The Attack on Exarchia, an Anarchist Refuge in Athens
From The New Yorker by Molly Crabapple
Before dawn on August 25th, Rafi jolted awake to the sounds of police outside Spirou Trikoupi, a building where he was squatting, in the Athens neighborhood of Exarchia. A muscular twenty-eight-year-old from Kabul, Rafi had been an interpreter for the U.S. military. In 2015, he made the punishing journey across Iran, Turkey, and the Aegean Sea, until he found himself in Exarchia, where anarchists and refugees were transforming abandoned buildings into self-organized sanctuaries. For two and a half years, Rafi had lived alongside ninety Eritreans, Iranians, Afghans, and Kurds, at Spirou Trikoupi, “like a family,” he said.
That morning, Rafi peered out his window. Police had massed on both sides of the street. He sat calmly on his bed, and listened to the clang of the bolt cutters on the locks. After a few minutes, Greek police, wearing black, with their faces covered, stormed in. Rafi recalled that when they entered the room, they pointed their guns at his head. Police herded the residents into vans, and then into police headquarters. The families waited hours without food; police demanded money for water. “When we asked what the fuck was going on, they told us, ‘Be quiet! Sit!’ ” Rafi said, mimicking their shouts. Late that night, police took the refugees to a hotel. After a few more days, they were sent to camps around Greece.
Rafi had been dreading this day since June, when Kostas Bakoyannis, a member of the right-wing New Democracy Party, was elected mayor of Athens. Bakoyannis had promised to bring law and order to Exarchia, and after taking power he quickly announced a five-year, ten-million-euro plan to subdue the neighborhood. Traditionally, police had stuck to Exarchia’s periphery, but Bakoyannis stationed police officers at major intersections in the neighborhood. Then he sent workers, guarded by riot police, to tear down banners, clean graffiti, and plant weedy shrubbery in Exarchia Square. Other incursions followed: friends told me about the beating of a bartender, and a late-night police raid on K-Vox, a squatted café and radical social center, that left the windows shattered and the interior filled with tear gas.
Spirou Trikoupi was the first squat that police raided. Over the next two months, they shut down at least seven more squats in or near Exarchia. The details of the raid that Rafi described were repeated: doors broken in before dawn, guns drawn, rooms ransacked, families herded onto buses, with the undocumented locked in closed detention centers, and those with papers shunted into far-off camps.
The rise of anti-immigrant politics in Athens was only the latest development in more than a decade of political reactions and counter-reactions in Greece, beginning with the 2007 debt crisis and the European Union-imposed austerity that followed. In 2015, voters cast their ballots for the center-left party Syriza, which promised to stop austerity and stand up to the E.U. Though Syriza won the election, it failed on both counts. Meanwhile, more than a million migrants and refugees arrived in boats and rubber rafts on the beaches of Grecian islands; around seventy thousand remain in the country. A month after Bakoyannis won in Athens, New Democracy dominated snap national elections, after running on a series of simple promises: to fix the economy, bring back law and order, and halt the arrivals of refugees. The new Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis (an uncle of Bakoyannis), has vowed to deport ten thousand people by the end of 2020. In his first week in office, Mitsotakis banned immigrants from receiving social-security numbers and merged the Ministry of Migration with the Ministry of Citizen Protection. For refugees and immigrants in Greece, the party posed an immediate threat. “When New Democracy came to power, they wanted to separate people,” Rafi told me. “They broke community.”
In Athens, the neighborhood of Exarchia is synonymous with solidarity. For nearly a century, artists, writers, and activists have made their homes there, drawn by the nearby Polytechnic University. In 1941, the communist National Liberation Front was founded on Mavromichalis Street to resist the Nazi occupation. In 1944, these same guerrillas traded bullets with the British Army during the bloody days of the Dekemvriana, when the United Kingdom sought to suppress the rise of communism in newly liberated Greece. In 1973, an uprising at the Polytechnic University helped take down Greece’s military junta. In 2008, police murdered a teen-ager named Alexandros Grigoropoulos at the leafy intersection of Mesolongiou and Tzavella Streets; the neighborhood riots each year on the anniversary of his death. Rocks fly one way, tear-gas cannisters the other.
Today, Exarchia is a graffiti-bedecked anarchist stronghold, home to squats, cafés, bookstores, and social centers—to the self-managed Navarinou Park, where, in 2009, anarchists wrested gardens from a broken concrete parking lot, and to Steki Metanaston, the twenty-year-old bar founded by leftist organizers and immigrants. Because police seldom ventured beyond Exarchia’s outskirts, and anti-fascist groups have made the neighborhood a no-go zone for members of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, Exarchia’s streets have also long been an oasis for immigrants without papers. After the mass arrival of refugees in 2015, anarchists teamed up with migrant activists, to provide refugees with a roof over their heads while they waited for smugglers to help them reach the German promised land. In the years since, thousands of refugees lived in squats in and around the neighborhood. Walid, an undocumented Afghan man, told me, “Exarchia is a super-nice place. It is peaceful for me here—there is no one to arrest me.”
Recently, drug cartels began to take advantage of this freedom. Cartel leadership was largely European, but many of the dealers who worked Exarchia Square were impoverished men from North Africa and the Middle East. Ecstasy, weed, and cocaine were the drugs of choice, sold to European tourists by youths with frayed nerves and elaborately jelled hairdos. When I stayed at a hotel off the square last year, fights between rival gangs woke me up most nights. Conservative media blurred together the figures of anarchist, refugee, and dealer into a spectre of degeneration. An article in EleftherosTypos, written after the Spirou Trikoupi raid, described raids on squats and raids on drug dealers as part of a single effort to “limit the phenomena of delinquency and drug trafficking.”
I first visited Exarchia in 2012, to illustrate a book about the protest movement that had emerged in response to the Greek financial crisis, then kept coming back. The neighborhood had latched itself onto my heart. Of course, it was easy to romanticize a polyglottal island of misfit toys, its walls covered with murals, and its cigarette stalls that carried copies of Angela Davis in Greek. But Exarchia felt like a place where people had created a way to live together, in defiance of all that was stacked against them. One night, I balanced on a ladder with the Afghan activist Nasim Lomani and wheat-pasted posters of a Puerto Rican poet onto the neighborhood’s walls. Another afternoon, after a counter-protest to a nationalist demonstration, I walked back to Exarchia with a friend. A few blocks away, protesters clashed with police, and our eyes smarted from the far-off wafts of tear gas. The clashes drew closer. Police darted forward. Chunks of pavement flew. Then the restaurants opened, and the neighborhood went about its day.
Once some E.U. borders slammed shut in 2016, refugees who had hoped to eventually reach Berlin, or Stockholm, or London, were in Athens indefinitely. The squats became more than waystations; they represented the first stability that refugees had known in years. Refugee children went to school, and their parents worked, shopped, and socialized in the neighborhood. I sketched kids in Jasmine School, a squat near Exarchia, that had been shut in the latest round of raids. The building was a leaky Beaux-Arts wreck, without reliable power or water, but volunteers had provided piles of food, clothing, and medicine, and the residents cooked a collective lunch to the sounds of the Lebanese diva Fairuz. Spirou Trikoupi had a bar, a library, children’s classes, and weekly assemblies. “Ninety people were building a common life together, in a community that was alive,” one activist told me. “Day by day, we were becoming better by learning from our mistakes.”
Walid, a law-school graduate from Kabul who had spent almost two years in Trikoupi, spoke about his time there with a sense of loss. He had spent ten days sleeping on the streets with his wife and his child when a friend told him about the squat. Once installed, he took easily to the anarchist model of boss-free self-organization. Trikoupi “was like a village, but with different nationalities,” he told me, smiling gently. There were weekly assemblies, residents’ committees to clean and protect the building. “I learned many things about how to live, to help each other,” he said. “We had rules: no sexism, no racism, no fascism, no violence.”
When Walid heard the police outside Trikoupi’s door, he knew he had to run. He led a group of Eritrean girls to a nearby balcony, where they hid for hours under the hot sun, with only dirty water to drink. “They destroyed everything and showed video to media. The media says anarchists use refugees, that they put us in a bad place that is dirty. Not true!” Walid said, his voice rising with indignation. After the raid, he had nothing but the clothes he had worn. He has been staying at a space belonging to friends, along with the other refugees who escaped the raid. On social media, activists posted photos of a hastily built camp, in Corinth, where many of those who were caught were sent—white tents marooned in a mud field. “My friends in the camps miss Trikoupi a lot,” Walid told me. “We want to come back.”
However grim they are, these mainland camps pale in comparison to the island camps on Chios, Samos, and Lesvos, where Walid and his family had lived before coming to Athens. Called “hotspots,” these camps were intended to be temporary processing centers, but their populations have swelled to many times beyond their capacity, transforming them into lurid showcases of despair. One night, I had drinks with a journalist named Anna, who participates in Exarchia community groups, and who had recently returned from Moria. On her phone, she showed me pictures that she had taken of refugee women living in burnt containers, and of a small Afghan boy hiding in a box, the only amusement available for him. A month earlier, in Moria, another child who was playing in a box had been hit by a truck and killed. “They take people from squats because they say they are not safe. This is insane,” Anna said. On November 1st, the Greek parliament passed new legislation that penalizes asylum seekers for leaving the camps. If a refugee lived in a squat or even rented an apartment without governmental permission, she would lose her asylum claim.
Despite the sense of encroaching siege, Exarchia still has the aspect of a wonderland, especially after twilight, where the street lights smear like gold across the broken pavement, and the music pounds like a heartbeat in the square. You can still get free medical treatment and free antifascist literature in Dari, Arabic, or Greek. At a squatted social center, before the brass band whipped the crowd into a sweat-soaked ecstasy, the band members pledged their songs to Rojava, the Kurdish swath of Northern Syria governed by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Some Exarchia denizens had fought against ISIS in Rojava. Now Turkey was invading. “Freedom is in your mind,” the singer announced. Audience members stamped their feet and screamed in accents inflected with all of Europe.
From New York to Berlin, gentrification is consuming cities, and any enchantment a neighborhood offers is a harbinger of its eventual doom. Hoping to boost low real-estate prices after years of economic crisis, Greece began granting the so-called golden visa, a five-year E.U.-residency permit in exchange for a two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-euro investment in real estate, in 2013. Wealthy citizens of autocracies took up the offer. Chinese investors bought up blocks of buildings; one purchased a hundred apartments in Exarchia alone. Many of these apartments were converted into Airbnbs (the Web site has more than three hundred listings for Exarchia), which drove up the rents, drove out residents, and brought in tour guides, who attempt to repackage the neighborhood’s insurrectionary spirit as vapid, marketable cool.
“They want gentrification, to promote this as a historic neighborhood while destroying its history of artists, struggles, intellectuals, and anarchists.” Anna told me. “They want to do what Berlin did, to sell the neighborhood’s past while killing its identity.” In the last decade, Berlin rents have risen more than a hundred per cent, and for Athenians like Anna, the city is a cautionary tale. Graffiti offered a succinct rejoinder: “Airbnb TOURISTS FUCK OFF REFUGEES WELCOME.” Neither refugees nor anarchists would fit into the city that had been dreamed by the world’s wealthy. That Athens would be a series of clean, glass-walled, interchangeable rooms, through which capital could frictionlessly glide.
Throughout the winter, police repeatedly attacked Exarchia Square with tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Sometimes the pretext was a protest; other times, it was an attack by anarchists on the police. One night, police trapped residents inside a café for hours. On November 17th, after a march commemorating the 1973 uprising, social media lit up with photos of protesters left bloody by police violence. Three days later, the Ministry of Citizen Protection issued an ultimatum: squatters had fifteen days to evacuate every squat in Greece. By late December, only a handful of squats remained, the last survivors of a network that had once given thousands of refugees a home.
I thought of the words of an activist from Exarchia, when I asked him whether the government would succeed in fundamentally changing the neighborhood. “Exarchia is not just territory,” he answered. “Territory without people is nothing. I don’t care about losing Exarchia. I care about losing the people.”