The Anarchists of Athens
The first thing I notice about Athens is the dogs. They roam the streets in packs while old men sit in front of souvlaki shops drinking coffee and arguing. In Monastiraki, African migrants offer bracelets and flowers in the name of “peace and love”. They also want money. People park wherever they feel and the streets are filled with politically charged street art. The police just stand around smoking and chatting to women. Anarchists rule these streets, or so I’ve heard.
The sun was setting on a warm spring day when I met Athens university students Anny, 20, and Nefeli, 18, at a rooftop bar of a dingy hostel in Monastiraki. The former is a political science student and the latter is a journalism student. Both are disillusioned with the present economic crises plaguing Greece; both are Greek goddesses with iPhones. We chatted over some cheap beers.
The current eco-political climate is spawning a generation of politically disenchanted Athenian youths – some are quietly disgruntled while others actively gather to fight the powers that be. I had heard of a place in particular where the more radicalised youths congregate – the “anarchist district” of the city. After a few beers at the rooftop bar, I decided to ask the girls if they knew anything about this supposed anarchist district. “Exarcheia,” they both responded in unison. Apparently it was well known. Apparently it was only two stops away on the metro. Apparently it was best to stay away.
We finished our beers and headed for the notorious neighbourhood. It was dark by now and the girls seemed nervous, more for me than for themselves. I strode confidently, figuring it couldn’t be that bad. After all, I’d been to Broadmeadows before. As we walked from the metro station we passed a few interesting pieces of street art. One wall particularly grabbed my eye, it featured the face of a young boy.
“Here, on 6th of December of 2008, the youthful smile of innocent 15-year-old Alexios Grigoropoulos was eliminated by the bullets of unrepentant killers,” says Anny, solemnly translating the Greek script. “That’s why cops don’t come here,” adds Nefeli. “Exarcheia is the place where Alexis was shot and killed by police for no reason,” she adds. I ask Anny to translate another piece of graffiti. She examines it for a while and looks me in the eye. “The police will pay with blood.”
The slaying of Alexis triggered massive protests in Exarcheia which soon escalated into riots in many Greek cities. Demonstrations were held in other cities across the world as far reaching as Sao Paolo. The Greek newspaper Kathimerini labelled the riots: “The worst Greece had seen since the restoration of democracy in 1974.” The shooting of Alexios was the spark the anarchists needed to start actively voicing their discontent at the economic woes afflicting the country. The protests turned violent as demonstrators confronted police with Molotov cocktails and trashed the streets. The protesters were fighting blatant corruption within the country’s state institutions and a rising youth unemployment rate.
“Every 6th of December people demonstrate for Alexios,” Nefeli tells me. The protests are rarely peaceful and it is not uncommon for local stores to get trashed amongst the clashes between anarchists and police. The anarchists say the violence is mostly triggered by police, while the police will tell you a different story. The girls tell me there is widespread consensus among university students that the more violent anarchists are actually paid rebels recruited by the government in an attempt to depict the anarchists as violent hooligans who are out of control. I’m told the national media also has an agenda to make the anarchists seem like enemies of the peace. It’s an interesting thought, but impossible to prove.
We arrive at the foot of Exarcheia square. “This is as far as we’re going,” the girls say to me. And so, spurred on mostly by ignorance, I proceed to walk into the centre of the dark square on my own, pull out my camera and take a photo. I’m not aware that I have the flash on, but suddenly it lights the area, announcing my presence to the whole square.
Hundreds of heads turned toward me and within seconds I’m approached by eight men. They encircle me and begin shouting at me in Greek, demanding I hand over my camera. The Greek girls are gone. I can’t fight for shit so the only choice at my disposal is to offer peace, try to befriend them, and insist I’m anti-establishment too.
“I’m on your side. Let me tell your story,” I say, placing my arm around the main guy’s shoulder. But the tension in the air remained strong. I needed an in. “Listen, I’m looking for some weed, you got any?”
He laughed. Aggressive apprehension turned to light banter. Five minutes ago I was about to get my head kicked in by a Greek street gang, now we are sitting and passing a spliff and arguing over why Ronaldo completely shits on Messi. I steer the conversation toward the political and the anarchists agree to talk to me, on the grounds of anonymity, and that I “tell the world the real story, not the fucking shit from Greek news cunts”.
‘Peter’ seems to be the Alfa male, and the most confident speaking English. “This is somewhere people can be free,” he says, exhaling THC-laden smog into my face. “A lot of people come here to chill, drink a beer, have some weed, and just be happy,” he laughs, passing the joint to me.
I had been told repeatedly to stay away from Exarcheia, and reiterated this sentiment to Peter.
“It’s a bad area for people who can’t understand this style of life,” he explains, his blue eyes gazing intently into mine. “Money is the main problem here, and it’s a problem for everybody, for all of Greece. But we cause no trouble and protest peacefully, we are non-violent, it’s the police that cause the violence…” His voice trails off and he looks down.
It seemed all the protests had caused no dent, only fuelling more mainstream misinterpretation. The peaceful freedom fighters increasingly aggravated by lack of change, the less patient of which turned violent, thus perpetuating the stereotype; the self-fulfilling prophecy so desperately urged upon by the powers that be. Exarcheia Square – a place for hooligans and nothing more.
I think back to the Greek girls I had parted with at the precipice of the anarchist district. They urged me to stay away, telling me even the police avoid the area. Was this true?
“They don’t come here often, but when they do, they beat everybody. People are running all over the place, it’s a mess,” he says, conviction returning to his words.
“Tell me more about the anarchist movement,” I say, taking a swing of unknown alcoholic potion masqueraded as orange juice given to me by one of the men. “People are making the choice to stand up for their beliefs – for what is right,” he says with a wry grin. “And here we are not shy, we aren’t scared to speak up when things are wrong. People deserve a better life. Every day we are seeing the same shit and it is time for a change. Greece is broke – all the world media will tell you this, but the rich are still rich. We do not need a new political party; no election can save us. What we need is a revolution.”
“What we need is a revolution,” he repeats, shouting, not to me, but to the whole square. Dozens raise their beers in unison. The vibe is a good one. I feel safe. But I have to ask: “Why were you so aggressive with me? You and all your mates were real angry, no shit, I thought I was about to fucking die man. Get beaten to death by a bunch of angry Greeks… my Mum would’ve been bummed.”
He laughs and pulls a smoke out of his pocket, puts it in my mouth and lights it for me. “We don’t like journalists,” he said. “Maybe you should turn your flash off next time.”
I was high and drunk and felt like I was sitting with long lost brothers. “I’m a journalist,” I said, almost ashamedly. “For you it is different,” he responded, leaning in closer, reassuring arm around my neck. I could smell souvlaki and cigarettes in his breath. “I’m talking to you because you are not a Greek journalist. You’re a kangaroo. The media here makes us look like gangsters, criminals, when we just want a better Greece, a fairer Greece, for all. They want us to fight the police; it’s a good story for them. Maybe you can tell the truth.”