Welcome to the Austerity Athens hostel scene.
Just before my arrival, a hundred thousand Greeks made international headlines with a day of rage against the terms of the latest ECB/IMF bailout. The terms required Greece step inside a familiar Iron Maiden of structural reform: deep cuts to public services, wages, and pensions; major privatizations; some Constitutional edits. Sitting atop it all was a Eurocrat baby-sitter clause that will place veto-wielding EU monitors — shadow ministers — inside each Greek government ministry. This last bit seemed designed for humiliation. The riots occurred the day the unelected government signed the deal, and it’s hard to find Greeks willing to condemn without qualification the destruction caused by the kids who took their anger out on anything that reminded them of international finance, and a few things that didn’t.
YouTube clips of those street fights were dramatic by any standard. But none captured February’s most cinematic moments around Syntagma Square. What no cameras caught was Greek anarchists using Ewok tactics on the streets of Athens. More than one proud anarchist told me of the trip-ropes and oil slicks used to neutralize a new motorcycle-based riot police unit called the Zeus-Deltas. Such innovations straight out of the Seven Samurai are of a piece with the deep lore of Greek anarchist protest. Among the war stories I heard in Athens, my favorite came from a well-known veteran anarchist named Alex K. In the early 1980s, during the annual November 17 protests commemorating the 1967 colonels’ coup, anarchists lured seven cops down a dead-end street, surrounded them, made them strip, and frog-marched them out naked. Later that night the uniforms were burned in an oil-drum in the heart of Exarchia, Athens’ anarchist quarter.
This is the stuff that had drawn my Zorbas bunkmate Guy to Athens. Last August, Guy was among the handful who gathered at the Bowling Green bull and participated in the small assemblies that became Occupy Wall Street. There he met and was enraptured by the Greek-born artist and anarchist Georgia Sagri. He decided to experience for himself the culture of resistance that produced people like her. With Occupy in winter hibernation, he bought a one-way ticket to Athens just after the anti-austerity riots. Guy was a junior high school dropout, but his plan was to return to New York with a master’s in mayhem, ready for the series of actions he referred to collectively as the “Spring Offensive.”
Among the architectural victims of the February 12 riots was this old theater in downtown Athens
As a “Day Two” Occupy activist, Guy was a popular kid in Athens. It was strange to see how the movement has become the Greeks’ first connection to the States. Not Serbia, not Iraq, not NATO — but Occupy. It was a reminder that in Greece, Most Hated Foreign Power (MHFP) has always been a revolving honorary. After a long run, we’ve finally ceded it back to the Germans. When the CIA helped institute military rule in 1967, we displaced the Brits, who had themselves displaced the Germans by returning King George to power after the war and refusing to recognize the leftist guerilla government which fully functioning by 1944 in the mountains of central Greece. When the country began sliding towards civil war, British troops participated in the violent crushing of leftist demonstrations around the country and even deployed machine-gun squads in armed clashes in the center of Athens. Just to make sure everyone knew where they stood, the Brits shipped thousands of leftist anti-Nazi partisans to concentration camps in Eritrea and Libya, where most of them died.
In any case, now the Germans have regained MHFP status with force. There’s Merkel, of course. But the secondary figures associated with the most extreme austerity measures, such as delaying elections, also have names like Wolfgang Schäuble. The European Commission task force representative in charge of the shadow minister program is actually named Horst Reichenbach. And the German tabloids have been New York Post brutal.
Greeks are not in the mood for insult on injury. Everywhere you turn you see signs of a country in collapse. On the day I arrived, a state mortgage agency had just closed around the corner from my hostel, and an employee was threatening to jump from the top floor, screaming about losing her insurance and being unable to care for a sick child. A couple days later, thieves waltzed into the Olympia Museum in broad daylight and stole dozens of ancient artifacts. The Minister of Culture offered to resign, but nobody cares anymore about the Minister of Culture.
Walk around Athens with a local, and within a few minutes they’ll point at something and say, “That’s new — you never used to see that before.” Usually it’s a sight Americans have long grown inured to, but in Greece still causes pain and wonder. Like an old woman rummaging through garbage for food. Often these “That’s new” moments are the spark behind the new forms of mutual aid and self-organization spreading throughout Greek society. This was the case of a 47-year-old former Internet marketer that I met one afternoon named Kostas Polychronopoulus. I found him in a downtown park called Klafthmonos, or Square of Tears, while he was giving away food to the newly hungry.
In December, Polychronopoulus had been unemployed for more than a year when he came upon two young Greek boys fighting over scraps of rotten food in a garbage can. The sight was too much for him. He went home and made ten sandwiches and tried to hand them out in the streets. He discovered that hungry people were often too ashamed to accept the handouts, so he got some friends together and started cooking communal meals on the streets. Slowly, people began to gather and join. Now he cooks almost every day in different places around city, including overcrowded refugee centers. His kitchen is part of a widening network of street aid institutions.
“Poverty is more in your face than ever,” he says. “We are a team of unemployed and they can call us what they want — socialist, anarchist. But we don’t care about labels. We believe in social justice and employment.”
Like most Greeks I spoke with, Polychronopoulus thinks the threat of bankruptcy is a bankers’ bogeyman made of straw. “They try and threaten us with bankruptcy,” he says. “We’ve already gone bankrupt! What is bankruptcy if not hungry people in the streets? For years the banks and the politicians shared the profits with themselves, but now that there are losses we have to pay for them?”
Embracing bankruptcy is steadily becoming less of a radical position. The other week the influential Financial Times editor and columnist Wolfgang Munchau wrote in favor of bankruptcy as the only way to save Greek democracy, and criticized the other Wolfgang for suggesting Greeks postpone elections. But elections seem beside the point in Greece. Trust in institutions is depleted.
Take the media. When Greeks watch state television now, they see the aliens from They Live! mouthing someone else’s empty words. Blatant corruption has been uncovered inside every studio and under every signal tower. The financial editor of a major tv station promoting austerity medicine was recently exposed for being on the payroll of a company handling the privatization of state property. Athens municipal radio, meanwhile, has been tied to the press office of the Eurobank.
“There is a corrupt triangle of interest between the banks, the media, and the politicians,” says Maria Louka, a reporter with Eleftherotypia (Press freedom), the first leftist publication to emerge after the restoration of civil rule in 1974. Like many Greek media organs, the paper is currently striking, though staff has managed to publish two strike issues.
“Pundits are often on the payroll of political interests or the press minister, and they all press the message of ‘There is no alternative’,” she says. “But the measures have taken such a violent form that the propaganda has lost its power. The media has been discredited along with the unions and the parties. One-time celebrity journalists are now verbally attacked on the street.”
It is one of the few silver linings of the crisis that the Tom Friedmans of Greece now live in fear of yogurt. And the programming in some cases has improved. When striking workers took over the studios of ALTER TV, a private television station, they broadcast a radical documentary called Debtocracy. It got a 35 percent share in prime time, the highest rating in the station’s history.
* * *
Exarchia is the seat of anarchist power in Athens. Legend has it the name comes from the neighborhood’s first settler, a farmer who gave away food to the poor. Its modern reputation for radical activism stems from its proximity to the Polytechnical, Law, and Economics universities. The Polytechnical is where tanks rolled through the campus gates in 1973 and crushed the student democracy movement organizing under the banner “Bread, Education, and Freedom.” A large sign emblazoned with the same slogan continues to hang over a monument to the crushed gate.
Stencil History of Greek Dynastic Corruption
Along with squats and people’s parks built from abandoned lots, Exarchia is home to some of the hippest cafes and bars in Athens. It’s as if the Lower East Side had managed to keep rents down and maintain its 1910 traditions. It was in Exarchia that in December of 2008 the police shot and killed a 15-year-old activist named Alexandros Grigoropoulos. The murder sparked riots across Europe. In Athens, anarchists issued a warning that shops in the tony shopping district that did not place black ribbons in their windows in honor of Alexandros would have their windows smashed. There was near 100 percent compliance.
Exarchia has arguably surpassed East Berlin for the most vibrant graffiti scene in the world. Just about every wall in the neighborhood bursts with bubble tags of “A.C.A.B.” (All Cops Are Bastards), Greek accented neo-Situationist slogans, and well-crafted murals and stencils satirizing the political history of modern Greece. The unifying strand is anti-capitalist philosophy. A growing number of images feature gas-masked anarchists.
Athens is the new graffiti capital of Europe; and the gas mask has become a major motif
Among the artists whose work colorizes the walls of Exarchia is a 30-year old dentist named Petros, who is better known around Exarchia by his stencil signature, “Mapet”. Petros first encountered street art as a dentist in Bristol, where he passed early Banksy pieces on his way to work. He began stenciling a couple of years ago after he returned to Athens and his practice began to deteriorate as the crisis deepened. “My customers used to get whatever needed done,” says Petros. “Now they’ll get a tooth pulled rather than get it crowned. Whatever’s cheaper. I try to lower my prices, offer payment plans, anything to keep the patients I have. I got involved in stenciling and activism to work off my anxiety.”
I met up with Petros one afternoon at a new street art studio in Exarchia called Stigma Lab. He had just finished spraying a run of his most recent work: a Valentine’s themed piece that featured Cupid over the slogan, “Make Love and Class War.” As with all of his stencils, he cut the lines with an old dentist’s drill. After he sprayed some posters for me, we joined his friend in the Stigma offices and talked about the crisis.
“What they should do,” said his friend, “is put coffeehouses on the islands — turn them into floating Amsterdams. So many of them are uninhabited. Everyone in Europe would come.”
Petros said his girlfriend was beginning to talk about leaving Athens and trying subsistence agriculture on an island where her family had a small plot. “She just wants to get out for a while,” said Petros, who was beginning to warm to the idea. But he was worried about the rumored deposits of oil and gas in the Aegean, which he said companies were already lining up to prospect. “The Aegean would be so easy to destroy,” he said. “All it would take is one disaster and all of those coasts — I swear if they ruin the sea I will move to Africa and just never come back. I don’t care.”
Before I left, Petros gave me a few posters and made me promise to put them up on the streets of New York. I was struck by how he thought of the city as an important street art capital. He didn’t seem to know that graffiti in New York was a thing of the past; that in Bloomberg’s fiefdom, even the subway billboards get respect; that kids lack the common decency to drag a Big Boy across the face of Sarah Jessica Parker. I promised to wheat-paste his class-war cupids when I got the chance.
On demonstration days, police patrol the edges of Exarchia and conduct searches of anyone entering and exiting the neighborhood. On the Sunday after the February 12 riots, I was walking through Exarchia on my way to Syntagma Square, where a coalition of unions and leftist parties had organized something, though nobody really knew what to expect. I was stopped at the perimeter by a clutch of cops who searched my backpack and wanted to know what I was doing in Athens. “You’re on holiday? Anarchist holiday?” asked a cop whose eyes were disturbingly close to being on the side of his head. When he examined my Florida license, he grinned widely and started pantomiming a shotgun. A few long seconds passed before an embarrassed colleague explained, “He went duck hunting in Florida once.”
Guy, 18-year-old anarchist and riot-shield designer
My bag was clean, and half an hour later I met up with the Brooklyn anarchist, Guy, on the square. He had been waiting for the demonstration all week, was almost desperate to witness some action. The scene on Syntagma did not bode well. It was just a beautiful clear day with lovers strolling amid a few protestors and stalls selling meat on a stick. It was hard to imagine any action exploding out of such tranquil beauty, but then every Greek said the same thing: you never knew how a protest will develop. It can happen in a second.
Over a lunch of Greek rolls, Guy explained to me his plans for building riot shields for the Spring Occupy events. He was going to use giant traffic cones he’d picked up off the Long Island Freeway. Each cone could produce three shields, he explained, for which he had already sketched three different prototypes. Once he settled on the most efficient shield design, he was going to make peace signs out of electrical tape and spray paint the shields black. When he removed the tape, they would be branded with peace signs in the cones’ original reflective orange.
“This spring we’re going to stop calling ourselves the Anarchist Caucus and start calling ourselves the Rebel Alliance,” he said.
I told him the reflective orange would fit well with the Star Wars sound of it.
“Yeah, I know,” he smiled. “I thought of that.”
When Guy lay down on the fountain for nap, I struck up a conversation with two guys sitting near us. Their names were Michalis and Tasos, and I had been in Athens long enough not to be surprised when I learned they were Marxist-Leninists in their early 30s who had recently begun publishing a radical newspaper called Kontra. Like Guy, they had come ready to riot. They carried gas masks in plastic bags and a few other things they didn’t show me. “I just loaded up with fresh Israeli charcoal filters,” said Michalis. “They’re the best.”
Michalis and Tasos: faces of the radicalized Greek ex-middle-class
Theirs was a new organization, one of several young Greek revolutionary communist groups born out of hatred for the KKE, the establishment Communist Party often described as “Stalinist Bourgeois.” Michalis and Tasos had recruited about 60 members so far and were growing every week. Along with producing a newspaper, they had a space for movie nights, lectures, and social events. They had just launched a stencil art unit and a theater group. “We have many weapons, not just sticks and Molotovs,” explained Tasos.
When I asked their take on the crisis, Michalis did most of the talking. His words were familiar. He was a trained architect, unable to find work, and had been radicalized in recent years. “I have two master’s degrees and studied at Polytechnic and the University of Rotterdam,” he said. “Five years ago, I could have found a good job. I came back from Rotterdam and everything collapsed. Now I’m 30, unemployed and living at home with my parents. They’re just as angry as I am.”
“Their plan is to reduce the European periphery to a cheap labor zone,” he continued. “It’s not just us, but Ireland, Portugal, Spain. They tell us we’re lazy and must accept austerity or we won’t eat. It’s lies and blackmail. Our short-term strategy is to fight the austerity measures, take back what they took, and defend what we’ve fought for over the years. Long-term, our goal is the end of capitalism.”
He said there was a palpable sense of momentum toward this goal across Greek society.
“Last Sunday was the first time in my life I saw so many people so angry, radical, and fearless,” said Michalis. “Most of the people were simple workers, not professional revolutionaries or anarchists. And trust me, they supported the violence. When it comes to it, they’ll support breaking into supermarkets. Before austerity, everybody was still sleeping. They thought the coalitions in power mattered. Now they don’t. They’re conscious of class. The old ways of thinking are collapsing, it’s no longer possible to just look out for yourself and forget about the people around you. Our priority is to explain the structure and logic of capitalism. Without revolution, reforms of the system are just more Sisyphean rolling the boulder of reform — up and down, up and down.”
Guy woke up and walked over to join the conversation. Michalis and Tasos had no use for anarchism, but told Guy they welcomed them for the moment. “Right now it’s all about the united front,” Tasos said.
“But you’d shoot me against a wall after the revolution,” Guy said.
“Yes,” said Tasos without smiling.
Tasos went on to voice his disappointment with some of the younger Greek anarchists he had seen on the streets the previous week.
“A lot of anarchists hit-and-run even when they have the numbers,” he said. “When you have the numbers, you press the advantage — you stand and fight, you keep hitting. I’ve been in four sustained hand-to-hand battles with the police. My record is two and two. Two of them remember me, I am sure of that.” And he laughed from deep down for a long time, a Zorba laugh.
Nearby, a group of Critical Mass activists were joining the protest in their own way. We watched as they pedaled up in their clown wigs, rainbow stockings, and face sparkles.
“They make me despair,” said Tasos. “They’re skipping the revolution and going right to the celebration, acting as if they’ve won.”
“In the States we call them the ‘pink-and-silver bloc,’” said Guy. “They can be useful as distractions, you know, to block streets.”
Michalis and Tasos seemed to consider the idea but did not pursue it. After a long silence, Michalis spat on the stones of Syntagma Square.
“Soon we’ll be eating the pigeons,” he said.
Alexander Zaitchik, a former eXile editor, is the author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance…
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