Inside Greece's resurgent anarchist movement

  • Posted on: 3 December 2015
  • By: Anonymous (not verified)

From Al Jazeera

We go inside Greece's resurgent anarchist movement as it seeks to show that it is about more than just violence.

On a warm evening in August this year, in the quiet residential neighbourhood of Kesariani, in the Greek capital, Athens, several hundred young people gathered in front of a stage as a band fine-tuned their instruments. At first glance, there was little unusual about the scene, but this was not an ordinary concert.

Above the drinks stand, where 20-somethings wearing black waited for their beers, the flag of the anarchist movement swung between two pine trees. Behind the stage, a banner urged the audience, in bold letters, to take up arms against the state.

"When confronted by tyranny," it read, "people choose between chains and guns."

The atmosphere hovered somewhere between festive and threatening.

"Don't take photographs of anyone's faces," warned one bystander. "They do not like the press."

"Our passion for freedom is stronger than any prison bars," chanted the crowd, as the band screamed heavy metal rage into the night air. This is the message of a new generation of Greek anarchists who, after years of recession and austerity, have lost all faith in the government, and even in the state itself.

Anarchists cheer at a fundraising concert in Kesariani [Tommy Trenchard/Al Jazeera]

A makeover

Anarchy is not new to Greece. Though opinions differ on the details, anarchists say the movement started in the port city of Patras, and was brought across the Ionian sea by dockhands from Italy some time in the mid-19th century. Since then it has ebbed and flowed over the years, taking credit for helping to topple Greece's military dictatorship in the early 1970s and fighting educational reform throughout the 1990s.

But since the beginning of the country's economic crisis in 2008, the movement has been resurgent as disaffected young Greeks look for alternatives to a political and economic system many see as discredited.

On one Wednesday earlier in the year, I watched as masked anarchists in hoodies and black T-shirts hurled bottles and petrol bombs at riot police in front of the parliament building. Such exchanges have become routine.

These are, perhaps, the images that most commonly come to mind when people think of anarchists. But after decades of being seen largely as a protest movement of ideologues and dreamers, Greece's anarchists are having a makeover.

As frustration with conventional politics deepens, the movement is attempting to rebrand itself as a realistic alternative for disillusioned young Greeks by showing that it offers more than violence and vague ideas of freedom. The concert in Kesariani was a part of this initiative.

Young anarchists hurl bottles and petrol bombs at the police in central Athens [Tommy Trenchard/Al Jazeera]

While the band played, makeshift stalls selling drinks and grilled pork skewers were raking in a healthy profit. The event was raising money for, among other things, the construction of a free anarchist-run health centre, one of a growing number of social projects being instigated by anarchist and 'autonomist' groups across Athens.

"For the social revolution to happen, you need a big part of society that agrees with you and sees you providing solutions," said one anarchist on condition of anonymity. "In the past we offered only our ideology. That didn't change things for people in everyday life. But now we're changing that."


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At the heart of the movement is a bar in the artsy left-wing neighbourhood of Exarchia. Formerly a cinema, K-Vox has been occupied since 2012 by anarchists, who have been running it as a bar to raise money for various causes.

Inside, posters of blazing police cars and masked fighters toting assault rifles cover the walls. A black and white print above the bar depicts a 1975 riot in Milan; another shows an injured policeman being dragged away by colleagues at a riot in Hamburg. In one corner, in front of a mural depicting anarchists in a standoff, stands a rack of black motorcycle helmets; extra protection for when rioting breaks out in the area.

The clientele is wildly varied, from dreadlocked Rastafarians and bespectacled left-wing students to angry teens in black hoodies and the occasional visiting anarchist from overseas.

"In Spain, we have nothing like this," said Xavier, a young Spanish anarchist who dropped in for a beer one afternoon. "They just talk, they don't do anything. Here they know how to fight."

Since opening three years ago, K-Vox staff say the project has raised more than $400,000. Much of the money goes to legal costs for jailed anarchists, but a significant portion goes into social projects such as language classes for refugees, food handouts and even medical care.

A traditional Greek band plays during a fundraising event in K-Vox bar [Tommy Trenchard/Al Jazeera]

Ambassador V

When I arrived in the bar to research this story I was put in touch with V, a self-styled ambassador for the project who speaks several languages and deals with the foreign anarchists who visit.

Tall and unsmiling but with kind features, V, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition he was referred to only by his initial, has been an anarchist for more than two decades and is clearly a well-respected member of the assembly that runs K-Vox.

Over coffee and cigarettes at a table by the bar, he told his story. It all began, he explained, with the punk subculture of the early 1990s.

"Everything I liked was something society didn't want. The police would raid our concerts, and they banned our parties. Then I started to read more and became aware of the inequalities and the class system."

At the age of 18, V officially joined an anarchist group.

Now 39, he has given his adult life to anarchism. He has been unemployed for the past two years, getting by on odd jobs moving furniture or working occasionally as an electrician. He is also awaiting trial for a street fight in a "fascist" neighbourhood two years ago. But he doesn't appear overly concerned about that; getting arrested fairly regularly is an accepted part of life as an anarchist.

The goal, he argues, is a society without any form of centralised government, a society of "solidarity and equality based on self-rule within the community ... like libertarian communism".

The anarchists at K-Vox are faced with some inevitable dilemmas. How can they support their jailed comrades and fund their social services without participating in the wider capitalist economy? The drinks they serve are cheap, but not free, after all. Some must work simply to eat. One explained that he could only maintain his anarchist lifestyle with financial support from his parents.

"Unfortunately we need money for all these things," said V. "It would be better if we didn't have to ask people for money but for now we need to raise funds. In the current system surviving requires money, but we see it as a means, not a goal."

Living outside the capitalist dream

But V says that the country's economic crisis has helped to generate momentum for the movement as more Greeks grow fed up with the capitalist system. "Seven years ago people were living inside the capitalist dream. Now they've opened their eyes. They're listening more. They're looking for solutions”.

And that, he explains, is where the Self-organised Health Structure of Exarchia (ADYE) fits in.

In the basement beneath the K-Vox, the ADYE health centre sits in contrast to the atmosphere of protest upstairs. With clean white walls and family-friendly murals, it represents the other side of the anarchist movement's activities, offering free primary healthcare to anyone who turns up.

Using medicines donated by local pharmacies and with funds from the bar upstairs and other donations, ADYE offers diagnosis and treatment for most common ailments, as well as a full range of dental services. More complicated cases are referred to hospitals in the area.

K-Vox staff hope it will serve as tangible proof that their ideas can actually work and say the project has been quite a success.

"In the last two years people have been coming almost every day," said V. "It is important in many ways. First, it's practical. It helps us when we need it, it helps a lot of people. Also it's important to test ourselves at self-organisation, to see if we can provide a health centre and run it with equality. And from the outside people can see that if we work together it's possible to find solutions."

When I arrived at ADYE hoping to find out more about their work, a weekly mental health session was in full swing. Staff told me to return later that day to request an interview from the assembly, the body in charge of making decisions for the project. It is these assemblies that the anarchists hope will organise local communities in a post-revolutionary Greece.


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When I came back that evening to address the group I found around 20 members of the project sitting around a long table in the basement. A mixture of stony glares and encouraging smiles greeted me as I made my case, but after conferring briefly a figure at the end of the table, who appeared to hold an unspoken position of some authority, decided they couldn't offer an interview to a journalist who might publish it in a profit-making, capitalist publication.

In a statement on their website, however, ADYE describes itself as "a living cell of social resistance and emancipation against the barbarism of our times". It claims to have, among its volunteer staff, a radiologist, a gynaecologist, a general practitioner and a speech therapist, among others.

And it is far from unique. Similar projects are appearing across the city.

'The revolution will not come with flowers'

High up on a hill opposite the Acropolis, another anarchist clinic advertises free dental care, while in the garden of an 'occupied' mansion in the middle-class suburb of Zografou anarchists have turned the gardens into a giant vegetable patch, offering food to the the area's residents. In Exarchia, food distribution to needy families by anarchist or 'autonomist' groups takes place regularly.

"There are a lot of social experiments in Athens now," said Vagelis, a 32-year-old anarchist living in a squatted flat in an abandoned, graffiti-covered apartment block in the north of the city. Lanky and softly spoken, Vagelis is happy with his decision to break away from a system he sees as broken. His brother is university educated but still can't find work, and is living at home and dependent on his parents, he explained.

Not all of those who fill the surrounding 224 squatted rooms - once occupied by refugees from Asia Minor in the 1930s - label themselves anarchists, he added, but the community tries to live "the anarchist way".

Residents contribute what money or skills they can, and all decisions are taken by a weekly assembly that is open to anyone. A loose form of community justice ensures crime is rare; Vagelis rarely bothers to lock his door.

Some food is provided through 'cooperations' with local farmers, and language classes are arranged for the children of the many migrants and refugees who live here.

Vagelis stands at the window of the apartment in which he squats in Athens [Tommy Trenchard/Al Jazeera]

But like all the anarchists I spoke to, Vagelis, sitting on a tattered sofa with his pet cat and pouring cups of green tea from a rusting teapot, insisted there remains a need for a violent militant wing to coexist with the social work.

"The revolution will not come with flowers," he said. "They need to see that we have the power to create but also to destroy. Again and again."

From his office high up in the towering Ministry of Public Order, Director Vasilis Mastrogiannis says he has observed growing violence by what he calls "extremist" left-wing groups.

"The movement has grown with the crisis, and it has made the actions of these teams more violent .... They commit crimes like breaking into banks, looting commercial businesses, throwing a lot of bombs, destroying real estate," he said.

In recent years, a group called the Conspiracy of Fire Cells (CFC), but known locally as Synomosia Pyrinon Tis Fotias, has found particular prominence, claiming responsibility for a series of potentially deadly attacks since 2008. In 2010, it sent parcel bombs to various European embassies before being designated a terrorist organisation by the US State Department the following year.

In 2013, they placed a car bomb under a vehicle driven by the director of the city's high-security prisons, while other bomb attacks have targeted the homes of politicians, the parliament building, banks and high-end businesses.

In the same year, another anarchist group claimed responsibility for the murder of two members of the far-right Golden Dawn party, shot outside their offices in Athens.

'Small fires are burning'

Rivalry with the extreme right is intense. The current crisis has polarised the country and anarchists fear there is a danger that the population could end up swinging to the right instead of the left.

In one quiet city square, known, they claim, for the right-wing views of its inhabitants and their abuse of the city's increasing numbers of migrants and refugees, the anarchists have stockpiled clubs and riot shields in an underground bunker. Once a week they gather there to "maintain a presence".

Mastrogiannis claimed there have been further deaths attributed to the CFC and other extreme left-wing groups, though he declined to give a figure. He is eager to point out that what he calls the "terrorist teams" are few in number and have little in common with the 'mainstream' anarchist movement. He insists the extremists do not have public support, and that the police are winning the battle against such groups. Dozens have been arrested in recent years.

But in some ways the heavy-handed police response to groups like the CFC appears to have done the opposite, garnering sympathy for the anarchists among members of the public. The high-profile police killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Exarchia in 2008 brought a wave of converts to the movement.

Despite the growth in social projects by the far left, violence against the state remains a major part of their philosophy [Tommy Trenchard/Al Jazeera]

When Grigoropoulos' friend Nikos Romanos was arrested for robbing a bank in 2013, thousands took to the streets after it emerged that the police had digitally altered his mugshot to hide the beating they had inflicted.

What Amnesty International has described as a "culture of abuse and impunity in the Greek police" is a favourite topic of conversation in Exarchia, where ritualised clashes with the security forces are common. On one occasion, I watched as a group of eight unarmed anarchists distributing leaflets near the prime minister's house triggered a full-scale police intervention, with 36 riot police officers escorting the group to a nearby van before driving them off to the station for questioning. "They are anarchists," explained one police officer, simply.

Without any centralised organisation holding them together - something V blamed on internal squabbles - it is hard to gauge how much power the group really holds, and how deep their support runs within the community. Their ideas remain radical, and for many the social effect of their projects has not been significant enough to dislodge traditional perceptions of the movement.

"I don't think throwing stones at the police will help anyone," said Panayotis Skoklis, a young communist, in Exarchia square one evening when I asked him what ordinary people thought about anarchists. "They don't do anything to change the system. If they had a political party I would vote for them, but everything is just a game for them."

Back in K-Vox, however, V is confident that their many pockets of support across the capital can capitalise on the current state of turmoil in the country. "The movement is maturing. All over Athens we have these assemblies now; everywhere small fires are burning. We hope they will join up until they take over the city."

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Comments

'"I don't think throwing stones at the police will help anyone," said Panayotis Skoklis, a young communist, in Exarchia square one evening when I asked him what ordinary people thought about anarchists. "They don't do anything to change the system. If they had a political party I would vote for them, but everything is just a game for them."'

words of wisdom

...if anarchists had a party I'd vote for them.

So...if anarchists weren't anarchists they'd be down?

got it.

Game on.

This should play well with the vicarious living fanboys and fangilrs who make up mucu of the not so mighty US anarchist subculture.

Whatever contemporary anachism might be in Greece, the thing that gets called anarchism in the US is a resolutely trivial subculture for hobbyists, narcissists, children and S.S.I. recipients. Those that can, do, and those that can't do anarchistnews.org and various US anarchist bookfairs.

i agree it's frustrating. but, just as i don't know you, you don't know us all that well. are you trying to attempt to, when you seem to be generalizing here? we're not all like how you describe. for one, i've never attended a bookfair. none in my area.

and i don't get what's so interesting about greece, other than they don't seem to have to rebuild every generation.

the us is a different context, in a way larger country. we've never lived under nazi's, a junta, etc... and the anarchists that were here and built up momentum in a big way, seemed almost totally concerned with white man's leftist religions of feeding the city infrastructure, and ignoring the people fighting to hold onto pre-capitalist relations with the land.

someone's going to jump on me for this. but i really don't give a fuck. be more open to discussing lessons we haven't learned...

I agree with the focus on the land struggles.

Two big reasons there appears to be an inspiring Greek anarchist culture:1) its a small country, so whatever energy there is can be concentrated on a regular basis. In canada as a counter example, what happens in Montreal can't be tapped in Vancouver. 2) I am quite certain that the police can't go after people on the Athens university campus makes attacking much much safer there. Imagine if anarchists in the US or Canada knew that they could do almost anything and then safely escape to a university. That would really help build a culture of attack and risk.

would it also really help built a culture of dependence?

Pretty sure they can go into the universities now. It would have been after Pompedreau (sp?) left office. They siezed a bunch of flags, computers, indymedia server, etc...

I believe it was called the Academic Asylum Law. It was in place from 1982 until 2010 when it was lifted. But it did play a big part in creating the culture of attack that persists today. Similar to the semi-legal status of squats in Amsterdam. Folks in North America during those 20 years were always complaining that we should squat and fight more, like the Europeans. But squatting and fighting were much safer activities there than here. Canada and the US have way harsher penalties for almost every crime and stricter property laws than European countries. We could be focusing on building our infrastructure and base around what we have-access to land and joining up with more indigenous traditionalists in their land reoccupation efforts is one example as the commenter above mentioned. Seaweed the author has some interesting approaches to this, sort of his own unique green anarchy. He leaves a lot more room in his approach for a variety of tactics and directions than primitivists seem to.

It's like... sure dude-tte, if you got anarchist buddies it's about frigign time you take the initiative in that direction (opening a new homestead for building safer areas for anarchists) and please invite me/us when you're set up.

But I've been hearing that talk for so long... There's still tons of areas in North America that aren't looked after where nobody will even fuckign give a damn if you occupy it. In Canada we've still got Queen's Lands that usually are sparkly clean natural reservoirs. But you may as well nicely "take over" some small village in the northern Appalachians or Cascadia, and please don't keep the fucking place only for your cult of petty-bougie hypocrite activists. I've seen many of these communes, form the early '00s, just get corrupted like this.

Still I think too many people are afraid to leave the urban centers for some reason. As long as we remained hooked up to the mass consumer society agglomerates and its inhumanely superficial relationships we're lost here.

Also for all what I've seen, it's not as much the repressive policies as the demotivation by tons of anarchists that prevent people for starting more occupations. Plus there's also this oppressive normative mindset where it's seen as just natural to be paying rent for a stupid space. But aws are laws... meaning just lines on a piece of paper, that despots and cops may or may not use depending on the given context According to the law it's aso forbidden to lay down in a park in my town. Yet everybody's doing it. So your argument doesn't stick that well...

If people are willing to step it up to defend a place for themselves, they can do it, regardless of the laws, but it needs people ready to put their lives on the line for it. So at least 92% of those who attempted to build a squat in the big city where I'm from were just pure fucking upper-class liberals with no such will power.

Last summer I hung out with two anarchistic teenagers who really seemed to be willing to squat a place... but you need a bigger, more dynamic collective for this, and idealyl some network of people who would be involved at some point, for any aspect of the project. But most activists in that city are those flimsy, hypocrite, unreliable people who just like to stick with their gangs between (rented) four walls, coz you know everybody's doing it.

So the best form of urban squatting you'll see around here is couchsurfing, buddies sleeping at buddies places. Not bad in itself, though these "meat spaces" are inclusive in a funnel shape... getting always more closed and private, or people just clashing with each other. What kind of anarchist infrastructure do you build out of this? More likely end up having "anarchist" ice cream parlors, or drug dealers!

Whollle lotta areas that are state in name only.

Anyway, I think bioregionalism could help North American Anarchism in deurbanizing its orientation. It would be nice to regain some hinterland behavior, minus the frontier, colonial, property values of course. Also, I second seaweed and his orientation and tactics.

You stay in your corner, keep that cone hat on your head and STFU with your crypto-nationalist crap.

And nope, bioregionalism won't help in any anarchist praxis. But it should help renew the old delusions of identifying with bullshit abstract mythologies about some inherent relationship with the land (i.e. "nationalism")... from the comfort of your suburb.

Identifying with the land is not nationalist. Look up the definition of nationalism. Also, for the record I'm not a bioregionalist but that asside you have to be a delisional leftist to conflate it with nationalism.

Regionalism and nationalism, learn the difference. Also, lolz at 'cryptofascism' silly leftard:)

There are only a few main choices:1) IWW, WSA, Platformism, Syndicalism, workerism, progress, cities, industrialism, organizations 2) primitivism, a clear destination, wildness, nomadic bands of immediate return hunter gatherers 3) nihilism, destroy all politics, no pre-figuration, blank canvas, anarchy as a complete unknown, 4) insurrectionary subsistence, land occupations and re-occupations, green directions, unknown destinations, renewed relationships with nature, de-massified existences, de-industrialism, anarchic experiments.

Though it needs some poetic-aesthetic aiding. I also think that some anarchs of 3) and 4) should perhaps pleomorphise into some of 1), but never in full anarchic form and orientation.

You base your argument on something that does not exist for years. University asylum where the police cannot enter the grounds has been abolished 4-5 years now but that seemed to fuel stronger direct actions since anarchists in Greece begun to dynamically confront the police in the streets and protests instead of finding a safeheaven inside university grounds after attacks. Plus, most of the anarchists social centers in Greece are not in squats or universities but in neighborhoods.

It wasn't an argument, it was a comment in a conversation. For you 4 or 5 years nullifies the previous 20. A Greek anarchist who is 40 years old today had 20 YEARS, their entire adult life, to fight/attack with much much less worry than almost anyone else in the world because they could escape to a safe place. For someone who is 25, well of course, the asylum law might seem to have little impact, except that the youth inherit a movement that partly grew only because of the asylum law.

Really, who knows how these things come about. Only a leftist or a scientist would think they know-there are just too many variables and no one controls them. The point is to not give up-persistence pays-if you want to harvest something down the road wherever you live.

The point about squats clearly wasn't related to the situation in Greece but to Holland so you were just confused there.

My post had nothing to do with having superior knowledge and grasp of an infinitely complex situation ( the rise of a social movement), it was intended to point out that context matters. Are you denying that?

The context in NA by definition is just not the same as anywhere else. Some say its because its dominated by males and their bravado, or by binary thinking, or by fear. Others say its been negated by identity politics, or the class background of its participants. Others say it has to do with lack of a clear vision, or how spread out our countries are or how severe our jailing system is. Others make the claim that leftist baggage drags it down, that the population is too content, that racism prevents nearly a third of the population from feeling welcome.

I've been around over 35 years, and by observation it is all of those things and more. And besides every region/city and scene is actually different too. But we also have to give props to all of the amazing things NA anarchists have created and succeeded in.

Finally a lot of what is described as anarchism in Greece by NA standards isn't actually anarchist and rightfully so.

Place to jump on your soapbox.

You don't know me, but you're here just like me so fuck off with that shit. My guess is no one IRL wants to listen to you hate on anarchists so you come here to insult people you perceive as beneath your ethical standards.

You are being hyperbolic, but not in a disconnected way. Of course I cannot take the defense of those character-types you're mentioning above ("children"? lol... But what's your issue with people on welfare?).

What you do not seem to consider is the weight of the social context upon each and every person, anarchist or not. Very little of the Greek anarchists would last long in North America... they've either go nuts (presumably you can be more nuts than Greeks... just look at the West Coast ;) or just come back to Europe within weeks. I have met a few Italian anarchists in/around Montreal and Vancouver and none of them looked like they were on a fun ride here. They rather looked worried or hardened, and I'm sure they didn't took long before moving to some place in Latin America.

Ask yourself (what it means to be an anarchist person in the context of North America, especially if you're mostly on your own, how excruciating that can be. Bank robbers and other criminals here are sub-capitalists, the youth are happily commodifying themselves 'til they get wasted through labor and/or drugs. The consciousness of revolting against the establishment, authority, is thin and flimsy. Of course the ABFs did little to improve that, if not making it worse by turning the new anarchism of the '80s-'90s into a circus or scenesters and liberals waiting in line to enter society (as I said before, the counterculture milieu and the ABFs are just waiting rooms for upwards social mobility these days).

Internet anarchy seems to have done its basic job, but I feel like we're at a time for bringing a new dimension of outreach, especially on grounds that were not explored before.

The idea is how anarchism is being presented and approached as a force for overthrowing order.

Huh... the guys on that pic, they're Stalinists.

Okay, i thought those looked like PAME flags.

Their mien looks Stalinist!

You all squabbling about Greece VS elsewhere. Guess what, they take themselves seriously there and aren't concerned with some bizarre social cult. They push political ideas and action in ways that people where they stand can understand. They don't build an "anarchist culture" with a bunch of fucking annoying activists. They push anti-authoritarian ideas within the cultures and places that just happen to exist everywhere.

They aren't looking for anarchist friends, they are looking for friends that happen to be anarchists. Looking for events that happen to be put on by anarchists. Looking for ideas that anarchists just happen to be putting forth and attempting to implement for better or worse.

Which is why Russel Brand turned more people on to anarchism than half of the jerk circles in the USA combined over an entire year. Which is why one Greek concert ran by anarchists could open 100 infoshops (god forbid the money goes to infoshops) but could open them with the money raised. When the contrary anarchist groups in cities as big as Athens in the richest country in the world can't open one singular place without dumb luck or a couple people who actually know what they are doing.

Anyhow, there's your answer.

Are NA-type suburbs all over the place in Greece, or are Greek cities, save from perhaps the hipster-ish Exarkhia, riddled with artificial Fedbook drones who only care about getting their hairdress always closer to the '30s German fascist chic (just wait for next Spring when the beards are no longer trendy)? As other above said, you ARE omitting to consider the weight of two very different contexts, and how they play onto individuals.

And if you've got so much a clue, mind about telling us where we can find those "friends that happen to be anarchists" -more precisely, to reveal each other as such- in the suburban wastelands of North America? Best places found, yet, by the Black Lives Matter crowd, were the corporate outlets.

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