Our man in Greece
ATHENS-"Oh my god Jesse, you've got to come, it's a Mediterranean cruise to Gaza," filmmaker and social justice activist John Greyson said to me, tongue partly in cheek, a while back.
He was trying to convince me that I should get on board a boat of Canadian activists and report on their voyage to Gaza as part of a flotilla of ships bringing supplies and running Israel's blockade.
Ten days later I find myself on a cramped flight to Athens, sandwiched between Toronto's contingent on the Canadian boat. After watching the latest rendition of Gullivers Travels starring Jack Black, Greyson chats with me about how his involvement in the struggle against South African apartheid, desire to tackle tough issues in the Queer community and the influence of his progressive Jewish friends has put him on a collision course with Israel's siege.
He, along with the other Toronto activists flying out had received a less than warm send off by members of the far right nationalist, Jewish Defense League (JDL), who protested their planned voyage at the airport, accusing them of supporting terrorism. Most notable at the protest was a biker with sunglasses and beard rivaling Santa Clause, pacing back and forth with a yellow and black sign that poorly attempted to combine "Hamas," and "assholes" into one word.
For the flotilla activists, the struggle is as much about forcing a local debate on alternatives to Harper's mideast policy as confronting Israel's continued oppression of Palestinians.
"Our government is not going do anything so we have to make some changes," says Kate Wilson, a member of the feminist organization Code Pink (a group planning the flotilla).
Activism is not new to Wilson. Like Greyson, she is a veteran of the South African struggle, living in Botswana for three years during white rule in South Africa and supporting the liberation struggle there and in Canada.
There is a strong culture of security upon arriving at the hotel in Athens, and information is given on a need to know basis. Departure dates, locations and contingency plans are kept strictly under wraps.
Most of the flotilla organizing happens inside two hotels where chatter about the extent of covert Israeli diplomatic pressure is everywhere. People are apprehensive about the mossad (Israel's spy agency) sabotaging boats before they depart, as was suspected to have happened to two boats before the first flotilla last year, that resulted in Israel commandeering six ships and the death of nine Turkish activists.
Meanwhile, outside the hotel, Athens is in a state of semi organized chaos as rolling, general strikes continue to loom. Most public squares and plazas in the downtown are occupied with protest tents and banners and public assemblies held nightly for the communities to gather and discuss alternative to the austerity measures gripping Greece.
In the public square across from Parliament a whole tent city, independent media office and activist community operates around the clock. I'm told by local activists that this is where the largest assemblies happen, often in the thousands.
Alongside the large and ruckus protests that have gained international attention, everywhere in the city there are signs of resistance to austerity measures. It's common to hear people tell you that the entire Parliament are the cronies of the IMF and must go.
Even walking though the shopping district to get a local cell phone I can't ignore the political posters that almost outstrip adds, and while the corporate cell phone stores are operating normally, the shop front logos have been trashed or spray painted.
And that's just it; while Palestinian solidarity activists meet in Greece to plan and prepare to confront Israel's occupation by sea, supporting the spreading of an Arab Spring in Palestine, the Greek students, workers and unemployed are bringing the spirit of the uprisings across the Mediterranean to change politics at home.
In many ways it's the same idea of the Canadian's calling their boat to Gaza "The Tahrir" after the Arabic name of Cairo's liberation square. Or as Quaker nonviolence activist and code pink member Lyn Adamson says to me before the plane lands "We have an Arab Spring, but we need a global spring."