The social-antagonist movements in Athens had to do some serious soul-searching in May 2010. As the economic crisis deepened and the government made its appalling announcement that Greece’s ratio of debt-to-GDP far exceeded EU regulations and that further austerity measures would be needed, a second wave of protests and general strikes swept the country. The stage was set, it turned out, for disaster.
“It was on the fifth of May, I was there,” explained Gus on a rainy afternoon in VOX, a squatted cafe on Exarcheia Square. We had just gotten soaked to the skin at a somewhat subdued Free Amalias demonstration (see part one of this series for more on Villa Amalias). “The march started at Propylea like the one today, like they all do, but it was much bigger than usual. It was the day of a general strike and there must have been almost twenty thousand people there. At some point apparently some of these ‘hoodies’ saw that a bank along the march route had stayed open. Some people in the march saw what they wanted to do—”
“—Or smelled it,” Mo, my friend and guide, broke in. He had told me earlier to watch out for the guys who reek of gasoline.
“Right. Anyway some people tried to kind of march in front of them and get in the way, but they slipped through and broke the windows and threw in some Molotov cocktails.”
With the streets clogged with protesters, emergency workers couldn’t get through. The building burned down and three people died, including a pregnant woman.
Gus began to get animated. “And what do we do? We have a big assembly where we produce a text that nobody really likes but everybody agrees to, then some posters go up around the neighborhood condemning the violence. So basically nothing.
“The thing is, these guys are apolitical. They’re the ones you like to have around to protect you from the cops, you’re kind of glad they’re there. Some people organize them on purpose! But then what do you think is going to happen?”
The deaths had a devastating effect on the movement. The already-existing fissures between the various groupings in Exarcheia -- the most politically explosive zone of the city -- and elsewhere turned into gaping cracks as finger-pointing, suspicion and recrimination became the rule. Popular sympathy for the movement disappeared. Things got pretty quiet for a while.
“So yeah,” Mo piped up finally. Things had gotten pretty quiet around our table too. “Thank god for the fascists.”
The Rise of "Weimar Greece" and a New Role for Resistance
That struck me as an odd way to put it, but I can see what he meant. As the various antagonist movements found themselves embarrassed, their unity shattered, another radical response to the crisis continued gathering steam, and in a way it gave the anarchists a new lease on life.
The political ascendancy of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn and a multitude of violent incidents associated with its supporters, especially since mid-2011, have been cataloged by the press and global human rights organizations. Using familiar fascist rhetoric, Golden Dawn blames current hardships on the large and growing numbers of immigrants in Greece, especially those from the Near East and Africa. And it has used the government's paralysis as both a justification and an opportunity to carry out vigilante-style racist attacks, including fatal ones, all around the country. Meanwhile the flows of refugees from nearby countries with crises of their own (Syria and Egypt to name just two) overwhelm an already hostile, corrupt bureaucracy.
Journalists and moderate politicians here have been making direct comparisons to Weimar Germany, citing both the violence itself and the state’s inability, or unwillingness, to respond. But despite the outcry, the tide does not appear to be turning. Rather it's the opposite: whereas in June 2012 Golden Dawn won a then-shocking 18 seats in the 300-member parliament, according to recent polls they enjoy the third-highest approval rating among parliamentary parties. And what little action the state is taking appears to be straight out of the radical right’s playbook: in August 2012, for example, the ruling coalition launched an ongoing operation (cynically named Xenios Zeus, or “Zeus’ Hospitality”) to round up undocumented immigrants and imprison them in hastily-built internment camps.
The "revolutionary infrastructure" of Exarcheia appears now to be gearing itself towards resisting, if not literally fighting, fascist violence in central Athens and providing refuge for its victims. On the one hand there is a recent direct action initiative to come out of the assemblies: the Antifascist Motorcycle Patrol.
Dramatic videos of the Patrol are available on YouTube. I had heard about the Patrol before visiting Exarcheia, but I was a little surprised to find out when I got there that the unit is actually in earnest. It is unclear to me exactly what this impressive but rather absurd show of force aims to achieve—beyond, of course, being a show of force—or what practical effect, if any, it will have in Exarcheia and the surrounding communities.
On the other hand, though, there are the community kitchens sprouting up all over the neighborhood that coordinate with each other to guarantee at least one hot, collectively prepared meal will be available, at some place or another, on any given day either for a voluntary cash donation or for very little money (one or two euros).
Mo and I spent a large portion of our time in these community kitchens during my stay; I would probably have seen even more if several hadn’t been closed for the holidays. As we arrived at one of them, the Avtonomo Steki, a woman's voice rang out from the kitchen before we could cross the large, dimly lit dining room:
“You guys wanna put on some music? Right there!” She indicated a stereo off to the side, and Mo stopped to peruse the CDs. I proceeded to the bookstore/library in the corner (as with the food, you pay what you can) and on into the kitchen where Kat put me to work juicing lemons. Mo joined us in a moment, as Brown Eyed Girl started jangling out of hidden speakers. He looked confused. “This doesn’t sound like Jim Morrison.”
“Because it’s Van Morrison,” I laughed. The hilarious, totally dissonant association of this song with Exarchia will probably never leave me. The place was a communalist hippie’s dream. And though each community kitchen we went to operated on its own unique model, they all had the friendly, lively atmosphere in common.
However, had I not had a friend in the know I would never have found them. It made me wonder how much of a refuge they really provide for the people in surrounding communities threatened by violence and poverty who they intend, at least in part, to serve. As a group of us walked home after our evening at the Avtonomo Steki I tried to be optimistic. “There were a lot of people there,” I offered.
“It was all the usual suspects.” Mo clearly had misgivings of his own. “There was one African family. And did you notice what we were serving tonight? Pork. They were Muslim. I mean come on. It’s a good thing Lea and I push for cooking something vegan on the side. There’s kind of a long way to go around here."
“We are not exceptional!”
Aside from “complicated,” the other word I probably heard most often in Exarcheia was “exceptional,” and this always with irony or even disgust. “Athens is not exceptional. 2008 was not exceptional. There is nothing special going on here. To say that would be to suggest that it’s impossible anywhere else. And it’s not,” said Mo, who is not a native here. When he first arrived in Athens, he said, he was asked point-blank, “What are you doing here?” When he told his story, the response he got made a deep impression on him: “Why don’t you fight fascism in your own country?”
They are right to take this somewhat flat global perspective. The antagonist movements in Greece have a lot in common with others in different places and at different times -- including the problems they are facing, both external and internal.
They are problems that those of us who have participated in the global movements of the last decade or so should be familiar with. In April of 2012, Boots Riley gave a talk in Zurich at which he discussed both the good and bad at Occupy Oakland, and he said something about mass movements and large-scale organizing that has been emphasized far too little.
He pointed out how in Oakland for years there had been countless radical organizations all with their own issues, fighting their own separate fights and not having much success. What the Occupy movement did was bring them all together into a united front, to address larger systemic issues which no one of them could have tackled on its own. Eventually Occupy Oakland (as elsewhere) dissolved back into its constituent parts—of course with new additions and combinations—and the momentum, the numbers, the critical mass were gone.
This seems to be a pattern in 21st-Century radical movements (and if I knew my history better I would make the claim that it has always been this way). Athens was no different. The table had already long been set in 2008; the radical groups were well-organized and hungry. The gunshot that killed Alexis was the dinner bell. But having united in struggle for a common purpose, even for as long as they did, doesn’t change the fact that they are still disparate, bound to jostle among themselves and lose focus.
I don’t mean to make the struggle against fascist violence appear as a loss of focus, exactly; it is exceedingly important. But one does have to admit that it is a step down the ladder of political goals—from fighting austerity and authority, and thus the destructive logic of global neo-liberal capitalism itself—to fighting one of its symptoms.
More to the point, it is not an issue that trade unions, student groups, or even migrants themselves can be expected to mobilize against in any great numbers. A similar thing happened to the Occupy movement when the struggle became about protecting the camps and resisting police.
If something does make the case for Athens being exceptional it is Exarcheia’s concentrated, real-existing revolutionary infrastructure. Put to the right use, with enough cooperation, outreach, and old-school face-to-face organizing to bring more people into the fold, this could be the setting for something very big. Exarcheians may just have to overcome their reticence, as they did with me.