On a warm evening in August this year, in the quiet residential neighbourhood of Kesariani, in the Greek capital, Athens, several hundred young people gathered in front of a stage as a band fine-tuned their instruments. At first glance, there was little unusual about the scene, but this was not an ordinary concert.
Above the drinks stand, where 20-somethings wearing black waited for their beers, the flag of the anarchist movement swung between two pine trees. Behind the stage, a banner urged the audience, in bold letters, to take up arms against the state.
“When confronted by tyranny,” it read, “people choose between chains and guns.”
The atmosphere hovered somewhere between festive and threatening.
“Don’t take photographs of anyone’s faces,” warned one bystander. “They do not like the press.”
“Our passion for freedom is stronger than any prison bars,” chanted the crowd, as the band screamed heavy metal rage into the night air. This is the message of a new generation of Greek anarchists who, after years of recession and austerity, have lost all faith in the government, and even in the state itself.
|Anarchists cheer at a fundraising concert in Kesariani [Tommy Trenchard/Al Jazeera]|
Anarchy is not new to Greece. Though opinions differ on the details, anarchists say the movement started in the port city of Patras, and was brought across the Ionian sea by dockhands from Italy some time in the mid-19th century. Since then it has ebbed and flowed over the years, taking credit for helping to topple Greece’s military dictatorship in the early 1970s and fighting educational reform throughout the 1990s.
But since the beginning of the country’s economic crisis in 2008, the movement has been resurgent as disaffected young Greeks look for alternatives to a political and economic system many see as discredited.
On one Wednesday earlier in the year, I watched as masked anarchists in hoodies and black T-shirts hurled bottles and petrol bombs at riot police in front of the parliament building. Such exchanges have become routine.
These are, perhaps, the images that most commonly come to mind when people think of anarchists. But after decades of being seen largely as a protest movement of ideologues and dreamers, Greece’s anarchists are having a makeover.
As frustration with conventional politics deepens, the movement is attempting to rebrand itself as a realistic alternative for disillusioned young Greeks by showing that it offers more than violence and vague ideas of freedom. The concert in Kesariani was a part of this initiative.
While the band played, makeshift stalls selling drinks and grilled pork skewers were raking in a healthy profit. The event was raising money for, among other things, the construction of a free anarchist-run health centre, one of a growing number of social projects being instigated by anarchist and ‘autonomist’ groups across Athens.
“For the social revolution to happen, you need a big part of society that agrees with you and sees you providing solutions,” said one anarchist on condition of anonymity. “In the past we offered only our ideology. That didn’t change things for people in everyday life. But now we’re changing that.”
At the heart of the movement is a bar in the artsy left-wing neighbourhood of Exarchia. Formerly a cinema, K-Vox has been occupied since 2012 by anarchists, who have been running it as a bar to raise money for various causes.
Inside, posters of blazing police cars and masked fighters toting assault rifles cover the walls. A black and white print above the bar depicts a 1975 riot in Milan; another shows an injured policeman being dragged away by colleagues at a riot in Hamburg. In one corner, in front of a mural depicting anarchists in a standoff, stands a rack of black motorcycle helmets; extra protection for when rioting breaks out in the area.
The clientele is wildly varied, from dreadlocked Rastafarians and bespectacled left-wing students to angry teens in black hoodies and the occasional visiting anarchist from overseas.
“In Spain, we have nothing like this,” said Xavier, a young Spanish anarchist who dropped in for a beer one afternoon. “They just talk, they don’t do anything. Here they know how to fight.”
Since opening three years ago, K-Vox staff say the project has raised more than $400,000. Much of the money goes to legal costs for jailed anarchists, but a significant portion goes into social projects such as language classes for refugees, food handouts and even medical care.
|A traditional Greek band plays during a fundraising event in K-Vox bar [Tommy Trenchard/Al Jazeera]|
When I arrived in the bar to research this story I was put in touch with V, a self-styled ambassador for the project who speaks several languages and deals with the foreign anarchists who visit.
Over coffee and cigarettes at a table by the bar, he told his story. It all began, he explained, with the punk subculture of the early 1990s.
“Everything I liked was something society didn’t want. The police would raid our concerts, and they banned our parties. Then I started to read more and became aware of the inequalities and the class system.”
At the age of 18, V officially joined an anarchist group.
Now 39, he has given his adult life to anarchism. He has been unemployed for the past two years, getting by on odd jobs moving furniture or working occasionally as an electrician. He is also awaiting trial for a street fight in a “fascist” neighbourhood two years ago. But he doesn’t appear overly concerned about that; getting arrested fairly regularly is an accepted part of life as an anarchist.
The goal, he argues, is a society without any form of centralised government, a society of “solidarity and equality based on self-rule within the community … like libertarian communism”.
The anarchists at K-Vox are faced with some inevitable dilemmas. How can they support their jailed comrades and fund their social services without participating in the wider capitalist economy? The drinks they serve are cheap, but not free, after all. Some must work simply to eat. One explained that he could only maintain his anarchist lifestyle with financial support from his parents.
“Unfortunately we need money for all these things,” said V. “It would be better if we didn’t have to ask people for money but for now we need to raise funds. In the current system surviving requires money, but we see it as a means, not a goal.”
Living outside the capitalist dream
But V says that the country’s economic crisis has helped to generate momentum for the movement as more Greeks grow fed up with the capitalist system. “Seven years ago people were living inside the capitalist dream. Now they’ve opened their eyes. They’re listening more. They’re looking for solutions”.
And that, he explains, is where the Self-organised Health Structure of Exarchia (ADYE) fits in.
In the basement beneath the K-Vox, the ADYE health centre sits in contrast to the atmosphere of protest upstairs. With clean white walls and family-friendly murals, it represents the other side of the anarchist movement’s activities, offering free primary healthcare to anyone who turns up.
Using medicines donated by local pharmacies and with funds from the bar upstairs and other donations, ADYE offers diagnosis and treatment for most common ailments, as well as a full range of dental services. More complicated cases are referred to hospitals in the area.
K-Vox staff hope it will serve as tangible proof that their ideas can actually work and say the project has been quite a success.
“In the last two years people have been coming almost every day,” said V. “It is important in many ways. First, it’s practical. It helps us when we need it, it helps a lot of people. Also it’s important to test ourselves at self-organisation, to see if we can provide a health centre and run it with equality. And from the outside people can see that if we work together it’s possible to find solutions.”
When I arrived at ADYE hoping to find out more about their work, a weekly mental health session was in full swing. Staff told me to return later that day to request an interview from the assembly, the body in charge of making decisions for the project. It is these assemblies that the anarchists hope will organise local communities in a post-revolutionary Greece.
When I came back that evening to address the group I found around 20 members of the project sitting around a long table in the basement. A mixture of stony glares and encouraging smiles greeted me as I made my case, but after conferring briefly a figure at the end of the table, who appeared to hold an unspoken position of some authority, decided they couldn’t offer an interview to a journalist who might publish it in a profit-making, capitalist publication.
In a statement on their website, however, ADYE describes itself as “a living cell of social resistance and emancipation against the barbarism of our times”. It claims to have, among its volunteer staff, a radiologist, a gynaecologist, a general practitioner and a speech therapist, among others.
And it is far from unique. Similar projects are appearing across the city.
‘The revolution will not come with flowers’
High up on a hill opposite the Acropolis, another anarchist clinic advertises free dental care, while in the garden of an ‘occupied’ mansion in the middle-class suburb of Zografou anarchists have turned the gardens into a giant vegetable patch, offering food to the the area’s residents. In Exarchia, food distribution to needy families by anarchist or ‘autonomist’ groups takes place regularly.
“There are a lot of social experiments in Athens now,” said Vagelis, a 32-year-old anarchist living in a squatted flat in an abandoned, graffiti-covered apartment block in the north of the city. Lanky and softly spoken, Vagelis is happy with his decision to break away from a system he sees as broken. His brother is university educated but still can’t find work, and is living at home and dependent on his parents, he explained.
Not all of those who fill the surrounding 224 squatted rooms – once occupied by refugees from Asia Minor in the 1930s – label themselves anarchists, he added, but the community tries to live “the anarchist way”.
Residents contribute what money or skills they can, and all decisions are taken by a weekly assembly that is open to anyone. A loose form of community justice ensures crime is rare; Vagelis rarely bothers to lock his door.
Some food is provided through ‘cooperations’ with local farmers, and language classes are arranged for the children of the many migrants and refugees who live here.
But like all the anarchists I spoke to, Vagelis, sitting on a tattered sofa with his pet cat and pouring cups of green tea from a rusting teapot, insisted there remains a need for a violent militant wing to coexist with the social work.
“The revolution will not come with flowers,” he said. “They need to see that we have the power to create but also to destroy. Again and again.”
From his office high up in the towering Ministry of Public Order, Director Vasilis Mastrogiannis says he has observed growing violence by what he calls “extremist” left-wing groups.
“The movement has grown with the crisis, and it has made the actions of these teams more violent …. They commit crimes like breaking into banks, looting commercial businesses, throwing a lot of bombs, destroying real estate,” he said.
In recent years, a group called the Conspiracy of Fire Cells (CFC), but known locally as Synomosia Pyrinon Tis Fotias, has found particular prominence, claiming responsibility for a series of potentially deadly attacks since 2008. In 2010, it sent parcel bombs to various European embassies before being designated a terrorist organisation by the US State Department the following year.
In 2013, they placed a car bomb under a vehicle driven by the director of the city’s high-security prisons, while other bomb attacks have targeted the homes of politicians, the parliament building, banks and high-end businesses.
In the same year, another anarchist group claimed responsibility for the murder of two members of the far-right Golden Dawn party, shot outside their offices in Athens.
‘Small fires are burning’
Rivalry with the extreme right is intense. The current crisis has polarised the country and anarchists fear there is a danger that the population could end up swinging to the right instead of the left.
In one quiet city square, known, they claim, for the right-wing views of its inhabitants and their abuse of the city’s increasing numbers of migrants and refugees, the anarchists have stockpiled clubs and riot shields in an underground bunker. Once a week they gather there to “maintain a presence”.
Mastrogiannis claimed there have been further deaths attributed to the CFC and other extreme left-wing groups, though he declined to give a figure. He is eager to point out that what he calls the “terrorist teams” are few in number and have little in common with the ‘mainstream’ anarchist movement. He insists the extremists do not have public support, and that the police are winning the battle against such groups. Dozens have been arrested in recent years.
But in some ways the heavy-handed police response to groups like the CFC appears to have done the opposite, garnering sympathy for the anarchists among members of the public. The high-profile police killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Exarchia in 2008 brought a wave of converts to the movement.
When Grigoropoulos’ friend Nikos Romanos was arrested for robbing a bank in 2013, thousands took to the streets after it emerged that the police had digitally altered his mugshot to hide the beating they had inflicted.
What Amnesty International has described as a “culture of abuse and impunity in the Greek police” is a favourite topic of conversation in Exarchia, where ritualised clashes with the security forces are common. On one occasion, I watched as a group of eight unarmed anarchists distributing leaflets near the prime minister’s house triggered a full-scale police intervention, with 36 riot police officers escorting the group to a nearby van before driving them off to the station for questioning. “They are anarchists,” explained one police officer, simply.
Without any centralised organisation holding them together – something V blamed on internal squabbles – it is hard to gauge how much power the group really holds, and how deep their support runs within the community. Their ideas remain radical, and for many the social effect of their projects has not been significant enough to dislodge traditional perceptions of the movement.
“I don’t think throwing stones at the police will help anyone,” said Panayotis Skoklis, a young communist, in Exarchia square one evening when I asked him what ordinary people thought about anarchists. “They don’t do anything to change the system. If they had a political party I would vote for them, but everything is just a game for them.”
Back in K-Vox, however, V is confident that their many pockets of support across the capital can capitalise on the current state of turmoil in the country. “The movement is maturing. All over Athens we have these assemblies now; everywhere small fires are burning. We hope they will join up until they take over the city.”