Antinote: Readers old and new will have noticed our site looks quite different in spring 2023 compared to just a few short months ago. A glance at our About Page should help explain why and how.
The process of reconfiguring our archive structure this year has prompted us to revisit not just our earliest posts but our origins as a media project. To our surprise, we had humbly omitted some of our collective members’ earlier writings when we launched in late 2013. Among these were two missives by co-founder Ed Sutton that were published on Occupy.com in January of that year after a visit to Athens, where another founding member was living at the time.
It is not out of mere nostalgia that we reproduce these articles (as one) ten years later. Now based in Minneapolis, our newly re-formed collective is engaging with new struggles that echo in many ways the situation Ed encountered in 2013 Exarcheia. No historical or geographical comparison of this sort is one hundred percent apt, but it is enough to say that lessons from Greece, while having been a driving factor in the founding of the Antidote Writers Collective, are also very relevant to people’s struggles in our new home.
Much has changed in Exarcheia and in the broader world since this was written. Some of this has been documented on this site. We invite you to explore our ten years (or more, if you are reading from the future) of testimony from this and many other sites of struggle, and learn alongside us.
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 20 December 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, 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 twenty-four and forty 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 PASOK.
Of course 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). 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 neoliberal 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 6 December 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 thirty 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 neofascist 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 users 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.
* * *
The social-antagonist movements in Athens had had to do some serious soul-searching in May 2010. As the economic crisis deepened and the government had made its appalling announcement that Greece’s ratio of debt-to-GDP far exceeded EU regulations and that further austerity measures would be needed, a second wave of protests and general strikes had swept the country. The stage was set, it turned out, for disaster.
“It was on the fifth of May, I was there,” explained Gus on a rainy afternoon in VOX, a squatted cafe on Exarcheia Square. We had just gotten soaked to the skin at a somewhat subdued Free Amalias demonstration. “The march started at Propylea like the one today, like they all do, but it was much bigger than usual. It was the day of a general strike and there must have been almost twenty thousand people there. At some point apparently some of these ‘hoodies’ saw that a bank along the march route had stayed open. Some people in the march saw what they wanted to do—”
“—Or smelled it,” Mo broke in. He had told me earlier to watch out for the guys who reek of gasoline.
“Right. Anyway some people tried to kind of march in front of them and get in the way, but they slipped through and broke the windows and threw in some Molotov cocktails.”
With the streets clogged with protesters, emergency workers couldn’t get through. The building burned down and three people died, including a pregnant woman.
Gus began to get animated. “And what do we do? We have a big assembly where we produce a text that nobody really likes but everybody agrees to, then some posters go up around the neighborhood condemning the violence. So basically nothing.
“The thing is, these guys are apolitical. They’re the ones you like to have around to protect you from the cops, you’re kind of glad they’re there. Some people organize them on purpose! But then what do you think is going to happen?”
The deaths had a devastating effect on the movement. The already-existing fissures between the various groupings in Exarcheia and elsewhere turned into gaping cracks as finger-pointing, suspicion, and recrimination became the rule. Popular sympathy for the movement disappeared. Things got pretty quiet for a while.
“So yeah,” Mo piped up finally. Things had gotten pretty quiet around our table too. “Thank god for the fascists.”
The Rise of “Weimar Greece” and a New Role for Resistance
That struck me as an odd way to put it, but I can see what he meant. As the various antagonist movements found themselves embarrassed, their unity shattered, another radical response to the crisis continued gathering steam, and in a way it gave the anarchists a new lease on life.
The political ascendancy of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn and a multitude of violent incidents associated with its supporters, especially since mid-2011, have been cataloged by the press and global human rights organizations. Using familiar fascist rhetoric, Golden Dawn blames current hardships on the large and growing numbers of immigrants in Greece, especially those from the Near East and Africa. And it has used the government’s paralysis as both a justification and an opportunity to carry out vigilante-style racist attacks, including fatal ones, all around the country. Meanwhile the flows of refugees from nearby countries with crises of their own (Syria and Egypt to name just two) overwhelm an already hostile, corrupt bureaucracy.
Journalists and moderate politicians here have been making direct comparisons to Weimar Germany, citing both the violence itself and the state’s inability, or unwillingness, to respond. But despite the outcry, the tide does not appear to be turning. Rather it’s the opposite: whereas in June 2012 Golden Dawn won a then-shocking eighteen seats in the 300-member parliament, according to recent polls they enjoy the third-highest approval rating among parliamentary parties. And what little action the state is taking appears to be straight out of the radical right’s playbook: in August 2012, for example, the ruling coalition launched an ongoing operation (cynically named Xenios Zeus, or “Zeus’ Hospitality”) to round up undocumented immigrants and imprison them in hastily-built internment camps.
The “revolutionary infrastructure” of Exarcheia appears now to be gearing itself towards resisting, if not literally fighting, fascist violence in central Athens and providing refuge for its victims. On the one hand there is a recent direct action initiative to come out of the assemblies: the Antifascist Motorcycle Patrol.
Dramatic videos of the Patrol are available on YouTube. I had heard about the Patrol before visiting Exarcheia, but I was a little surprised to find out when I got there that the unit is actually in earnest. It is unclear to me exactly what this impressive but rather absurd show of force aims to achieve—beyond, of course, being a show of force—or what practical effect, if any, it will have in Exarcheia and the surrounding communities.
On the other hand, though, there are the community kitchens sprouting up all over the neighborhood that coordinate with each other to guarantee at least one hot, collectively prepared meal will be available, at some place or another, on any given day either for a voluntary cash donation or for very little money (one or two euros).
Mo and I spent a large portion of our time in these community kitchens during my stay; I would probably have seen even more if several hadn’t been closed for the holidays. As we arrived at one of them, the Avtonomo Steki, a woman’s voice rang out from the kitchen before we could cross the large, dimly lit dining room:
“You guys wanna put on some music? Right there!” She indicated a stereo off to the side, and Mo stopped to peruse the CDs. I proceeded to the bookstore/library in the corner (as with the food, you pay what you can) and on into the kitchen where Kat put me to work juicing lemons. Mo joined us in a moment, as Brown Eyed Girl started jangling out of hidden speakers. He looked confused. “This doesn’t sound like Jim Morrison.”
“Because it’s Van Morrison,” I laughed. The hilarious, totally dissonant association of this song with Exarchia will probably never leave me. The place was a communalist hippie’s dream. And though each community kitchen we went to operated on its own unique model, they all had the friendly, lively atmosphere in common.
However, had I not had a friend in the know I would never have found them. It made me wonder how much of a refuge they really provide for the people in surrounding communities threatened by violence and poverty who they intend, at least in part, to serve. As a group of us walked home after our evening at the Avtonomo Steki I tried to be optimistic. “There were a lot of people there,” I offered.
“It was all the usual suspects.” Mo clearly had misgivings of his own. “There was one African family. And did you notice what we were serving tonight? Pork. They were Muslim. I mean come on. It’s a good thing Lea and I push for cooking something vegan on the side. There’s kind of a long way to go around here.”
“We are not exceptional!”
Aside from “complicated,” the other word I probably heard most often in Exarcheia was “exceptional,” and this always with irony or even disgust. “Athens is not exceptional. 2008 was not exceptional. There is nothing special going on here. To say that would be to suggest that it’s impossible anywhere else. And it’s not,” said Mo, who is not a native here. When he first arrived in Athens, he said, he was asked point-blank, “What are you doing here?” When he told his story, the response he got made a deep impression on him: “Why don’t you fight fascism in your own country?”
They are right to take this somewhat flat global perspective. The antagonist movements in Greece have a lot in common with others in different places and at different times — including the problems they are facing, both external and internal.
They are problems that those of us who have participated in the global movements of the last decade or so should be familiar with. In April of 2012, Boots Riley gave a talk in Zurich at which he discussed both the good and bad at Occupy Oakland, and he said something about mass movements and large-scale organizing that has been emphasized far too little.
He pointed out how in Oakland for years there had been countless radical organizations all with their own issues, fighting their own separate fights and not having much success. What the Occupy movement did was bring them all together into a united front, to address larger systemic issues which no one of them could have tackled on its own. Eventually Occupy Oakland (as elsewhere) dissolved back into its constituent parts—of course with new additions and combinations—and the momentum, the numbers, the critical mass were gone.
This seems to be a pattern in 21st-Century radical movements (and if I knew my history better I would make the claim that it has always been this way). Athens was no different. The table had already long been set in 2008; the radical groups were well-organized and hungry. The gunshot that killed Alexis was the dinner bell. But having united in struggle for a common purpose, even for as long as they did, doesn’t change the fact that they are still disparate, bound to jostle among themselves and lose focus.
I don’t mean to make the struggle against fascist violence appear as a loss of focus, exactly; it is exceedingly important. But one does have to admit that it is a step down the ladder of political goals—from fighting austerity and authority, and thus the destructive logic of global neoliberal capitalism itself—to fighting one of its symptoms.
More to the point, it is not an issue that trade unions, student groups, or even migrants themselves can be expected to mobilize against in any great numbers. A similar thing happened to the Occupy movement when the struggle became about protecting the camps and resisting police.
If something does make the case for Athens being exceptional it is Exarcheia’s concentrated, real-existing revolutionary infrastructure. Put to the right use, with enough cooperation, outreach, and old-school face-to-face organizing to bring more people into the fold, this could be the setting for something very big. Exarcheians may just have to overcome their reticence, as they did with me.
Featured image via Occupy.com