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18 June, 2024
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Online coordination sparks mass protests for free beaches

From bus seat to collective action for civil rights

By Charidemos Tsoukkas 

Many see wrongdoings or abuses of power, but they have self-taught themselves to overlook them. Many experience humiliations or injustices, but they have learned to remain silent. However, a few, initially a small number, become indignant. For them, silence is not a choice.

Rosa Parks did not engage in utilitarian calculations when she experienced racist humiliation on a Montgomery bus in Alabama in 1955. She naturally refused to give up her seat for white passengers, igniting the spark of the civil rights movement. While many remain silent and accept, a few express their anger and protest. Their primary motivation is passion, a pre-rational will; reason follows. "This far. No more."

Initiative groups for free beaches, emerging on Rhodes, Paros, Naxos, Halkidiki, and elsewhere, are passionate about something that concerns everyone: the use of public goods, in this case, beaches. Public goods are peculiar: although they belong to all, not all of us are motivated to protect them. Why?

Because protecting a public good suffers from the problem of collective action: while we all benefit from the good, our participation in its protection comes at a cost (time, money, inconvenience), so we have incentives to abstain ("let others do it"). We know that if the outcome of others' actions is successful, we will benefit too. Quite simply, if, through activists' initiatives, all beaches become genuinely communal, I will benefit without it costing me anything.

Most of us, as the late Elinor Ostrom (Nobel laureate in Economics, 2009) used to say, are "rational egoists." However, there is a variety of human types. We don't all experience arbitrariness in the same way, and those who are passionate about the common good (those who go beyond rational egoism, take their role as citizens seriously, and thus feel co-responsible for protecting the commons) easily channel their passion into collective action.

Finally, this happened in our islands. Arbitrary acts that we, as bathers, have been experiencing for years, mobilized groups of citizens to protest, demanding the protection of legality. In the age of widespread communication, their efforts bore quick fruits: hundreds of people coordinated online and protested physically on illegally occupied beaches; thousands more supported the effort online; in a month of news drought, the sight of demonstrators amidst bathers was unusually attractive (and therefore drew attention) to the media. The issue escalated: it reached the central political stage, compelling the government to intervene.

The initiative groups succeeded because they articulated a persuasive argument: experiential (touching many), political (highlighting the institutional dimension), values-based (defending common values), non-ideological (avoiding the curse of partisanship). "Our concern for the shrinkage of public space and our displacement from the beaches of our land unite us," writes the Citizens' Movement of Paros for Free Beaches. "We worry about the entrenchment of lawlessness and impunity on the beaches of Paros by businesses that exploit parts of beaches and arbitrarily occupy the communal space, far beyond the limits set by leasing agreements... We defend the right of the citizens and visitors of our island to free access to the beaches we love." This is an excellent example of mature political discourse – the concern for the "polis" prevails.

However, a well-phrased argument reflecting the broader sentiment is not enough. A reliable strategy is needed as well. In a fundamentally rational system, it is not enough to denounce illegality – it must be proven. Coastal arbitrariness can be relatively easily demonstrated: just compare what is happening with what should be happening. In the era of Google Maps, "Diavgeia" (transparency platform), and institutional transparency, nothing remains hidden (see Paschos Mandravelis' article, "K," 6/8/23), provided, of course, you search (searching is part of the cost of the effort to protect the beach as a public good).

The Movements of Paros and Naxos confronted the leasing decisions of the coast with the reality of the occupation of the shores by umbrellas and revealed – oh, what a surprise in the land of Zorba – widespread illegality. Their activist actions demonstrated what the state's regulatory authorities should have identified (and prevented): the public space is a free-for-all. Worse still, those institutionally responsible shamelessly ignore, complacently tolerate, or corruptly collaborate.

The movement for free beaches shows what civil society can achieve when organized properly. Organized arbitrariness at the expense of the common good can be countered by organized defense of the common values of the "polis." The citizens of Paros, Naxos, and elsewhere show us how to exist as active citizens, while also confronting the "Hydra-like state" with its responsibilities.

Mr. Charidemos Tsoukkas is a professor at the University of Cyprus and a research professor at the University of Warwick.

[This article was translated from its Greek original]

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