Solidarity and Resistance Cannot Be Evicted
Activists from Athens have turned vacant premises of Exarchia district into squats – a refuge for anarchist groups, migrants and all disenfranchised and marginalized members of society.
PHOTO: Exarcheia Tourism / Facebook
Athens in the winter is no less sunny and vibrant than in the summer, not even when on an ordinary January afternoon the sky gets filled with – not clouds – but special police helicopters. The otherwise loud Greeks are deafened by the rotation of helicopter arms, as our driver Dionisyos explains to us that this is "riot police preparing to clash with refugees and anarchists from Exarchia."
The Athens district of Exarchia is located at the heart of the Greek capital and has for years been the stronghold of the intellectual left and a symbol of the anarchist movement, having as such enjoyed a level of autonomy, not unlike the famous Christiania district in Copenhagen. Police forces have no authority over Exarchia because freedom and solidarity are the only laws here, as is clearly communicated from each façade in the neighbourhood, graffitied with anti-authoritarian messages. In the wake of the debt crisis, Athenian activists transformed the closed-down shops and emptied spaces (even entire buildings) in Exarchia into squats. Not only anarchist groups but also many immigrants and all disenfranchised and marginalized members of society found a refuge here. This activist oasis has proven to be more successful than the state in exercising self-management: solidarity kitchens, bookstores, squats and makeshift clinics have been organized, and entire refugee families have found a new home in Exarchia. Squatting has shown to be a good alternative to overcrowded refugee camps and solutions offered by non-governmental organisations.
After the July 2019 elections, New Democracy with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to power. Soon, the new political climate started to have effect on Exarchia, as on November 20 2019, Mitsotakis issued a request to vacate all squats and began actively pursuing a policy of "cleansing" Exarchia, aimed primarily at relocating refugees from squatted premises to "appropriate" refugee camps. Ever since, raids keep being organized, and even the helicopters from the beginning of the story are no longer a surprise. "Almost like we’re at war," says Dionisyos ironically, explaining how this came about: "Special police squadrons keep pushing to forcibly evict refugees from the squats, but anarchists are putting on too strong a resistance. Earlier (during SYRIZA, a/n) this would have been unthinkable. Ever since in 2008 they shot down fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, police have drawn citizens’ anger, primarily among students and anarchists, and have not been welcome in Exarchia, nor allowed to enter apartments and buildings without a court order." But nowadays police often get into violent squabbles with the squatters. On my way to Exarchia, I received this message: "Don't be frightened if you see Molotov cocktails or fires, just turn to a different street," says Kostas, an activist who has lived in this chaotic neighbourhood for years.
Although activist ideas in Exarchia have come to life and do work in practice, the new Prime Minister Mitsotakis has been fiercely targeting refugee squatters and the entire neighbourhood. Mitsotakis plans to transform this modern multicultural agora into a quiet residential district with the help of his nephew Kostas Bakoyiannis, the new mayor of Athens. This family vision would cost ten million euros and would take at least five years to complete. Why it has all of a sudden become so important for the authorities to "cleanse" the city of refugees in squatted premises, brandishing slogans about the safety of citizens (who are certainly not endangered in Exarchia), became clearer to me as soon as I found myself on Exarchia's main square. I was greeted by Kostas, and from the street bustle it was impossible to suspect that just a few hours earlier police had started a violent raid. "For days, police have been trying to take from the squatters a building that is a couple of blocks away. They almost succeeded, but the anarchists have reconquered it today," Kostas explains, as a reddish hue of the night sky reflects over Exarchia; a token of resistance.
We walked the restless streets to the Athens Polytechnic University, which resembles one huge educational squat, as every inch of its façade is riddled with graffiti, like the one that reads Solidarity with Revolutionary Self-Defense in English and Arabic. In the sea of graffiti and activist messages, the world’s leading accommodation rental platform – Airbnb – is often called out. "When I first moved to Exarchia seven years ago, rental rates were low," Kostas explains how the neighbourhood came to be gentrified. "People were uneasy about living among the anarchists... until it turned out that tourists found Exarchia quite attractive, very instagrammable, so now my rent has been tripled." The poorer tenants were forced to move out because of the prices surge, while the richer ones benefited from the mechanisms of turistification, having converted their apartments into Airbnb accommodation units.
The neighbourhood is located in the city centre; it is because of its rebellious history that it is attractive to tourists, who flock here for their piece of authentic experience of Exarchia life. But what they do get is truly in this neighbourhood’s spirit – some glue in the keyhole and a graffiti-painted door: AIRBNB, NO PASARAN. Activists use various means to fight their neighbourhood from being gentrified; save for the glue in the locks and similar guerrilla methods, the battle is fought and on enemy terrain – social networks. Exarcheia Tourism is the name of an anti-authoritarian group representing an alternative and rebellious vision of Exarchia; they have opened Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. In this way, through social networks, Airbnb tourists are openly advised to return home as there will always be resistance. "Chinese investors have bought entire buildings which are now gaping empty and awaiting refurbishment. There are more and more such ghost hotels," Kostas comments. "This is no longer renting flats for sheer survival as it was in the beginning of the crisis; this is pure exploitation".
As the squats and vacant/abandoned spaces became widely recognized as Exarchia’s golden goose, the expulsion of refugees got on even more fiercely, while at the same time the country has been facing an ongoing influx of asylum seekers. In retrospect, since its beginning in 2015, the refugee crisis in Greece has not waned. According to UNHCR official figures, Greece accounts for more arrivals than Spain, Italy, Malta and Cyprus combined, and in 2019 alone, 36,141 people came to Greece to seek asylum, a third of which are children. Recent waves of migrants have increased the pressure and it has become almost impossible to get asylum. Authorities are trying to defend themselves against the "burden" of asylum seekers by adopting Kafkian asylum laws, which require, for instance, that children of asylum seekers attend local schools because if they do not, the whole family will be denied asylum. Existing refugee camps are overcrowded and lack humane living conditions, often serving to isolate asylum seekers as much as possible from the local community.
As I’m walking the streets of Exarchia, I’m thinking about how no real distinction is made here between the Greeks and the refugees; they all live in harmony, at least to the extent the authorities allow them, and the riots that do happen are not caused by the conflict between the locals (Exarchia residents) and the refugees. "For example, on Samos, incidents are a normal thing. In fact, I'm surprised that there aren't more of them," says Theo, a British volunteer on his return from the island of Samos, where he has worked for two months in a makeshift NGO-run camp. "People are brought to the brink in such inhumane conditions and as such are ready for anything. We put together the Alpha Center in a single afternoon, after a fire broke out in the main camp and over 700 people lost their homes and all their belongings," Theo explains to us the state of emergency he encountered on his arrival on Samos in mid-October 2019.
Over five thousand refugees were crammed in a camp intended for 600 people, without the possibility of a secure transfer to the mainland. It is obvious that Greece got caught up in a situation with which it cannot cope; not even the desperate proposal of a floating wall (a drifting barrier in the middle of the Aegean Sea which should be completed by June 2020) can be called a solution. In addition, the asylum law has further been tightened, while requisition is planned of certain premises in order to build detention centres before the refugees are deported.
As far as migrant policies are concerned, Greece has been left alone to handle practical matters, while negotiations with the EU leave little hope of change, nor is there a humane solution in sight. Directly inspired by Orban's barbed-wire policy, New Democracy is reaching for insensitive solutions and is serious about installing the floating barricade in the Aegean Sea, denying (like the rest of the EU) practical assistance in the form of medical staff, social workers and translators. Does it not seem then that Exarchia's self-management is in this context a validated alternative to inhumane camps and centres? I’m leaving Exarchia, and as the activists are burning containers triumphantly I’m having a sense of relief, because who knows how many people have not been expelled from their homes today. And even if they do evict people from Exarchia, ideas of solidarity and resistance cannot be evicted.