In the autonomous Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia on the morning of Monday, August 26, hundreds of masked riot cops with tear gas at hand cordoned off an entire block. Overhead, helicopters circled the scene.
No one would be blamed for thinking a civil war, or worse, was about to erupt. But no, the Greek state led by the new conservative government was mobilizing its full repressive armada to evacuate several squats occupied by refugees and migrants. Theorist Akis Gavriilidis weighed in:
This affair is a scandalous waste of public funds, for a result that is not only zero but negative in every respect: moral, legal, practical, economic and whatever you can imagine. To detain dozens of refugees — including children — who have committed no crime, to evict them from places where they have lived a dignified life they have helped to shape themselves, with the only prospect of being imprisoned in a hell where they live in much worse conditions, forced to passivity and inactivity.
I cannot see who derives joy from these actions, apart from racists and bullies. As a Greek citizen, I demand an explanation as to why public funds have been wasted on such an unethical, illegal and ineffective outcome.
One of the occupiers explained, “The fascist state expelled us today at six o’clock in the morning and they are taking us to the Petrou Rali police station. They took us out of our house. They take our things out of the building, closed the door and blocked the entrance and the windows. They try to bury us. They don’t know that we are seeds.”
Four squats were evacuated in Exarcheia that morning, two of them housing refugees and migrants: Spirou Trikoupi 17, Transito, Rosa de Fon and the anarchist occupation Gare. The raids were concentrated in the north-western part of the neighborhood, which is also home to Notara 26, Greece’s first housing squat for refugees and migrants. Better guarded and symbolically important for the neighborhood, Notara 26 has thus far been left untouched.
From two buildings in Spirou Trikoupi 17, 143 people were detained and taken to the Attica’s Aliens Department to check their immigration status. Of the 143 people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Turkey, 57 are men, 51 are women and 35 are children.
From another building in Kallidromiou Street, three people were taken into custody and brought to the Athens police headquarters. The fourth building, on Fotila Street, was empty at the time of the eviction. The operation involved units of the MAT riot police, various special identification and forensic units and the DIAS motorcycle patrol. Apparently no drugs or weapons were found in the buildings — there was no trace of “danger”. A police spokesperson stated nonetheless that “We are the new silent vacuum cleaner that will suck in all the garbage.”
Since last week’s offensive tensions have been rising in Exarcheia. Local residents are unsettled by the continuous police presence in the streets and their violent, homophobic and sexist behavior. Police have been seen drawing their weapons on several occasions.
Last Thursday, on the first night of the “Beautiful Exarchia” book festival, organized by local publishing houses and bookstores on the neighborhood’s central square, the police attacked the crowd with teargas and batons. Later that night, MAT units were spotted marching towards the square in the middle of the night, shouting to local residents: “You assholes, you’re going to experience this every day!”
On Saturday around 2.000 people joined a demonstration in Exarcheia in response to the crack down on the refugee and migrant squats and the police presence in the neighborhood. Resistance is resurfacing for sure.
Our Exarcheia, Their Exarcheia
If it were up to the wealthy, Exarcheia would finally be transformed into the showcase quarter of Athens, boasting yuppie cafes, mass tourism and beautiful vantage points. Fortunately, this vision, which has been on the minds of urban planners and local government on and off since the 1990s, is still far from reality.
There are 23 occupations in Exarcheia and 26 others in the wider district, for a total of 49 occupations concentrated in a relatively small area. In addition, there are other types of self-governing places, some of which are rented — such as the Nosotros Social Center — and dozens of private residencies housing activist groups.
Exarcheia, known as an alternative neighborhood with a tradition of left-wing and anarchist organizing and a site of all kinds of illegal activities like drug trafficking, has always been a sore spot for the state and its rulers. In the public security discourse, it is reviled as a “state of emergency.” In recent years, conservatives have often picked up on the rising number of riots — mainly small groups of people attacking police with molotov cocktails — in order to accuse the previous Syriza government under Alexis Tsipras of losing control of the area.
In a parliamentary debate and during TV interviews in 2017, Kyrgiakos Mitsotakis, the head of the conservative opposition — and now governing party — Nea Demokratia (ND), claimed that he would “clean up Exarchia” if he took office. Now that Mitsotakis is prime minister, he is following through on his threat. At the time, Syriza retorted that Mitsotakis was touting a classic “law-and-order policy” based only on “repressive police operations and the incitement of hatred,” regardless of the fact that Syriza itself had already began evacuating the squats housing refugees and migrants in Thessaloniki the previous summer.
Exarcheia is a historic neighborhood nested between two hills in the heart of Athens. Named after a grocer, the neighborhood was built at the end of the 19th century. Since the 1960s, it has developed into a student hotspot and meeting place for the alternative political and cultural scene. Today, the district is characterized by its many cafes, print shops, independent publishers and small bookstores.
The history of the neighborhood is closely linked to the development of left-wing radicalism and anarchism following the end of the dictatorship in 1974. During the 1973 Polytechnic uprising, a banner made clear that the resistance was directed “against state and capital.”
In 1985, there was nationwide unrest after 15-year-old Michalis Kaltezas was killed by security forces. Decades later, in December 2008, when the 15-year-old student Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by the police in the center of the neighborhood, a revolt broke out that quickly spread to all corners of the country. The 2008 violent revolt is the culmination of this long-standing meeting of students, the politicized and the precarious — the 2006-’07 student protests against the neoliberalization of universities were a stopover.
The district itself is constantly changing. On the one hand, it is the place where many self-organized initiatives come together, where new social movements are born and met with repression. On the other hand, it is a place of contested socio-economic interests. Its central geographic position in the city makes it attractive for real estate sharks who wish to gentrify the area and ultimately displace the unruly population and import high earning yuppies of all kinds and countries.
Before the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis in 2009, the gentrification was already evident; the cityscape changed with the arrival of high-end and yuppie cafes and other facilities and services targeting middle-class consumers. The crisis put a spanner in the works for the gentrifiers. With the real estate sector in red, no more loans were given out, drug gangs took over the area and the police once again lost control.
At the same time, the number of political squats in the neighborhood increased, first as a result of need and self-organization, then as a solidarity structure for the arrival of thousands of refugees and migrants. The response of the local population and activists to the closing of the borders was to open dozens of residential squats, organize education, and distribute clothing and food.
More than an “autonomous stronghold”
Is Exarcheia today a “problem district”? Spending a day in the neighborhood shows that it is more than just an “autonomous stronghold.” It is a historical site of social conflict in Greek society, but also a culmination of alternative processes. It is a networked neighborhood that has been defending itself for years against organized drug trafficking and gentrification processes.
Many left-wing and anarchist groups operate their own centers — including the Center for Migrants run by the Diktyo network for political and social rights, or Nosotros, a social center of Athens’ anti-authoritarian movement.
Making Molotov cocktails is an important part of street culture, but people also meet for events to criticize capitalism or build collectives. Within the framework of crisis management in recent years, other projects have emerged, such as a social medical practice at the anarchist center K*Vox, and refugees and migrant housing. Notara 26 and the City Hotel Plaza squats — the latter now defunct because of fear of a violent eviction by the new government — provided thousands of refugees and migrants with housing, food and other services.
According to a plan that was developed and implemented with the participation of various departments of the Athens city administration, such as the environmental and infrastructure departments, Exarcheia is to be purged of illegal drug trafficking, sex work, refugees, and “anti-state elements” such as anarchist groups. The vision envisages the construction of the Exarcheia subway station within five years, the removal of graffiti, and the installation of new street lamps.
This summer, the first phase of the large-scale action plan kicked-off with increased police controls. Phase one is clean up, phase two is to maintain the area and make the first superficial changes to the district, and phase three is to build the Athens Montmartre. In this first phase, the police found 42 grams of marijuana, which they presented to the public as a major heist. Further evacuations will follow ahead of the ultimate confrontation with the revolutionary group Rouvikonas, Mitsotakis’ personal archenemy.
Named after the river Rubikon, Rouvikonas has gained popularity among locals by carrying out spectacular direct actions against private companies, government agencies and embassies in recent years. During Thursday night’s attack the riot police even tried to invade the occupied social center K*Vox on Exarcheia square, which the media has painted as the “operation center” of the group.
The new conservative mayor of Athens and nephew of Prime Minister Mitsotakis, Kostas Bakoyannis, was sworn in on Sunday, August 25. The next day’s police actions were also the first mark of Mitsotakis as the new prime minister — perfectly timed for the return from summer vacation and seasonal work.
The rightwing clamp-down is emboldening: Mitsotakis also announced in the Greek parliament that he would lift the capital controls that had been plaguing Greece since 2015. It was a success for him, thanks to his friend Yannis Stournaras, the President of the Greek Central Bank, a success that the Syriza government was denied by pressure from its “international partners”.
This week’s evictions in Exarcheia should not only be seen as part of a local action plan, but as part of an even larger scheme. The government of the Nea Dimokratia is a mixture of capital-hungry, conservative and neo-fascist elements that will tackle several fronts — lifting capital controls, handing out some money to small businessmen to supposedly make their lives easier, and setting the social catastrophe in motion.
The abolition of university asylum — a rule that has applied since the military dictatorship and that prohibits the police from entering university campuses — is only the first step in the final neoliberalization of Greek universities. The creation of private universities will draw investments from the private sector, inevitably turning them into profit-driven institutions.
Students and professors are organizing against this neoliberal turn, but on a smaller scale than the 2006–07 protests during the last round of education reforms. Years of crisis have destroyed the social networks, and political organizing processes ground to a halt after widespread disappointment with the Syriza government.
Solidarity as defense
But resistance will soon resurface in Greece, not because of “rebellious Greek blood” or other mystical nonsense, but because of the continuous history of social struggles since the beginning of the last century. It is not the history of instigated world wars or peaceful revolutions, but the history of great resistance against both foreign and homegrown fascism and of revolts that have moved above and beyond the realm of subculture politics.
In Exarcheia, the struggle for the territory will only be successful if it is framed as part of a larger counteroffensive, one rooted in the desire to change the world. For this, solidarity must first be rebuilt and threat of gentrification processes combined strategically with other upcoming social fronts like the student protests.
After the return from summer holidays and hit by the first blows of state repression, the neighborhood has turned to each other. The occupiers of Notara 26, for example, have drafted and distributed an open letter to their neighbors, calling for support and solidarity actions. The first local solidarity demonstration in Exarcheia gathered around 2.000 people on Saturday, followed by some clashes with police. For September 14, many groups and squats are mobilizing under the slogan “No Pasaran” for a big demonstration in central Athens.
For those of us abroad, it is time to be vigilant once again after years of relative inactivity in our solidarity work during the Syriza government. It has been a long time since we have visited the Greek embassies and company branches. Some are already reacting to the call of solidarity: according to activist and filmmaker Yannis Youlountas, in the past few days declarations of solidarity and action reports have arrived from nearly two dozen countries.
Exarcheia will fall if not for solidarity. If it remains, it will be a beacon for all of us in our unfinished adventures.
John Malamatinas is a freelance journalist from Berlin, Brussels and Thessaloniki. He is active in various anti-capitalist networks. His topics of interest are nationalism, social struggles and the crisis in Greece.