There are few places in Europe where you can find riot police squads in full gear, permanently stationed around buzzing cafes and restaurants. In all honesty, I know just one: Exarchia, the boho, ever-rebellious neighbourhood of Athens.
Situated in the centre of the city, right next to the “historic triangle” of Syntagma parliament building, Monastiraki (under the Acropolis) and Omonoia Square, Exarchia is considerably unpolished compared to its neighbours to the south and east. But what it lacks in clean sidewalks, it makes up for in virility and spirit.
This is a neighbourhood of politics, resistance and communal spirit. The first recorded student riot took place here more than a century ago. It was here that students started occupying universities protesting the 1967 dictatorship, and it was here that on November 17, 1973, a tank sent by the military junta to evict the occupation, broke down the gates of the Polytechnic University, crushing students. This was where the military regime signed its own death warrant.
After the restoration of democracy in 1974, Exarchia became home to the emerging left-wing movements, anarchist collectives, intellectuals, activists and, notoriously, urban guerrilla terrorist groups like “November 17”, which came straight out of the Exarchia far-left.
Today Exarchia has come to represent a microcosm of the major conflicts within Greek society: the police vs the politicised youth; the old vs the young generation; the state vs the poor and the marginalised; the political elite vs the austerity-stricken population.
The memory of violence
The streets of the neighbourhood have preserved a long history of police violence. The streets and the people of Exarchia remember. It is a neighbourhood tradition to commemorate resistance and protest against political violence, which inevitably pits it against the state and its repressive apparatus.
In November 1985, during the commemoration of the November 1973 student uprising, 15-year-old Michalis Kaltezas was shot by riot police. The Polytechnic was occupied once again by angry youth denouncing police violence.
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In 2008, 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was also shot dead by a policeman in Exarchia. The neighbourhood exploded into weeks-long riots. The incident took place in Messologiou Street, where young people still hang out, sipping beer, next to the mural set up in memory of young Alexandros.
This year’s commemoration of his death on December 6 turned into clashes with the police. Yet again, the police forces brutally attacked the relatively peaceful demonstration running through downtown Athens, and yet again, Exarchia became the stage of a well-known war game between the angry youth and the police.
The way protests happen in Exarchia, however, is a bit different. The streets, the buildings, the residents are not just passive spectators of this extended war. In December, the whole neighbourhood was “up in arms” throwing flowerpots and furniture from their balconies at the riot police; Molotov cocktails were raining down on the police from rooftops.
Exarchia remembers, and the police does little to help it forget. Police brutality scars the neighbourhood on a regular basis. On November 17, when the demonstration for the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising ended, mounted units took to the streets of Exarchia, breaking down building entrances, intimidating people on the sidewalks, damaging private property and beating up journalists. The next day there was just one phrase in the minds of many of the people I spoke to in the neighbourhood: collective punishment.
Every year Exarchia adds to its log of murder, violence and police brutality and its memory does not fail.
A political stance
Exarchia, in the mainstream narrative, has seemingly turned into what the police had always maintained it is: A stronghold of dangerous anarchists. But the roots of this hostility go deeper than a mere grudge against the police.
It should not come as a surprise that the headquarters of the PASOK party, situated in the neighbourhood, is heavily guarded by the police. The 2009 PASOK government was instrumental in passing the EU-dictated austerity measures that have driven 2.3 million Greeks into poverty, another 3.8 million under threat of poverty, destroyed social services provisions across Greece and sent millions into the streets unemployed.
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Police in full gear stand guard all year round in front of the PASOK HQ. Exarchia residents have repeatedly complained about their presence. In the summer, after the residents of a neighbouring building got into a dispute with the officers over the noise police buses were making, the officers threatened to break into the building and arrest them. In protest, thousands of residents walked out into the streets under the slogan “Out with the police!”
The neighbourhood also showed solidarity with the hunger strike of Nikos Romanos, Grigoropoulos’ best friend, who is now in prison. Tension quickly escalated and on December 3, a group of anarchists attacked the PASOK headquarters with 30 molotov bombs. As the police chased them down Messologiou Street, a group took refuge in the bar where I was sitting. They took off their masks and sat around pretending they were customers. They seemed angry, high on adrenaline and I could tell by their faces that the feud with the police and the state will not be settled any time soon.
A unique community spirit
In the corner of Navarinou and Zoodochou Pigis street, a tiny park breaks the grey urban mass that is Exarchia. This once empty lot was meant to be turned into a parking lot, but activists took it over and after years of bitter struggle, managed to bring it under communal control and turned it into a green oasis, with a playground and a garden. “Their parking, our park” is the slogan of the group that runs it, and it’s the perfect metaphor for what the lively neighbourhood wants to be.
Co-ops and social enterprises are multiplying in Exarchia. In the rest of Athens one might see empty cafes and vacant shops, but in Exarchia, the streets are littered with alternative businesses, like independent bookshops, co-op cafes and restaurants and even entire theatres.
The residents have also organised to drive the drug trade away from the central Exarchia square and its surrounding alleys, and have managed to do so to an impressive degree compared to a few years ago. What seemed like a plague that would drive the area to the ground, has improved, thanks to a very active neighbourhood association, which over the years has become an integral part of life here.
Exarchia is resisting through a civic spirit emboldened by the crisis, and with solidarity that extends well beyond its residents. This cradle of alternative lifestyles is also one of the most welcoming areas in Athens, where immigrants can hang out feeling safer than in most other areas.
For thousands of young Greeks, Exarchia has become a space for urban resistance. This is where they gather to talk and do politics. It is their arena for free expression, where they demonstrate the full extent of their anger with an indifferent, self-serving state that ignores their opinions and turns its back on their future.
This is a theatre where all the ills and blessings of modern Greece become painfully obvious and clash. In this sense, Exarchia will either become a paradigm of resistance and revival through solidarity and unity, or a symbol of anger, violence and the disintegration of the social fabric in crisis-stricken Greece.
Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe, examining issues of precariousness, new nationalisms and independence movements across Europe. His work has been featured in Channel 4 News, Vice, the LRB and The Guardian among others.
Follow him on Twitter: @yiannisbab