While Greece is struggling with bailouts and cuts, a neighbourhood in Athens has taken its rights to its own hands. Exarchia has a long history of rioting and is still a radical neighbourhood shouting loudly outs its opinions. Today it is also reacting to the crises of the country with solidarity and passion.
Frustration with the government’s policy can be well seen in Exarchia, a neighbourhood in central Athens. One building after another is covered under graffiti blaming the state, police and capitalism leaving no corner untouched.
When walking the streets in the evening you can feel a bitter smell of cannabis floating in the air. The pedestrian streets leading to the main square of the area are bordered with people sitting on the ground and drinking beer. The neighbourhood known for its leftist political movements, heavy rioting and Molotov bombs is lively and awake.
As I speak to the locals, I soon realise that Exarchia is a place full of paradoxes. While police are not welcome to the area – and they indeed almost never show up in the neighbourhood – drug dealers have found a place to do their businesses on the police lacking streets. And when the area might attracts alcoholics, drug users and refugees because of its approbative atmosphere the people with no money can get free health care from a self-organised health centre located in the middle of the neighbourhood.
People here are used to taking the action.
A few blocks away from the main square of Exarchia is Skoros, a shop not selling anything.
“Why Skoros once was set up was because of an anti-consumeristic idea. The main idea was that consumerism was the cornerstone of capitalism and we wanted to abolish that”, Vanda Davetta, a member of the initiative states.
Skoros is a place for people to bring clothes and articles they no longer need but could still be useful for somebody else. Visitors are advised to take up to three items and leave some coins with which Skoros can afford the necessary costs, like rent and lightning. But no price tag will ever be attached to the products.
As Skoros was set up in 2008, just before the financial crisis broke out, the initiative trying to make people consume less soon found itself in a weird situation. People did not have the capability to consume anymore. Contrary to what one would have expected, people did not stash all the goods they could possibly get but started to share from their own even more.
“The stock upstairs is so full that I’m afraid that is going to come down some day”, Elena Fornaro, another member of Skoros, laughs.
With the help of Skoros, Athenians have also found the joy and reasonability of second- hand items, both Fornaro and Davetta say. Before the crisis second hand was only a trend for very specific fashion styles like vintage dresses, not for practical everyday clothes as it is today.
Still, although all the positive-looking changes Davetta does not believe the Greeks have learned their lessons.
“If they became rich tomorrow, they would start spending their money again – and even worse”, she says.
Fornaro agrees hoping the truth to be a bit more pleasant and thinks over people’s reasons to consume so much without caring about anything.
“It is great to be able to work and get whatever you need with your own money but does it stop there? How much do you need and how much can you offer? There are many questions for every society and every country.”
As we are talking someone inside the shop interrupts us. After a short Greek discussion of which I don’t understand a word Fornaro explains to me what is going on. Some few minutes ago a man went to a close supermarket threatening people with a gun.
“I am not telling you this to make you scared, I’m telling it to show that everything can happen here”, Fornaro says.
“For no reason someone can burn a trashcan and close the whole street because they are rioting about something.”
Exarchia has indeed been the centre for multiple riots noticed even internationally. One of the vital ones was in 2008 when a policeman killed a 15-year-old boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, protesting in the middle of the neighbourhood. It was an ordinary Saturday evening, and in an hour or so the centre of Athens was full of people protesting against the police violence. Riots that started in Exarchia spread to the whole country and lasted for weeks. Still today the anniversaries of the killing bring the streets of Exarchia full of angry youths.
Davetta spent a lot of time in Excarhia also in the 80’s and saw how the neighbourhood changed. It used to be a centre for writers and artists, which it still is, but something new came to the picture.
“It happened the same time when Greece became to face the big problems: less money and fewer wealthy people. As people started to be unemployed they stayed here all day long smoking and drinking beer, doing nothing. They couldn’t find jobs so they become anarchists. Why not destroy those who are wealthier and have a better future than us?”
She, however, wants to make a differentiation between anarchists who have studied the ideology and ‘know what they are doing’ and people who just destroy things for no real reasons.
“I think nobody who has to work and wake up early in the morning has the time to do that. If they leave them without jobs like that, of course they will do it”, she continues pointing at the government.
Fornaro tells that during the last years also ‘alternative tourists’ have found the area and find it amusing to visit because of its lively atmosphere with many cafes and bookshops. But as an Athenian she can, however, see the other side as well.
“If you live here in Exarchia and have people shooting heroin on your window sill every day or riots and Molotov bombs on your street, you have to move out of”, she says.
In November 1973 Exarchia was roiling. Greece was under the rule of a military junta and its repression also towards the universities was remarkable. The students of the National Technical University of Athens, better known as the Polytechnic, finally had enough and went on a strike barricading themselves inside the university building located in Exarchia.
Without any concern military tanks crashed through the university gates killing, according to unofficial accounts, over 20 and injuring hundreds of people. The official investigations said that no one was killed during the incident. However, the happenings still were a trigger for a chain of events that finally ended to the overthrow of the junta.
“In many parts of Greece there are streets named after the people who took part of the happenings, the heroes of the Polytechnic Institute”, tells Yiannis Litovchenko, an architect who used to live in Exarchia for eight years and now gives walking tours focusing on the social movements in Exarchia today and in the past.
Today the Polytechnic building is covered in graffiti. In the time I spent in Athens, students are on a vacation and the Polytechnic building is occupied to house refugees. In the courtyard a tiny pair of gumboots is hanging to dry from a bough of a small tree.
We walk around the colourful streets of Exarchia with Litovchenko and pass Notara26, one of the visible forms of solidarity taking place in Exarchia. It is a former office building and one of the many squatted houses offering refugees food and shelter by the locals.
All the squats and volunteers have been a vital help for many refugees looking for a humane place to stay, thinks Litovchenko.
“When a lot of refugees started to flow to Athens, these places had food to offer and translators to help people communicate way before the government or EU did anything”, Litovchenko states.
I meet a social anthropologist Yannis Kallianos at an occupied park in the middle of Exharcia. We sit down on stones but need soon to switch our spot as someone is sweeping the ground, making the red sand float to our faces.
For years the park was used as a parking lot – which did not match the plans of the locals. So when the leasehold for the parking expired they took action, broke the asphalt and planted trees. Today one corner of the park is used as a playground for children while the other one is dedicated just to hanging around and holding different kinds of cultural events.
“The park shows what the neighbourhood wants to be and what everyday politics are all about”, Kallianos says.
By everyday politics he means the way people are trying to self-organise their political ideas. They don’t want to see politics as something abstract but as something that is rooted in everyday life.
When I mention the people sitting on a ground and drinking beer to Kallianos he explains that to be one good example of people bringing the politics to everyday life, taking what they think belong to them.
“Whose space is public space?” he sums up.
Kallianos does not want to speculate on the future of Exarchia but believes that the ‘anti-state dynamic’ and political charge is not going anywhere, tensions are still there.
“The place carries its own kind of political dynamic,” he states.
Having a late lunch on the street where Gianis Varoufakis, the former Minister of Finance of Greece, got assaulted while having a dinner with his wife last year does not feel strange at all. The restaurant is a normal, middle-priced Greek restaurant with waiters dressed to white shirts and black trousers. While eating my lunch I watch the Exarchia square that is located only some 15 metres further, it is way more quiet than during the night time.
With the daylight bringing more shades to the streets I can also see the soul of the area brighter. Exarchia has its paradoxes, good and bad features but the most visible thing still might be the passionate will to help others and make things happen.
As I asked Elena Fornaro if she thinks that Skoros among the other initiatives could actually affect problems that the whole society is struggling with, she told me to be hopeful.
“This is the way. It surely is not that you sit in your house and do nothing. Things are difficult but with small steps we could maybe change it.”
Perhaps there is something in Exarchia that the whole of Greece should learn from. Like the students of Polytechnic once started something spectacular, the revolutionary mentality behind the flying Molotovs might also today have some wise words to say.