The Anarchist Neighborhood of Athens

Socrates Baltagiannis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Socrates Baltagiannis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

I heard the first helicopters fly over a little after 3 p.m. Panagiotis had gone to the pharmacy near his mother’s house to get Malox and Riopan in case we got gassed. Pharmacies in our neighborhood had been sold out of these items for days in the lead up to anti-American demonstrations, and we’d waited too long to look for them. The Malox was to pour on our eyes, the Riopan to swallow. 

There would be medics on the street today, Panagiotis said, but he didn’t want to risk it. During an anti-austerity demonstration on Syntagma Square in 2012, corralled by the police and running, a tear gas canister exploded beneath his feet. The blindness was nearly instantaneous but he kept running. Street medics grabbed him before he could fall, dragging him away, dousing his face in antacid to stop the burning, squeezing the gel into his mouth while a wave of anarchists rushed past, into the gas, hurling rocks at the police.

In spring 2019, after decades of weighing an exit from the US, I secured a long-term visa to live and work in Greece. I settled in Exarchia—anarchist-occupied Athens. I was by no means the only one leaving the US for Europe after the 2016 election, nor the only one hoping to shed ties to a failed state, but I was among a smaller number following a dream of leaving the idea of nations behind. By March 2020, COVID-19 would be offering instruction on interdependence and the fantastical nature of borders; a crash course for anyone still holding tight to the idea of the nation-state. But Exarchians didn’t need a global catastrophe to spell it out. They’d had a 47-year head start. 

That day of helicopters hovering, we headed down the slope from my house toward Patission Street, cutting through the Polytechnic on our way to Omonia Square. The streets and boulevards were empty as if under a heatwave or curfew. Bored-looking police in riot gear, with gas masks dangling around their necks, stood drinking take out-coffee in the eaves of modernist arcades. We’d dressed like tourists and were speaking English, so we would be easily ignored, but the cops and empty streets still had us on edge. Earlier that day, my neighbor told me everything would be fine and I should stay inside until Monday morning. But I wasn’t in Exarchia to stay inside.

My first apartment in the neighborhood was in a terraced building above a café on Kalidromiou, next to Gare Squat—a solidarity house that operated a public bath and laundry. The squat rose tall, a massive building filled with balconies, next to a partially burnt cliff house on the slope of Lofos Strefi, a lush and rocky outcropping of a park in the center of the neighborhood. Gare was one of dozens of squats and solidarity houses in Exarchia that offered everything from housing for migrants and free clinics to language and music classes, open air cinemas and pay-what-you-can cafes.

The streets of Exarchia are green, lined with bitter orange trees and terraced balconies full of geraniums, hanging plants, and climbing wisteria. Buildings in the neighborhood are a mix of squats, stately neo-classical houses, and wide, white, low-rise buildings built in the 60s and 70s; roofs a tangle of TV antennas. The lower halves of every building, whether anarchist occupied or privately owned, are covered with murals and graffiti. A smiling octopus holding a Molotov cocktail above the words Octopus Will Win, a spectral face with the phrase I see Dead People but Who Doesn’t? painted beside it. A map of Airbnb apartments—each marked with an icon of a fire and the words Welcome to Exarchia; murals of sleeping bums, and pink cats, whole walls painted with yellow globe thistles rising to the sun, ornate calligraphic slogans reading “Fuck the Police.”

The neighborhood comprises a dozen winding blocks in the center of Athens, many of them pedestrian corridors, between the Polytechnic Institute and the National Archeological Museum, and the posh borders of Neapoli and Kolonaki. The streets along Exarchia Square are lined with outdoor cafes, bookstores, and record stores. One rarely sees people gazing into their phones in Exarchia or sitting in cafes staring into laptops. They talk; leaning into conversations, or sit, relaxing together on the same side of the table, smoking, reading, thinking. People make eye contact. Like all Mediterraneans in the days before coronavirus, they kiss to greet one another.

From my place on Kalidromiou I could see the Acropolis and mountains rising blue in the distance; the sun shining gold on the cliffs of Lycebettus—a forested mountain inside the city that overlooks the vast white sprawl of Athens and beyond to the sea. Every Saturday a farmer’s market bloomed the length of Kalidromiou then packed up and disappeared in the evening—street sweepers washing away crushed oranges and busted crates of horta; the lingering smell of fresh fish rising from piles of ice in the gutter.

In the evening the neighborhood rang with music and the murmur of conversation; a cheerful, languid energy fueled by endless cigarettes, free shots of mastica, and food so good and simple you felt you’d found the very source of joy. People packed outdoor cafes where lights were strung between trellises and stray cats begged. In the restaurant operating out of an abandoned school across from my building, kids formed little troops playing out on the sidewalk or running between tables before being whisked off to bed.

This is what a neighborhood that’s been autonomous for 47 years looks like.

It also looks like the charred and smoldering remains of flipped cars, the gutted and trash-strewn hollows of buildings that have been burned but not demolished, overflowing dumpsters, smashed storefronts, cracked marble sidewalks, police buses and armed military police stationed at the perimeter of the neighborhood, and cadres of young men and women dressed in black burning things in the center square. 

The freedom and ease of life in Exarchia is preserved by the constant and immediate will to set shit on fire, throw tear gas canisters back at the police, maintain aesthetic control of the neighborhood, and use petrol bombs to remind everyone the place is not for sale.

Below the razor wire on the roof of Gare Squat, a black banner reads We won’t end the occupation, Police and landlords we will trample you. In the spring of 2019 this aspiration seemed, despite the perennial pessimism of leftist academics, and the salivating optimism of foreign real estate speculators, not impossible. The predictions that Exarchia would fall to the same gentrification that took Manhattan’s East Village and Alphabet City, then spread like a virus through every mid-sized city in America, ignored Exarchia’s history and underestimated anarchist tactics. It was true Chinese and Israeli investors had bought buildings in Exarchia, it was true Airbnb was doing its worst. It was true the drug dealers, pushed out by anarchists years before, were making a police assisted-return, not unlike the junkies who heralded Alphabet City’s transformation into starter condos for young professionals. The difference was that fascist tactics and capitalist aggression in Exarchia had never gone unchecked.   

Anarchists, supported by the broader population, evicted the police from Exarchia in December 2008 in an uprising that swept through every neighborhood and suburb of Athens, expanding out to the broader mainland and then to the islands. The catalyst was the murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, by two policemen. Grigoropoulos spent his days in Exarchia but still lived at home in the suburbs with his parents. He could have been anyone’s son.

In the days following the boy’s murder; shops, banks, and cars in the center of the city were torched; fires tore through public buildings around Syntagma Square, the seat of parliament. “But the heart of the protest,” my friend tells Maria tells me, “was everyday people; women dressed for work in suits and heels lobbing cinder blocks through bank windows.” Grandmothers spitting in the face of police. 

The cop who shot Grigoropoulos, Epaminondas Korkoneas, was sentenced to life in prison, his partner was charged as an accomplice and sentenced to 10 years. The government condemned the shooting; the police issued an apology. Christmas festivities in Athens were canceled.

It’s hard for an American to imagine this kind of reaction to the murder of a child by the police. Last year in the US, 1,000 civilians—14 of them children—were killed by cops. Even in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Americans couldn’t fathom a police officer getting life in prison. Maria said she’d read comments in the American press after Grigoropoulos was killed asking how Greeks could riot over “just one child.”

“The day we don’t tear things down because the government murdered a child,” she says. “Is the day we’re no longer human.”

Those weeks of rage in Greece were sparked by Grigoropoulos’s murder, but they came on the heels of government corruption and massive overspending on construction projects, and they came from a deep-seated understanding of the brutality that unchecked authority is capable of. On Nov. 17, 1973, the U.S.-backed military Junta ended a non-violent occupation at the Polytechnic Institute in Exarchia by driving a tank through the gates of the school, murdering 27 people, including students, workers and bystanders; injuring hundreds, and arresting thousands. The aftermath required soldiers to clean pools of blood from the sidewalk into the gutters and sewers. Radio transmissions from inside the school recorded students appealing to the soldiers as their brothers, begging them to disobey military orders. Among the last sounds broadcast from inside the school was an adolescent voice reciting the national anthem, “Hail Freedom,” then silence.

These killings were a catalyst for the 1982 Academic Sanctuary law—which forbade police and soldiers from entering any university, protecting dissidents, radicals, and petty criminals alike. The Polytechnic uprising is memorialized with a yearly demonstration, a march through the city providing an occasion to make other demands and ending, traditionally, with riots in front of the U.S. embassy. This massive annual anti-American demonstration that gets little or no U.S. press coverage was where Panagiotis and I were headed.

In the years following the massacre, anarchists organized and grew the movement. The next two decades saw a cultural revival in the neighborhood from the bottom up; car parks turned into gardens and playgrounds, a boom of public art, bookstores and publishing collectives, punk, folk, and Rembetika music on the air.

In the 1970s and ’80s, 10,000 anarchists lived in Exarchia and it still rings with their presence, including an anti-fascist soccer team called the Exarchia Stars whose fans are legendary for screaming anti-capitalist slogans from the stands. Black flags, and the black and red flags of the anarcho-communists, fly from the windows and roofs of buildings. Many of the bookstores (there are more than a dozen between Exarchia square and University of Athens alone) are small press publishers and pamphleteers, like Black and Red on Veletsiou Street, started by George Garbis in the early 70s. 

“The state wants to evacuate this area and sell it to the multinationals,” Garbis says. “but there are still young people throwing molotovs—young and old people—they don’t give in here.”

Black and Red often finds itself a gathering place for older radicals, who sit on folding chairs around Garbis’s cluttered desk, amid the stacks of rare editions and classic anarchist texts, smoking cigarettes and arguing.

“They want to drink or talk about the past or find love here,” Garbis says of his friends. “But some years there are real battles. And they are real militants: 60, 70 years old and still militant.”

I first returned to Exarchia in 2015. I was editing a novel I began writing in Athens in the ’90s when I lived near Omonia Square, working under-the-table jobs with other teenage dropouts. What I’d planned as a two week trip to Athens to get settings and historical details straight turned into years of going back and forth between Exarchia and Lower Manhattan, even after the book was published, studying Greek, and finally settling in the neighborhood. I no doubt fall into a category of unacknowledged migration; Americans returning to Europe and parts of Africa as our economy, health care and education systems, and social contracts fail, and our government turns harder to the right. There are currently 8.7 million Americans living as expatriates abroad, a number that has doubled in the last decade. My family came to the United States from Italy and Ireland recently enough for me to qualify for a foreign passport, but living in Exarchia was the closest I could come to anything that felt like a legitimate birthright return. 

The same is true for Dalia Heller. Heller, whose father is Greek and mother is Slovenian, grew up in Canada, is based in New York City and works on international public health initiatives. Heller recently bought a house on the northern slope of Lofos Strefi, which she planned to use partly for an arts and community space. The house is now occupied by a couple of women who live rent free, while Heller does public health work in the US related to COVID-19.

Heller says COVID-19 is showing the world that borders are permeable and all lives are interconnected. “This is the moment we need to act,” she says. “When people are seeing that a different way of being is possible.”

Heller’s optimism is understandable. In the early days of the virus in New York, even Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statements to the press sounded like they’d been written by anarcho-syndicalists, as he called for mutual aid, coordinated efforts to share medical equipment; for individual responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. The tenets of anarchism were suddenly being voiced by politicians and conservative grandparents and Britney Spears. Everyone was finding themselves to be a closet syndicalist.

“I wanted to live in Exarchia,” Heller says, because there’s a shared purpose and a shared responsibility. If you’re homeless you’re more likely to get a plate at a restaurant in Exarchia. There are restaurants here that fed everyone for free during the general strikes. You feel, walking down the street at night that everyone looks out for one another. The squats are part of the community and they represent what Exarchia is about. When you come into the neighborhood—you cross over Academias, head up Benaki and it’s like an invisible curtain opens up and closes behind you. It’s like a warm embrace.” 

Garbis describes the period between 1973 and the mid 1990s in Exarchia as “paradise.”

“People came from all over Greece and all over the world to settle here. Antifascists, anarchists, leftists, we lived together in a positive atmosphere. We wanted to promote theoretical work so people could know who they were—not promote violence.”

The first time I’d experienced the burn of tear gas I was headed out to meet friends from language school at Oxo Nou, a restaurant at the corner of Benaki and Andrea Metaxa. I’d been studying all day and was excited to be out in the pale light and crisp air as the sun was setting. I’d made it three blocks from my house when my face began to burn and I couldn’t breathe, and I stupidly tried to speed through the gas to the restaurant. By the time I got to the place, there were little pools of fire on the street and the owners were waving people inside—shepherding them into the kitchen to rinse their eyes. Young men and women with molotovs and bandannas over their faces were headed up the street toward the perimeter set up by police.

I tried to wait, to wash up, to stay with my friends who were at the sink, but my body was already back out on the street, and headed home.

I rushed past people pulling their shirts up over their faces and people still standing on the corner of Veletsiou, grilling meat and smoking cigarettes, unmoved; and I felt like a coward—keying back into my place, stripping out of my clothes as soon as I got in the door, rinsing my burning mouth and eyes, blowing my nose and feeling my sinuses explode in pain, shutting the windows, stepping into the shower. 

An hour later I stood behind the glass door of the balcony and watched the lights of the city shine. Helicopters passed over. Music and voices drifted up from the café. People cleaned and tended their terrace gardens. One could feel that nothing had happened because the police were already gone, because the pace of life had barely changed.  

I remembered Maria telling me someone threw a live grenade into the building next to her office.

“Nothing happened,” she said.

“They didn’t increase security in your building?” I asked her.

“Why?” She said. “They could tell he wasn’t serious.”

Serious is burning whole neighborhoods, not a random bomb unconnected to demands. When the Greek government decided to add a nominal yearly surcharge to what had always been free health care for the population, people flipped cars and set them on fire. There were riots. “That’s just tradition,” Maria said. 

In July 2019, Greek voters were weary of these traditions, and voted to replace Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, leader of the SYRIZA party who was sympathetic to the movement. They elected New Democracy’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ a Harvard-educated former banker who ran in part on a vow to “clean up” Exarchia. And while it would be easy to define ND as right or center right—this is not a universal terminology. ND positions are in fact to the left of the Democratic Party in the U.S., and in America would be considered socialist.  

For perspective; the demands made by protesters occupying Seattle’s Capitol Hill district in June 2020 were for rights and policies that already exist throughout Europe; universal health care, access to education, limited funding for police and more funding for community, social services and housing. 

Still, Mitsotakis got to work in the name of capital; ordering raids on squats, sending Syrian families who’d been living in them and whose children were enrolled in schools, to refugee camps. Riot police evicted solidarity houses throughout the summer and fall stationing guards outside to prevent residents from reoccupying them. In August, New Democracy overturned the sanctuary law—specifically targeting the Polytechnic, as a center for organizing and escaping police violence in Exarchia. And then, as a final insult, they released Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s killers from prison.

Each new affront brought clashes with the police. On a hot, bustling day at the end of August 2019, police descended on K-Vox—a café at the top of Exarchia square that serves as a gathering place for the Rouvikonas—a militant wing of the movement that formed during austerity. They smashed the front window and bombed the café with tear gas. The raid resulted in arrests, injuries, and a hospitalization.

The Rouvikonas are not like the young rebels tending fires and taunting police with petrol bombs. Largely made up of middle-aged people, and supported by solidarity lawyers, the Rouvikonas believe in propaganda of the deed. They provide support for refugees, run a cultural center, and have stepped in where the social safety net has failed. Since 2014 they’ve successfully carried out more than 50 actions, involving property destruction, attacks on embassies, interventions against fascists and gentrifiers, and attacks on biotech, and oil companies. True propagandists, they film all their actions, blurring out faces, to prevent arrest and police disinformation, and, they say “to inspire.” Since the pandemic, K-Vox has become a collection site for food and supplies that they deliver throughout the city.

In an interview with anti-authoritarian media, T. a member of the Rouvikonas described anarchism as “the only normal model for organizing a civilized society.”

“I see the way we live now as abnormal,” he said. “I see as abnormal 1 percent of the population having 50 percent of the wealth. I don’t think people who are exploiting other people don’t know what they do is wrong. I think there’s a very clear class consciousness from the upper classes.”

During the summer 2019 raids on Exarchia, the first squat to be evicted was Spirou Trikouri, which had a library and classrooms for children. Residents were removed by gunpoint and sent to detention centers and migrant camps. In the months to come the sounds of midnight and early morning raids would become common; Gare squat was next with its public bath and laundry, 5th School—a self-organized squat housing families from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan was evicted in September. The government relocated residents to refugee camps in Corinth, despite demands from parents and teachers’ associations that they return the children to their schools. Notara 26, a former tax office that has sheltered more than nine thousand people and was the first squat in Exarchia to house migrants was repeatedly attacked by the police but held strong.   

By the fall cops were actively patrolling inside Exarchia where I had never seen them before. In the weeks before November 17, there was a seething sense that this anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising would be a time for catharsis, for score settling. That was why the pharmacies in the neighborhood were out of Riopan. 

Panagiotis and I heard the crowds before we reached Omonia Square and when we arrived it was stunning to see normally congested Stadiou Street with no traffic; to see the sheer number of people marching up its center. Each block was organized into affinity groups, labor, anarchists, various parties. In some cases three generations of anarchists walked together all dressed in black—grandparents, parents, young teenagers .

Marchers carried banners and flags with thick wooden bases that could be used as clubs. A white van with speakers mounted on it drove slowly through the crowd, broadcasting the amplified voice of a man shouting, “People don’t bow down, hold your heads up high.” And “Americans are murderers of the people.” And “Either you’re with capital or you’re with the worker.” Black Block was already forming chains—marching with their arms entwined so they couldn’t be pulled apart or isolated. 

 In the months leading up to November 17, I’d walked through tear gas a number of times and woken in the middle of the night coughing and red-eyed to shut the windows against its suffocating sting. I’ll never be the kind who can throw a canister back from where it came, but every month I’m closer to being someone who can remain on the street while the cloud passes.     

The demonstration grinds to a halt by the luxury hotels on Monastiraki—their doors flanked by lines of riot police. The evening sky is a translucent gaslight blue and the lights of the square sparkle as tourists watch the demonstration from the wide marble sidewalk, like it’s a parade they don’t want to miss.

Thinking we won’t be allowed to gather at the embassy, Panagiotis and I head along the sidewalk to the front of the crowd where instead of barricades we see thousands of communists crossing the intersecting street; walking in lock step, holding red flags. Their numbers are truly legion, like CGI animation in a Peter Jackson film. We step off the curb and are swept along and things feel safer like our thuggish big brothers just showed up. No one’s been gassed or clubbed and now there are determined bodies between us and the police.

The Communist Party in Greece has a dedicated and seemingly immovable place in parliament. The joke is their chairs are bolted to the floor. This, along with the established socialist opposition party, and the recognition of anarchism as a legitimate, and sometimes positive political tendency throughout the country, provides a structural support and long-standing philosophical alternative to capitalism that does not exist in the U.S. 

In front of the U.S. Embassy in Athens, the communists stood on the median, nose to nose with the cops, chanting. And it was clear by the smug faces of the riot police that this was how it’s supposed to be; that this first November 17 since Mitsotakis took office, a lack of violence outside the embassy was a triumph for him to claim; let the minority parties and sympathizers and lesser radicals have their parade—far from the neighborhoods in dispute, let them yell it out of their system and go home—like Panagiotis and I would—to eat pistachios and drink beer and talk about books.

Heading back to Exarchia through Mavili Square, we pass the posh cafes, and loop around Lycabettus, diverted only briefly by police at a barricade whom we tell we’re out for a stroll. But when we reach the border of the neighborhood it’s clear that Exarchia is surrounded; white helmets and plastic shields and respirator masks and here are the barricades we didn’t see by Monastiraki, here are the motorcycles. In Exarchia, the night was far from over. The battle of November 17 was just beginning.

But while the people of the city and the seat of state control were distracted by memorial marches, anti-American chants and territorial wrangling in the anarchist enclave, the Rouvikonas attacked the headquarters of Volterra and Elpedison—energy companies in the northern suburbs of Athens, as a protest against government plans to privatize the energy sector. Before the march was even over, they’d escaped arrest on motorcycles and had uploaded a video of the action to their site.

After Panagiotis left my house that night, I went up to the roof and looked out over the hedge of jasmine and the tangle of TV antennas and the terracotta antefixes shaped like palmettes. White clouds of gas were rising, dissipating beneath the streetlamps. 

The next morning, I woke late, to the smell of neroli and a burning engine block.

Out in Exarchia, it was as if the night of fighting never happened. Small fires burned on the square, people shopped in the record store, tables of books lined the pedestrian street, and Greek hip-hop boomed from speakers. Banners hung over the narrow streets painted with anarchy symbols and circles with arrows of lightning through them—the universal symbol for squat. 

Kids walked from their karate lessons with their parents, still wearing their uniforms. Stray cats scavenged around an overflowing dumpster, skittering gingerly through piles of shattered safety glass; the cafes on Kalidromiou were packed with people chatting and smoking and drinking and reading, and I sat studying in a patch of sunlight near the steps to Lofos Strefi. The sun was getting low in the sky and there was not a cop in sight.

Days later, the Ministry of Citizens Protection released a statement demanding all squats be evacuated and it seemed it would become open season. Some who had been turned out of their houses moved up into Strefi living in the hollows by tall Cyprus trees, where they had high ground to rain molotovs down on the police. Notara 26 hung a banner across the front of the building that read, “You Can’t Evict A Movement. Solidarity Will Win.”

But within weeks it was clear that the government demand was for the public alone, a TV stunt to broadcast to the northern suburbs. In the neighborhood the raids had stopped.

The fall and winter were unseasonably warm, and restored the neighborhood to its conviviality. And then COVID-19 came. 

“Greece isn’t an individualist society,” an educated friend in the neighborhood told me. “Because of poverty, climate, history, we’ve had to stick together. You saw this during the financial crisis. In the 10 years of the crisis homelessness did not drastically increase, as was expected, because people took care of one another. And you see this now with coronavirus. Many of us live with extended family—aunts, uncles, grandparents, so we look out for them. We locked down hard before anything could happen to our old people. The collectivist societies of the Mediterranean are an ideal version of the anarchist ethos.”

Throughout the pandemic, Greece has had some of the lowest numbers of COVID-19 cases in Europe. At the time of writing 7,472 cases total, 3,804 recovered and 232 deaths, but a recent uptick of more than 100 cases in a single day has health officials warning there might be another lockdown. 

In early July 2020, Mitsotakis and the ruling New Democracy party pushed through an opportunistic law restricting public protest. More than 10,000 people immediately took to the streets of Athens to demonstrate, hurling petrol bombs and chunks of concrete. In Exarchia, the anarchist federation released a statement declaring, “Every organization, every formation of the struggle must go public and declare its disobedience. We clearly state that we will not respect the new law. We will protest whenever we choose and [whenever] the conditions demand and we will face the costs of this choice. We have survived wars, hunger and persecution. Even now our passion for freedom is stronger than all cells.”

The last time I saw Garbis he told me Exarchia would always stand, because in a disaster the neighborhood came together. “Everyone is trying to save themselves,” he said, “But it’s impossible to do alone.”

Cara Hoffman is the author of three award-winning novels including Running, set in the red-light district of Athens, Greece. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Paris Review, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. A Macdowell Fellow, she is currently at work on a book about the anarchist occupation of Exarchia.

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