gear, they rarely entered its actual heart, leaving most of the refugee squats in relative peace for more than five years.

Then, this summer a far-right reinvention of the Center-right New Democracy Party led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis ran a campaign that pilfered openly fascist politicians from Golden Dawn and catered to a right-wing constituency with a peculiar fixation on eliminating anarchists and refugees. Mitsotakis went so far as to make the expulsion of anarchists from Exarcheia a central campaign pledge. Within weeks of his election, seeking to make good on his promise to “reclaim” the heart of Athens, Mitsotakis and the Athens mayor coordinated a series of raids. Riot cops shot teargas grenades through the door of K Vox, an anarchist social center at the heart of Exarcheia Square, reportedly threatening activists with a handgun. On the night of August 26th, police raided four anarchist-run squats, two of them self-organized migrant-led sanctuaries. Rounding up all 143 refugee residents and forcing them into camps outside of Athens, authorities discarded their remaining belongings, confiscated their equipment and furniture, and cinderblocked the doorways and windows of their former refuges.

In rapid succession, within just a month this fall, over five hundred refugees in Athens were forcibly removed from the empty buildings they had transformed into homes. In mid-September, police raided two refugee squats in central Athens in the early hours, evicting over 250 people (including roughly 70 children); less than a week later, police threw 130 people out of the Fifth School, a refugee center in a neighborhood high school which had been closed years earlier due to austerity measures. As the rainy season began hundreds of asylum seekers found themselves in flimsy tents, or at best, shipping containers.

This winter, Mitsotakis proudly revealed the right-wing transfer plan: 37,000 people currently endure overcrowded conditions in open-air asylum centers, and by year’s end 20,000 of them are to be transferred to mainland facilities and stripped of any remaining freedom of movement. In other words, they are to be placed in prison camps. Mitsotakis has begun by pledging to enclose the country with armed vessels and over 1,000 additional guards, blocking the formerly porous island shores. From a space of passage, of encounter, Greece is to be transformed into a fixed fortress, or, depending upon one’s position, a segregated camp.

In-habituated

Must inhabitants of a relentless state of emergency become habituated to it? Stavrides suggests that rather than accommodating ourselves to or settling for the unacceptable reality we may be forced to inhabit, we should instead make an effort to notice our habits and take note of the patterns according to which we navigate movement spaces. “Studying these things can teach us a lot, can show us what kind of special characteristics seem to be helpful for movements, and what kind of characteristics, for example, self-enclosure, can be fatal sometimes.” It is actually “when people manage to perforate the defining perimeter of their enclave,” says Stavrides, that “they can transform exception into a potential threshold.”

In an in-person interview, speaking from my experience as a participant in Occupy Wall Street, I had the opportunity to ask Stavrides for an illustration of the transformation of a prolonged “state of exception” into a space of threshold, or of crisis into possibility. He begins with the story of a major moment in Greek history and activism, the youth uprisings of 2008:

Stavrides: It was originally an eruption of anger at injustice, ignited by the murder of a young schoolboy by policemen. But it produced a kind of network of loosely connected areas of dissent, including creative action in schools, ad hoc events of cultural importance, occupied municipal buildings, universities, squares, and the surprising occupation of an opera house. The movement spread all over the city, not focused in areas where demonstrations and violent confrontations usually emerged. It was a period of organization of different levels of society, including not only university students, but schoolchildren, and also migrants, precarious workers, and even Roma people, a segregated part of the population… Participants were renegotiating relationships between preexisting groups and building new bridges between strangers who had never met, “establishing common ground without eliminating differences.” This was similar to the invitation in the phrase, the 99 percent—which is not without its complications.

Manski: As you explain it, thresholds are a space of invitation and participation where the “rules governing social relations are somehow suspended.” “The 99 percent” was of course itself defined by the experience of inequality relative to the 1 percent, but erased internal inequities. For many participants Occupy Wall Street was a first attempt to suspend structural social relations, to directly address these internal inequities as part of the process of sharing and building power together. What are some of the things that the State does to control these porous spaces of threshold, and to limit the potentialities they produce?

Stavrides: First, a kind of stigmatization happens. The State presents sites of mobilization as enclaves of anomy. We saw this happen during the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, and during major strikes that affect the city’s flow. The State does not want these mobilizations to become a point of reference for various other, different struggles, it wants to stop this possibility. And also, in many cases it attacks these mobilizations, either with direct or implicit violence, by trying to produce a kind of “sanitary zone” around them.

This sanitary zone they seek describes an “inside” and an “outside,” not a porous condition in which things happening in a certain place kind of overspill the boundaries and reproduce themselves in different dynamics throughout the city. So, metaphorically, the police seeks to close the pores and create boundaries, actual barriers, around these potentially metastatic experiences, not allowing these spaces to breathe.

The potentiality of the city is in porous enclaves with no limits, but it’s not easy to stay porous all the time, because the state may actually force you to close yourself off in order to protect what you’ve created. So, this is something you must always be aware of and try to maintain. I mean, unless you want that—unless you commit to staying open and porous—you cannot of course achieve it.

Manski: What you’re saying applies directly to Occupy Wall Street. It started out as very porous, expanding outwardly and “occupying everywhere,” but even before the police came to “clean” the park, this started to change. It changed as soon as there were tents and enclosed territories to defend. Within the park itself, frontiers started to close in on themselves as people marked the perimeter of their “property” in this tiny park, too small to accommodate expansion. Some behaved as if defending territory or even a homestead from the nearest encroacher, a Wild West scenario. Perceived and real inequities between people led to competition for limited space and resources. At the same time, as things got increasingly crowded, people had a legitimate need to keep their tents clean, and the Sanitation Working Group worked to maintain the park as a whole. In the end we all came together to defend the park from its first threatened eviction—a call by the mayor to “sanitize” the park—by guarding the perimeter with brooms.

Occupy Wall Street assemblies continuously remained completely open and invited the full engagement of people who had never before engaged in non-hierarchical meetings. However, because everyone was welcome to participate, this also meant that it was not easy to identify who was “out of place,” in other words, an undercover cop or informant. We had to proceed regardless of who showed up to vote at these porous assemblies.

As is often the case, some chose to leave the immense, open assemblies for closed affinity groups, and the truth is that sometimes these smaller groups made decisions for the rest of us. Some of these decisions were very significant and very flawed, determining the future course of the movement without the consent of the vast majority of its participants.

Stavrides: When you enclose your initiatives it’s because you’ve been forced to enclose them. But if you don’t allow people to enter into what you’re doing, in a squat, or a strike, or whatever, who’s going to protect you when you’re under threat, and who’s going to give you the momentum to go beyond this state of Otherness, which is always in a state of precarity?

Each situation has its characteristics and its particularities, but what you do know is that sometimes becoming overly suspicious might destroy, from the beginning, a sense of possibility. In many cases (activists) are very suspicious about the rest of society and the possibility of other people wanting to join in. If you convince yourself that you are the vanguard, and the others are way behind and cannot understand what is happening in society, you yourself don’t understand (what is happening in society). This is a kind of elitism that promotes with an unbelievable speed a kind of self-enclosure, of separation from society, from those who should actually be the receivers of what you’re doing—your potential allies.

In cases in which people are inviting, and open—as happened in the occupations of 2008, as happened in occupied Syntagma Square, as happened in lots of recuperated factories in Argentina, and so on—you defend your initiatives by metastasizing space, rather than by protecting the bounds of the space you’re in, or creating perimeters. You don’t look around, like policemen, determining who should be there, because when things are (porous) you don’t know who is there actually. There are some things that you can also do, that we did in the Syntagma Square occupation, that would avert provocateurs by producing conditions that would not allow them to make their moves.

When we gathered at Syntagma Square (Athens’ civic center) we devised ways to disarm, metaphorically, the attacking forces. For example, if you have a crowd of two hundred people facing a police riot squad, playing music instead of throwing stones, well the police cannot easily attack a crowd playing music, because of course the people around the demonstrators are watching the music. So, no matter how much the police want to present this as an illegal crowd, they cannot easily attack, they are not easily legitimized.

Manski: What do you do in the midst of a crowd, when a stone or Molotov cocktail is thrown…

Stavrides: Yeah, the “hit-and-run” idea… Some think they have the right to deal with the police as if this is their personal battle. Often this attitude is connected to a kind of macho, quasi heroic and aggressively avant-gardist mentality that totally ignores collective decisions and organized forms of struggle. But the results of their actions affect everyone. The police manage to portray this as a collective choice: “This is a violent demonstration, thus we have to restore ‘law and order’…” so the movement or the demonstration experiences the results. Because they cannot run, they are there as a collective body trying to demonstrate something to the passersby (by staying) actually, about a certain struggle, certain policies. So, the demonstrators remain, and don’t run, and can become victims of police brutality.

Manski: In the U.S., the media produces this “good-protestor, bad-protestor” dichotomy, as if they’re completely different forces, even though sometimes the truth is that they can be the same people exactly. Does that happen in Greece?

Stavrides: Yes, Exarcheia—a neighborhood in Athens that has a rich history of alternative culture events and struggles connected to the anarchist and leftist movement—is presented as a center of anomy which justifies the entry of “law and order,” and this has been strategically used many different times over recent years. (Exarcheia residents’) behavior is distinguished as unruly, as marginal, as exceptional. Other parts of the city, where often the same young people hang around, or especially where precarious workers or people under pressure live, are treated as separate. At the same time, they present Exarcheia as not only the center of defiance, but as an area of decadence, drug-dealing, unruly behavior, and this entire cocktail of bad things, so that they are associated, one with the other. If you can present Exarcheia as the only place where these kinds of things happen, it’s easy to magically, in an exemplary way, suppress it, sanitize it…

Manski:  In the midst of all this, the American-Greek English-language conservative media has been portraying the anarchists of Exarcheia as invaders, as if they only appeared in recent years along with the arrival of the refugee population, to create disorder. So, clearing Exarcheia is clearing anarchists, but it also looks like the first step towards expulsion of migrants in general in other parts of the country.

Stavrides: Yeah, yeah, they want to. It has become an issue for the ruling elites, to kind of “clean” the city from the migrants, and in order to somehow legitimize this approach, they connect migration to misery, connect refugees to prostitution, to drug dealing, beyond the borders of the law… Because it’s easy money, it’s easy survival money for some of the refugees of course. This whole new cocktail of stigmatization, it not only includes political subjects, social subjects, but racially described subjects, and it also seems important to locate it all in a single place, like Exarcheia.

Manski: What do you do about the fact that it’s actually true that Exarcheia is becoming dirtier, and a bit stressful to walk through?

Stavrides: Of course it is!

Manski: Many residents are not so happy about this…

Stavrides: Of course, and also, none of this is an accident. Many say that there are connections, and mutual, let’s say, acts of support, between many parts of the police and the traffickers. Not the police as an institution, but among many (groupings within) the police. And I have many indications it is not by chance that those drug dealers are pushed into areas where a kind of alternative culture develops, such as near universities. There’s a tactic of pushing drug dealers into the neighborhood. It’s something common in many parts of the world. Drug dealing is not something falling from the sky, ok? And I’m absolutely sure, at least for Athens, that in most cases, if the police wanted to almost extinguish drug dealing from the city, they could do it.

Manski: In Exarcheia, you can’t call the police if there’s a problem, and they won’t come anyway, except maybe to evict squats. Neighbors, and certain kinds of militant activists, try to come together to address these huge challenges by themselves. This, on top of everything else they have to deal with economically. How do people navigate all these layers of challenge?

Stavrides: One thing that I have observed, as have many others, is that in the current period of austerity and harsh economic conditions in Greece people are discovering the power of solidarity, not from an ideological perspective, but out of necessity, and collective experience—collective experiences that showed them that it is possible to resist, or at least survive, when they come together to support each other.

This idea of mutual aid becomes gratifying in many ways, because you know, the conditions of austerity and injustice are, in addition to everything else, also depressing. I was trying to express to some colleagues in Europe—who are asking, for example, “will you come next October the 25th, to this room, at this time”—that for me, it’s not easy to predict, not the next year, not the next few months… And I’m saying, I don’t know, I can tell you where I will be in two months, but I’m not sure I can tell you what will happen at my university, my job, in my house, with my ability to travel, you know… This kind of limited horizon, this experience of darkness, it cannot be transmitted (explained) easily.

If the future is destroyed, and if it seems that anything can happen to make your life more difficult than it already is, if you find yourself in this position, you lose a sense of meaning, I mean: “Is this useless, what am I doing, I want to study, so? I want to travel, so? I want to get a job, so?” This feeling of precarity… It’s something you experience as an individual.

But if you understand that there are other people in your neighborhood with the same problem, that it’s not your fault that you cannot pay your debts, it’s not your fault that you cannot pay the electricity bill (as was the case in many apartment buildings in poor neighborhoods during the crisis) and you cannot send your children to preparatory school in order to ensure their possibilities in life, and so on and so forth… Somehow this makes it possible for solidarity to emerge as a creative force that both transforms the way people are understanding their own lives and life’s possibilities.

Manski: So, is “solidarity” the same thing as “mutual aid”?

Stavrides: I was thinking about writing a book about the meaning of the word, the etymology, and I realized that the understanding of the word in Greek is different than the way it’s been used in English. It seems that “solidarity” in English contains an image of a solid state, a solidified condition in which a group feels that it is one mass that can resist an outside danger. “Solidarity” is the process in which you manage to come together in perhaps a much more concrete way than in Greek. Whereas in Greek, the root of the word in Greek is alli’lenghii’, which has two parts, the first one is alilos, which is “one to the other,” and enghiyisi, which means “guarantee.” The root of this word is that each one is a guarantee of the other. So you see this conception of solidarity is not based on group cohesion, but it’s based on a mutuality of relations that produces a totality.

Manski: When you talk about these different understandings of “solidarity,” another word you talk about, “emancipation,” comes to mind.

Stavrides: The Greek word for emancipation is heiraphetesy, which describes the image of “letting go” of someone’s hand. Especially a child, when it doesn’t need the guidance of a parent. Emancipation does not have a kind of model, it’s a process. Like Foucault, who said, there are no spaces of freedom, there are only practices of freedom. You can say the same for “emancipation.” There is no place where you can find freedom—there is only the act of heading towards emancipation, which in its process produces the experience of emancipation.

Freedom as a place, this is not the actuality of freedom, it’s the rhetoric of freedom—“You are free to choose, you have possibilities, the land of opportunity”—all this stuff. Freedom to choose your own coffee brand and so on.

Manski: Yes, there is no “land of freedom,” only the practice of freedom. I do research on the Lower Manhattan area, and one of the interesting things about Manhattan—aside from the fact that it was the historic center of capitalism, and that it was also the historic center of the American government, and that these centers were right across the street from each other—is how very different definitions and practices of liberty, freedom, and emancipation expressed themselves in the exact same place.

When I think of these very different understandings of the same words, I think of the “liberty pole” during the American Revolution, which marked spaces of convergence for participatory direct democratic assemblies. The “liberty pole” was a ship’s mast, and you can imagine the symbolism. You’re talking about the mercantile captain’s perspective, and you’re talking about the sailor’s perspective, which could be diametrically the opposite. At sea the sailor lives essentially in a dictatorship; the ship is an island run by a dictator. There were periods that sailors worked for four or five years, or decades, at a time, and went unpaid—and you could say many of them understood bondage. Not far from the seaside taverns along the Port of New York, the liberty pole became a site of convergence for all types of people, ranging from practically houseless people like sailors, to enslaved Africans, to wealthy people like merchants. “Liberty” obviously meant very different things to these different groups.

Meanwhile, when you look into the root meaning, the word “liberty” expresses the privilege of making choices for yourself, as a separate individual, while “freedom” represents the rights of belonging. Individual enslaved Africans who escaped found liberty, but when they fought for freedom, it was a collective fight, a struggle to find their place of belonging, and to reroot. (This is something the far-from-leftist historian David Hackett Fischer writes about.)

Ultimately the American Revolution is understood very clearly as a fight for liberty which was waged at both ends of the economic spectrum but was basically won by, essentially, businessmen. There were so many others involved, people seeking broader kinds of liberty, and the property owners not only won out, but limited liberty and freedom to a very narrowly defined “We” which counted no one but themselves.

Stavrides: Emancipation as a process is not meant for any special group and does not aim for homogenization.

Manski: The flattening of differences will lead you to be less resilient as a society anyway, more vulnerable. When you brought up the word “sanitization” when talking about the government trying to sanitize Exarcheia square, I thought immediately about the idea of a “clean” space as a homogeneous space, and how, when you have a homogeneous body, it is actually more vulnerable to disease.

Americans are born into a strange legacy: We’re a “nation of immigrants,” but somehow we are also born with the social Darwinist image of the immigrant and the refugee as “coming off the boat,” not only filthy after their long journey, but bringing a contagion of social ills and “undesirable” ideologies with them and transforming society as if diseasing the body of society… When in fact in the case of the United States, it was not the later waves of immigrants who brought the disease, but…

Stavrides: Yeah, it was the colonizers…

Manski: …the original immigrants, who called themselves the “Founders” and saw themselves as natives, who actually killed off the indigenous population with their diseases.

Stavrides: It’s not by chance that this discourse was recently used by the Health Minister in Greece, who described the immigrants as a “health bomb,” ticking, with epidemics and all this stuff.

Manski: We see more governments somehow equating immigrants with an explosion, something we associate with terrorism. At the same time, this language isn’t new. When I lived in Israel/Palestine in 2003, right-wing Israeli Zionists constantly used similar language, referring to Palestinians as a “demographic threat,” and actually calling Palestinian babies a “ticking time bomb.” And here such language is used not just in terms of a “drain” on the health care system, but actual epidemics that bring physical diseases?

Stavrides: You have this idea of a threat to our collective public health. A public health crisis.

Manski: Once this particular sense of threat, or crisis, begins, people tend to turn inwards, are afraid to cross thresholds and encounter people beyond their enclave, out of fear of “infection.”

Stavrides: At the same time, in times of crisis, small spaces of people reinvent solidarity as a means of survival. “We the poor” can only survive, not as individuals, but as organized collectivities. This was rediscovered in Athens, uniting forces to describe the joy of a solidarity—not only within existing enclaves, but beyond them—which was shaped as it formed. In crisis, we develop new ways of understanding our social condition, beyond the way the State would shape it. In crisis we see that the State is no longer a safety net for the most vulnerable, but a mechanism of dispossession. When we see we cannot rely upon the State, we come together to meet basic needs, and discover: sharing works, but also sharing, coming together, gives us meaning.

You cannot establish dignity on your own—it occurs in relation to others, opposite another person. If he’s not in a state of dignity, you’re not either. Yes, for example, in ancient times during battle in Greece, your shield protected you and the one next to you—there was no means for protecting yourself without the other. Looking back on the military there is no glory, but perhaps we are indeed in a battle. Let’s consider instead some uprisings that give us inspiration. The central concept of the Zapatista uprising, “Dignity,” is not a thing you experience as an individual but is inclusive and expanding. Dignity is a collective experience.

Protest, October 5, 2011 (Photo credit: Michael Fleshman)

Occupy Wall Street Protest, October 5, 2011. Photo credit: Michael Fleshman.

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