Exiled in Exarchia
The Exarchia district slouches up the Athenian hillsides, twenty minutes’ walk from Syntagma Square, seat of government in the heart of Athens. Occasionally it stirs, exploding in violence and protest at a variety of injustices: some new, others perennial. Exarchia is a political and artistic hub in a country asphyxiated by demands from distant politicians at the behest of banks. Its inhabitants are a band of anarchists, refugees, artists and others, whose lives and philosophies are entwined in a decades-old tradition of non-conformism in a deeply conservative country with proud leftist tendencies.
VOX, at the edge of Exarchia Square, was for years a cinema of some repute. Since a refit in 2012, it has been occupied by an anarchist group; its café-bar sells beers, teas and frappe coffees and gives the proceeds to ‘the movement’, as one barman called it. There are free medical clinics in a room off the main level, and a mezzanine with a bookstore and reading area. The colour scheme is neutral, enlivened by anarchist flags and murals, some elegantly painted, others stencilled. By day the music is Janis Joplin, Grime artists from London and European pop; by night it’s Greek punk and rock, with lyrics glorifying anarchism and extolling action.
Above the bar is a framed, oversized black and white photograph. A man, old enough to have social credibility, young enough to be contemptuous of it, occupies the foreground — mouth covered by a scarf, ears open, hammer in one hand, the other raised in a fist. An anarchist icon, he stands apart from the crowd coursing along a street with, on one side, Milanese terraces, on the other a pall of smoke. It is 17 April 1975, and the street is Via Mancini. Near the photograph is the cash drawer, one of the few in Athens from which receipts are never dispensed and the only one I saw containing condoms. On the other side of the photograph is a calendar; the November picture is of a hooded figure, silhouetted against tear gas, hurtling a rock towards unknown assailants — it could be Tokyo, Seattle or Athens. Around the walls there are stickers and flags from a multitude of countries, groups nobody could be expected to have heard of had they not met their members personally.
Forty years later and in a different country, the man in the photo still holds pride of place in an anarchist centre in perhaps the most focussed political area of its kind in the developed world. Its streets are narrow and the buildings, with grey balconies and unobtrusive awnings, ensure that any sound can be heard by a listener careful enough to take note — conversations, arguments, cars’ movements. Squats are common, usually announced by flags or posters draped across their facades, occupied by disparate groups. Their names — Zaimi 11, Notara 26, Themistokleou 52 — reference their street name and number, no other information is requested or supplied. Sometimes a poster forbids photography, often the ground floor windows are blocked and occasionally someone in black slips from behind a heavy gate and vanishes into a street, with a brief but friendly smile in the direction of someone they notice, or a look of purpose.
Some of the squats are involved in refugee support. One such project is City Plaza, a former hotel occupied last year and organised today by a group of anarchists. Around 420 refugees live in the rooms; breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided. Christian, a Slovenian chef in his thirties, moved to Greece to become involved in refugee support. He set up the kitchen when the project began. In the hotel’s café-bar he explains how it is run. All refugees can contribute. Children can be cared for in City Plaza or can be registered in local schools at parents’ discretion: some view the service as a welcome transitory point, others stay for longer periods, and many return if attempts to move on fail. Not all refugees are penniless; in many cases logistics are more pressing than finance. Christian points out that for those without finances or connections, the only option is a speculative approach to the EU’s vastly oversubscribed resettlement programme, which carries the risk of rejection, then deportation. All adult refugees who can are expected to contribute five hours work per week. Activities include translation, cooking, cleaning, teaching and administrative duties. Security, too, is a critical activity, organised in six-hour shifts. Twice in the past few months there have been arson attacks, and according to Christian and others the police response has been virtually non-existent. As he put it, ‘at night we are most vulnerable — I believe if the fascists had the chance they would burn us all alive.’
Start of the protests
Mistrust and overt hostility towards the police is not a new phenomenon. On 6 December 2008 amidst daily protests against the emergent economic crisis, two police officers became involved in a verbal argument with a group of teenagers in Exarchia. One shot and killed Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15; the second officer was an accomplice. Rioting began instantly and spread, first throughout Athens and then more widely across Greece. Dozens of properties were destroyed in the first night of a month of rioting, which set the tone for anarchist involvement in the development of the Greek economic crisis. Confrontations between police and residents were a regular occurrence, including armed assaults on police convoys and patrols, which were seen in the popular imagination as a direct challenge to the validity of the Greek state, something the Exarchian anarchists relished.
In recent history anarchists in Greece have never posed a substantive challenge to the state. When the 2008 crisis began and the scale of corruption in dealings between the government and foreign lenders was exposed, few people looked to anarchism, or to Exarchia, as harbingers of social change. However the struggle between the established state and the rabble just to the north of their headquarters was poignant. Police brutality, a symptom of governmental excess in the lives of many Greeks, had been exposed in a new, chilling light as the state faced its greatest challenge since the emergence of the military dictatorship in the 1960s. There to fight its excesses were bands of anarchists. The revival of this dynastic struggle at a time of new danger captivated many, albeit in a dynamic which has become familiar since: the limits of state authority, the ramifications of a boy’s murder and the merits of activist philosophy were subsumed into media stories of violence in Exarchia — a place where this kind of thing is to be expected.
The economic crisis in Greece can be seen in many ways, but the common view in Exarchia is that it illustrates simply the inevitable ends of neoliberalism and social democracy — schools of thought that are indistinguishable in the minds of many in the district. Before Greece began using the euro in 2002, it failed a series of measures established by the European Central Bank, designed to assess a prospective member’s economy and how it would affect the currency as a whole. This showed major, systemic flaws which, according to the eurozone’s own guidelines, presented critical issues for the prospective member. The government signed secret deals with Goldman Sachs to reconfigure their accounts and give the appearance of them owing less debt than they did. One headache was cured with the Goldman deal costing around $800m, and other rules were bent by bankers in Frankfurt and politicians elsewhere, who welcomed their new partner enthusiastically.
Athens went on to host an Olympic Games in a dazzling, purpose-built architectural complex and criticism waned, until the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis in the US affected banks in Europe, which had invested heavily in debt which now proved toxic, and the Greek debt — or rather, the public amount — became a far less tenable investment prospect than it had been. Shortly after the 2009 election, the prime minister announced that the Greek deficit would be more than double its estimates and it became clear that the economy would collapse without emergency assistance. A bailout was agreed by the centre-left PASOK party, which proved to be its death knell, before voters gambled on a centre-right party, New Democracy, who were destroyed by their acquiescence with the Troika’s wishes. For years, the obviousness of it all was tedious to politically-minded Exarchians — a string of calamities tragic for their proximity, but the natural end of neoliberalism. The combination of centrism and neoliberal politics, with its toxic amalgam of democracy and debt, was bound to end this way, the thinking went.
Then came SYRIZA, a coalition of radical leftist parties who promised a renegotiation of Greece’s bailout terms and threatened to withdraw from the eurozone if this was not accomplished. With a crushing landslide in the January 2015 election, they won the clearest mandate since the crisis seven years earlier. That made politicians across Europe sit up and take notice — it was not a question of if SYRIZA and the Troika would come to blows, but when; and the possibility of a radical realignment of European politics moved to the foreground. Alexis Tsipras, the youthful tieless prime minister, appointed Yanis Varoufakis — a respected economics professor, motorbike enthusiast and disdainer of suits — to be his finance minister and lead negotiations with the Troika.
The European tour that followed garnered popular support across the continent, but did little to inspire anarchists in Exarchia, who already had all they wanted — themselves. But might there be something at Syntagma Square worth believing in? Wrong question. As one VOX volunteer put it, ‘I mean maybe, but they’re still social democrats — leftwing, maybe, but look, man, I’m an anarchist — I don’t need that.’
The politics of debt
SYRIZA’s time in office has demonstrated the futility of the democratic process better than any anarchist leaflet could, were any produced. The months between SYRIZA’s electoral victory and confrontation with the Troika were some of the most febrile in recent political history. But in the end Tsipras opted to conform to what people in Exarchia consider the exact neoliberal paradigm of a nation state — the politics of debt. Even with a popular mandate won in a referendum to abandon the eurozone, he followed suit with the centrists before him and signed a new deal on austerity. He then called a general election (which SYRIZA won handsomely with no other palatable alternatives) and joined the pantheon of spent forces with titles but few legislative prospects. Today there is a sense throughout Greece that the political process has failed utterly and that there is no point in interacting with it at all — any belief in an organised political alternative has fallen away.
All this might make you think anarchism has never been stronger in Greece, with its emphasis on individuals and the downtrodden, and blunt disavowal of anything resembling mainstream politics or its tendency towards optics. This is not the case. One VOX volunteer tells a story about Rumi, who frequents the bar, attending a protest with her anarchist comrade: ‘Man, you can’t bring a pitbull to a protest: 15 guys and a pitbull: it looks rightwing!’ Why not, asks the other, ‘It’s not a pitbull, it’s Rumi.’ Another volunteer is quick to point out that while Exarchia might be viewed from the outside as the base of Greek anarchism, that does not imply consistency of action, or any kind of collective plotting. Suggesting a political campaign of anarchism beyond demonstrations would quickly be entangled in systems which have been rich pickings for neoliberals, and fascists before them.
‘Timing is everything — sometimes you can capitalise on things, other times not’, said one volunteer, correcting the confusion at the heart of capitalism — that serendipity has anything to do with willpower. Christian at City Plaza shrugs when asked if there is a network of anarchist support for refugees — there is, but only inasmuch as some anarchists know other anarchists, who offer support to each other’s endeavours where possible. Freedom from the constraints of party organisation means freedom of one’s time to organise, however circumstances, or preferences, dictate. In the anarchists’ telling, at a time when SYRIZA accepts cash in return for acting as the EU’s watchtower in southern Europe, and the communist KKE hold dogmatic meetings to examine core Marxist texts for a solution to human suffering, anarchists in Athens and across Greece have mobilised to organise practical support for refugees.
State within a state?
Occasionally there are events that disrupt even this disparate social fabric. During the summer an Egyptian man, Habibi, was shot in broad daylight by assassins who fled the scene on a motorbike. Weeks earlier, the victim was alleged, in a post on an anarchist website which claimed responsibility for the slaying in the name of the ‘Armed Militia Groups’, to have subjected Exarchian citizens to intimidation, drug-dealing and other indignities. The tipping point was identified as a ‘murderous assault’ on three anarchists at the VOX centre; and so, in the authors’ thinking, his execution was justified in the name of community safety. The murder of someone whose authority came from criminality was a departure in an area historically averse to killing police officers, let alone civilians. The claim of responsibility attracted condemnation in a post on another anarchist news website that decried the action as a betrayal of antiauthoritarian values, which anarchists ought to rebuke. Events like this are exactly why political anarchism lives in individual moments. The killing cannot elicit sympathy from other anarchists anymore than it could condemnation — how could individuals renounce the actions of a group they do not know?
At the corner of Valtetsiou and Ippokratus stands a member of the ‘special guards’, stun-grenade lodged in his bulletproof vest, gun holstered. Next to him is an armoured riot van — a bus, really — which has evidently seen action over the course of its service. One anarchist I spoke with said that in previous administrations the police would not hesitate to harass and attack Exarchians or protestors. Nowadays they mostly stick to the corner, but people know that ‘if there is trouble here the cops will get involved.’ Opinion is divided as to whether Exarchia really qualifies as a state within a state, as some proclaim. Level heads among them are conscious that this is not the case: the bins get collected (and lorries attacked), police have a presence, there are schools. Culturally the district is distinct, but its anarchic qualities are relative, not absolute.
On a windy afternoon at the end of November a roving mass of pigeons scavenge their way across the dusty brick triangle of Exarchia Square. Occasionally a strong gust blows them, and the dust, to the other side of the square where a row of small bakeries and restaurants form a boundary. The other side has larger bars and restaurants, and the third a series of small shops and off-licenses. The centrepiece is an inadvertent history of the area: a grubby lamppost rises from a cast-iron sculpture of three cherubs, one daubed in pink paint; and this stands on a marble slab, barely visible beneath fragments of posters, graffiti and scorch marks. The marble slabs of the base have been repurposed as weapons in the riots. Beyond it, a boy in his 20s leaves his own group to remonstrate with a taller man. There’s some shouting and pushing, then the boy appears to leave it alone; but he returns with a folded deckchair and throws it at the man, whose friends begin to take more of an interest. He accuses the man of being a cop. Maybe 20 seconds elapse between him picking up the chair and being beaten to the floor — and in that time a dozen anarchists materialise and watch silently, without any particular allegiance.
A woman with long brown hair and blue-rimmed glasses, without any obvious political leanings, interrupts the spectacle to ask if I would be interested in meeting an Exarchian whose work has been making waves. Christina is the business partner of George Pappas, an energetic man in his 40s whose curly greying hair and dangling cigarette and frequent references to Burroughs, Nietzsche, Pollok and Plato summon up another Exarchian demographic — artists. We speak in the doorway of what was once a gallery space. Pappas works across several media: cubist renderings of nudes, poetry, others besides. He points out the paradox Exarchia’s artists operate within: while the district is politically antithetical to the system, the Greek art scene, as he sees it, expects artists to seek patronage and systemic admiration, rather than recognising their individuality or difference. Pappas says his work demonstrates essential form across the media he works in; he is exasperated that those around him cannot do the same: ‘The government does not support us’ he says, but ‘artists need somewhere to create, to collaborate.’ Instead they are too busy seeking the patronage of a system that does not care about art. ‘Why can’t they see? Civilisation is their greatest product’ — citing an often repeated argument among western liberals that perhaps a response to the Greek crisis would be to go all-in on tourism rather than debt relief or banking reform. Where can artists collaborate in Exarchia? ‘I don’t know, really — I work in isolation.’
Christina seems more concerned with practicalities, while Pappas talks of the importance of Platonic forms. She is a social worker, unemployed due to the crisis, and has lived all her life around Athens, much of it in Exarchia. She has seen the neighbourhood change. One of her passions is the villas which line some of the streets in a variety of architectural styles; often they collapse through neglect and get replaced with nondescript concrete blocks. Christina and Pappas are politically removed from anything that could be called anarchism and more aware than many Exarchians of the contradictions implied by the district’s reputation for being difficult, yet beholden to what neighbours call ‘the system’ for any advancement. Still, Christina says it’s a good district: Navarinou park, a green space occupying the end of a block, has a park, with outdoor cultural events. And there’s no antagonism between anarchists and artists.
Perhaps the most obvious intersection of the artistic and the political is the National University of Technical Arts, whose architecture campus faces 28 October, an arterial road which divides Exarchia from the Omonia district. The buildings facing the prospect are imposing, neo-classical landmarks which suggest an extension of the city’s grand National Archaeological Museum. There is a group of students off the main courtyard, next to a blackboard with floor plans and an aerial photograph of the campus covered in post-its. Students are invited to give their views on the campus layout, from Facebook access to the more philosophical. Chief among them, explains one student, is the opening of the main gate to the courtyard which would otherwise be open to October 26 Street. Sheepishly, with the impression of someone who has invited criticism she already understood but can do nothing about, she explains that the gate will probably remain closed ‘you know, the riots. They say it’s security.’ Which they? ‘The university.’ The riots she refers to are part of the folklore not just of Exarchia, but Greece. In February 1973, less than a year before it fell, Greece’s military dictatorship faced intense protests from students and other segments of Greek society. Opposition to the junta was by no means limited to the anarchist movement, but on university campuses it was groups from the leftist diaspora which took the lead in organising opposition to the junta.
From violent protest to a shrug
One evening near where a plaque marks the spot of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in 2008, two anarchists sat down to discuss the state of their movement in Greece. Effie and Guido have the intensity and amiability that would mark them as leaders in any movement. Both came to anarchism through teenage communist phases, a common route. The conversation wandered from future plans to the annual riots, which commemorate Grigoropoulos’s death. There are rumours that there would be three days of riots, but they are unconvinced: ‘six hours, maybe’ according to Effie, though Guido, who has divided his time between Greece and Italy since 2011 when he left secondary school, says ‘rioting is unproductive’. Theory is another barren land for anarchists, he laments, pointing out that anarchism is especially limited in its thinking: ‘There’s nothing for the modern world. We’re stuck on Kropotkin.’ That summarises another of the essential contradictions of anarchist existence: the dichotomy between action and reflection.
Effie suggests that the SYRIZA government’s relative laxity in policing might just be a way of starving the movement of the fuel it needs to grow: both she and Guido point out the symbiosis between anarchism and the actions of the state. ‘Talk to the old generation, in their 40s,’ says Guido, ‘and they tell you they thought the movement would die out before 2008 happened. People left, it was really bad.’ The function of protests like the December 6 riots is two-fold; to remind people the anarchists are still present, and show that physical protest is possible even in the face of abstractions like debt, on which the mainstream systems are based. Planning beyond the immediate quickly comes in for criticism — not the dogmatic Marxist theory one might find at a communist KKE rally, but a subtle mistrust, a gentle reminder that the system is so comprehensive it taints all but the most wildly disrupted futures.
On 17 April 1975, in Milan, the man in the photograph at the VOX bar had taken to the streets to protest the fascist murder of a student, Claudio Viralli. The protest was one of the innumerable fragments which make up the ‘years of lead’, a period of violent fighting between Italian leftists and the state — Guido called it ‘the highlight of our struggle’. By the end of a day in which violence overwhelmed the city, another student, Giannino Zibecchi, had been crushed to death by an armoured police vehicle. Though the man pictured at VOX was not the victim, it seemed important to ask what he might have witnessed over the course of his life. The years of lead saw violent political action, general strikes and a mass outpouring of leftist sentiment. Ultimately the government prevailed, even after prime minister Aldo Moro was murdered (by a leftist faction which managed to abduct and hold him for over a month). Did the man in the photograph live to see the rise of Berlusconi, or the imprisonment of Antonio Negri, one of the philosophical leaders of the 1970s, who then renounced violence and re-emerged as a leading light of Marxist philosophy in the 21st century? What would he make of Guido, the newest generation of Italian anarchist, lamenting the continued failure of anarchism to overthrow its opponents? One answer, for many in Exarchia, is that of Guido. A shrug, but not a change in conversation.