I arrived in Athens on Christmas Day in the afternoon. As we strolled through the muted streets of Exarcheia, the Athenian neighborhood considered by residents and authorities alike to be the heart of Greek resistance, my friend and guide, Mo, lamented the unusual calm blanketing the city.
He said he was worried I would not experience the "real" Athens. Then he quickly amended himself: his principal concern was to bring across that there is no "real" Athens; events of the last four years have caused both onlookers and participants to fetishize the Greek experience in distinctly unhelpful ways. “It’s complicated” was an oft-heard refrain throughout my visit.
The relative lack of traffic notwithstanding, it appeared that my timing was in fact quite good. I seemed to have caught Athens in a much-needed moment of quiet reflection. Exarcheians, normally reticent, were willing to talk to an outsider like me, if perhaps only for the chance to work through their issues—and they are many—with someone relatively neutral.
There are various reasons Exarcheians keep quiet around new faces. I was told, for example, that there are problems with "anarcho-tourism." Athens has become a magnet for people from around the world who feel themselves ideologically aligned to this movement they’ve read about on the Internet, and who then show up "in solidarity" and take up space at a squat but don’t contribute much or, worse, disseminate romanticized or otherwise inaccurate information about the community.
I was also told that the level of violence—fascist vs. immigrant and anarchist vs. fascist, sure, but also among anarchists themselves (radical vs. ‘reformist,’ apolitical vs. anyone)—has reached a point where saying the wrong thing to the wrong person can get you a bottle across the mouth, at least.
I personally saw no indication of this, but it was Christmas after all. Most interesting to me was that Exarcheian reticence was expressly not a result of police infiltration or suspicion thereof. I found it a refreshing say-what-you’re-gonna-say and do-what-you’re-gonna-do and to-hell-with-it atmosphere. Movement paranoiacs in other countries might benefit from this.
We entered VOX, a squatted cafe on Exarcheia Square established to raise money for paying fines and legal fees for movement arrestees and political prisoners. Again Mo was shaking his head: “You’re seeing everything upside down,” he laughed and gestured toward groups of grinning patrons dancing ecstatically and shouting for the music to be turned up. “It’s usually a more relaxed scene in here.” He told me that the eight people arrested in the Dec. 20 police raid on the Villa Amalias squat had been released the day before; what we were witnessing now were the last gasps of a "Christmas Eve" party at which there were other reasons to celebrate.
As daylight faded and the last of the previous night’s revelers filtered out, the place started filling up with people returning from holiday family visits. “Even anarchists have mothers...even anarchists relax sometimes,” said a smiling man named Gus, who joined us. His Christmas had been difficult, he said. He described the recurring argument he had with his parents (with whom he now lives, despite having an advanced degree and years of work experience abroad) and the generational divide.
“To my parents, the PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement, the social democratic parliamentary party) are heroes. My parents remember the military dictatorship, when any kind of dissent, 'everything left,’ was against the law. There was torture, disappearances. On the one hand they say, ‘You guys have nothing to complain about right now, you don’t know what it was like,’ and on the other hand they say, ‘How can you call the [establishment] left bad names? They saved us.’”
"They" refers to the uprising at Athens Polytechnic in November 1973, when students barricaded themselves into the university for four days and broadcast demands for democracy and civil rights over an improvised radio transmitter, only to be confronted by tanks and troops—with the resulting chaos leaving anywhere between 24 and 40 people dead. It was the beginning of the end for the junta, which imploded in 1974, and many participants in the uprising later had successful careers in politics, especially in the PASOK.
Of course the PASOK as a ruling party is arguably responsible for creating the Greek bubble of the last decade, and for popping it (or re-popping it, anyway, with revelations in 2010 about the shocking degree of debt the government had been hiding). The PASOK has since repeatedly agreed to the ever-stricter austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund, European Union and European Central Bank -- the "Troika" -- in exchange for billions of euros in bailouts.
Even so, the grinding inequalities built into the neo-liberal Greek "miracle" of the early 2000s were unlikely to affect middle-class PASOK supporters like Gus’s mom, and even the crash of 2008 could be blamed on outside forces. That the December revolt that year had a relatively young face, and that its momentum and the support it received from society eventually dwindled can be attributed at least in part to this "generation gap."
It can also be attributed to the relatively discrete nature of the event that sparked the revolt in the first place: the murder by police of Alexandros (Alexis) Grigoropoulos, 15, on Dec. 6, 2008, in Exarcheia.
The killing clearly had broad implications, otherwise it would not have resulted in weeks of nearly continuous rioting and occupations; nor would the unrest have spread out of Exarcheia into greater Athens and ultimately to all of Greece, with solidarity demonstrations occurring in at least 30 other countries as well.
We visited the site of Alexis’s murder nearly every day during my visit, and his name was still on everyone’s lips. "We are all Alexis" is a doctrine deeply felt in Exarcheia; his death made frighteningly clear the vulnerability that struggling citizens feel in the shadow of increasing state violence. Nonetheless it was one incident, and the social-antagonist actions and organizing that it spawned quickly fell back behind prevailing economic, political and social concerns, to justify and sustain itself.
Building a "revolutionary infrastructure"
But sustain itself it did—in certain ways, anyway. The intensity of rebellious activity eventually dropped off and "order was restored." But one of the lasting results of December 2008 was the entrenchment of Exarcheia, long a hotbed of antagonist political activity, as an autonomous bulwark against state power—in real physical and geographical terms.
Long and narrow, wedged between the upper-class neighborhood of Kolonaki (which spreads south to the city center at Syntagma where the Parliament building stands) and the transitional, touristy but largely migrant neighborhood of Omonoia (where racist attacks by the Golden Dawn and other neo-fascist groups occur with shocking regularity), Exarcheia exists now as an entire zone of the city where police and others of the wrong political persuasion just don’t go.
This creates new problems, of course, with the police encouraging drug dealers and users to do their business in Exarcheia, where they’ll be left alone. The community itself has come up with its own creative methods of dealing with this, in one instance setting up a table, manned 24/7, in Exarcheia Square from which dealers and junkies were informed with a megaphone that they are known, being observed, and unwelcome.
During the December revolt it was exceedingly important for there to be established nodes of activity, physical spaces where people could assemble, counter-inform, argue, and plan; or simply seek refuge, eat, drink, and catch their breath. Some of these were temporarily established outside of Exarcheia during the revolt for expedient or symbolic reasons; for example, the occupation of the Opera House, or the Law School at the University of Athens.
Others were set up and maintained within Exarcheia during and after the revolt as symbols of reclaimed space, territory won through struggle; Navarinou Park was dug out of an empty concrete lot next to the site of Alexis’s shooting, and residents have had to repel city bulldozers to protect it.
But many existed long before December and became prominent because of their location on the geographical fringe of Exarcheia abutting "hostile" neighborhoods: the campus of Athens Polytechnic, no longer functioning traditionally, is one of these; it has long been a primary gathering place both in "emergencies" and for regular assemblies. The emptiness and quiet of the small campus, especially considering its history, is haunting. It is a wonderful place to read and think and recharge, and it makes perfect sense that it occupies the significant symbolic and practical role it does in the community.
The significance of Villa Amalias, another of the long-established "nodes," makes sense too. It is Athens’ second-oldest squat, located at a key spot a few blocks into Omonoia, and is recognized as a central base for antifascist organizing and counter-information. This was the next place that Mo took me, after we had finished our coffee and taken leave of the Christmas-refugees at VOX. But we couldn’t go inside.
“Seriously, last week when they raided this place, I thought, "Oh no, Ed’s coming to visit and Athens will be burning. Burning,” he said. Army green-clad riot police were stationed along the street and a giant navy-blue armored transporter was parked blocking the entrance. Authorities had come five days prior, responding to an "anonymous complaint," and arrested eight people—afterwards searching the place from top to bottom (they found empty beer bottles, which they classified as bomb-making materials, along with helmets, gasmasks, and other items useful in the defense against police violence).
Then they sealed the building off and placed it under guard. This perplexed the squatters, since they hadn’t officially been evicted. In the following days the neighborhood registered its protest by surrounding the guarded Villa with a chain of "witnesses," operating in shifts to sustain the vigil uninterrupted.
Considering Villa Amalias’ place in the movement, the docility of the response surprised and impressed Mo. “The raid was a provocation. They were expecting us to explode and ruin Christmas. But we know that they know that the minute they leave, Amalias will be squatted again, so there’s nothing to get too excited about. It’s a really good thing. This kind of restraint and long-view political thinking is something sort of new.”
Given the events of last week it is unclear whether the Exarcheians’ more circumspect approach did much to protect them or serve their immediate ends.