Learning from Exarchia – Greek Anarchist Infrasturcutre and spacial appropriation

This essay was read aloud at a presentation titled: “What Can We Learn from the Greek Anarchist Space?” The event was held at the Long Haul Info Shop in Berkeley as part of a series of events called Brainstorm which aim to bring the anarchist circles of the Bay Area tighter together through coherent dialogue, discussion, and debate. This piece was specifically about a small neighborhood in Athens, Greece called Exarchia Square, which is a hub for rebellious and comradely anarchist socializing.

Tonight I am going to tell an anecdote of walking around the anarchist neighborhood in Athens called Exarchia Square with a young girl just like me. I spent a short two weeks in Athens during a sad time of much exterior conflicts due to fascists, austerity measures, and the city wide attempt at direct democracy. For this reason I have no first hand accounts of the perceived Athens reality, which includes riot, the semi nightly ring of tiny bombs, and playful skirmishes with the police around the polytechnic. Based on my understanding of the Greek space it would be considered betrayal to tell you second hand stories. Interpretation whether positive, negative, glorifying, or from the mouths of newscasters is a Greek Anarchist’s worst nightmare. So instead we will discuss the living spaces. That which holds the: “the conceptual, affective and cultural plane of the insurgency.” As put by The Flesh Machines in their text: Spoonful of Sugar.

I am hoping that some of my observations will inspire you, will bore you, might irritate you, and from there we can begin to dream of the question I was asked by my travel partner when we arrived in Exarchia square, shoulders laden with heavy backpacks, “Do we want this?”

I met Lily where it seems you meet up with everybody and anybody, the statue.

“Malibu! No one has given you a tour of upper Exarchia yet? What the fuck is wrong with these people!?” She grabbed my arm and we headed up hill. We hadn’t yet walked a block when she ducked into a coffee shop, “Wait here.” She came out with a letter in a plain, white envelope. Her first name was scribbled on top of it. “We use this café as sort of a renegade post office where comrades can leave each other notes.” She pocketed the letter to be read later and I gushed over what a great idea that was. I would start immediately when I got home seeking out the best possible spot for our very own bay area renegade post office. I thought a good place for us all to do this might be The Long Haul.

She said that Exarchia used to be harder, but that since the word spread about how cool it was hip restaurant owners, students, and tourists had swarmed in like flies to a light bulb. “We tried to smash up the restaurants and all that, but they never budged.” Her resolve to this problem was one of our stops: the anarchist owned bar. Later, I would spend some nights there drinking, arguing, and probably doing a little too much head nodding and smiling with the bands of kids pouring out of the night’s assemblies and Marxist reading groups. I think we need a bar too, but in the meantime it seems Radio Bar and Eli’s Mile High Club are ripe for the colonizing.

Next we went to what is famously known as “the benches.” When I pictured “the benches” and their surrounding alleyways I imagined a super crucial and expansive hangout zone. I arrived to find two and a half cement blocks with no backrest nor green space. Lily explained what happens here, “Anytime you walk by you can find anarchists sitting here. Except now, those people don’t know why they are sitting there. Keeping walking.” She turned toward the adjacent wall, which was lined with outdoor dining, raised her voice and pointed, “Up until recently this whole alleyway was ours, and covered in paint too! When this restaurant opened they ruined everything. Everything!” The benches of Patission made a huge impression on me. Everyone thinks the Greeks are so lucky because they have much more conquered living space, as opposed to the U.S. where every plot of earth has been tilled and marked for sale, sequestering any opportunity of play for profit by the enemy. We think that because of this we have no option but our couches and the couches of our friends. We think we have no territory. Yes, the Greek anarchist space is blessed with abandoned buildings, universities, squares, and parks, but it is also a network of tiny, hidden corners that are being taken advantage of. And we, like them, have city benches; designed for boring ok cupid dates, or a long talk between a father and his son or maybe for spectating a game of basketball. That should no longer be their only use.

I want to learn to occupy by lounging. Some of you should join me, and instead of using the benches, bleachers, storefronts, and art walks as intended we can take to lounging while saying and doing whatever we please, asserting ourselves as freaks, queers, and insurrectionists and making deals amongst no one but ourselves.

After leaving the benches we tramped up and up, weaving through the infamously skinny streets of Athens. She took me to the Greek version of Long Haul Info shop where she realized, “Oh goody! It is Wednesday they will be serving food.” When we entered there was but one, lone man and he didn’t seem to want to talk. The place was as such: table overflowing with outdated flyers, a well stocked library, a dirty kitchen, couches, the usual, and the promised Wednesday dinner had disappeared into the night. I loved it. What could possibly top that! We kept walking and in typical Mediterranean fashion a car whizzed past and almost hit me. I jumped out of the road and onto the sidewalk. Lily didn’t skip a beat in the story she was telling, looked over at me and said, “Oh, and here, we walk in the middle of the street.” When she said that I realized how well followed it was, as my brain collected flashbacks of others walking in the middle of the streets of Exarchia. The arbitrariness of this rule warmed my heart. In fact there is an actual initiative by the ministry of public order to create “bureaus of confronting incidents of arbitrariness” which makes all the silly, nihilistic gestures of the anarchist space seem so much delightful and appreciated.

The top of the hill called strefi is too good to share. The sun was setting over a 360 view of Athens, the acropolis well lit from below. Lily and I were really starting to get each other – trading ideas and working out stuff that had been stuck up in our heads about the anarchist space – me as an outsider and her as an insider. My presence allowed her to look at this space as if she too were foreign to it. “This place, this huge, gigantic city, is the craziest, craziest city, it is a teeming monstrous thing, look at it.” Athens is pure science fiction to look at from above. All the houses are squished and stacked very close. They are almost all made of cement and almost entirely white. She looked at me and giggled sinisterly, “it would be exciting to destroy it all soon…but that is stressful to think about because look how huge it is. It just goes on and on! Where to start?” She unzipped her cumbersome backpack and pulled out a black hoodie. “I cannot go a day without bringing my damn spare change of clothes with me just in case. It feels like it will never stop.” Her exasperation and her preparedness were a perfect mix. It reminded me that sometimes I feel like the pressure to be fierce, to understand what it would mean to be fierce, is the hardest part of being fierce. I told her about how I was reading this wacky Deuleze shit that Bart had sent to me punk mail style from California with Darla whom passed it to me earlier that day. I tried to relate it, “Deleuze says that each individual being is a multiplicity and has the force of an entire pack of wolves, that we are all individual wolfing.” She waved her hands wildly in the air, “No, no, no! That is too much, too much I cannot be a whole, entire pack of wolves all by myself.” We decided that it could be okay to be a definition-
less becoming-animal band or pack with an animalistic disregard for the future and no scientific characteristics which required strict classification as in a scene or platform that asked for undying devotion to a prescribed ideology. In the end becoming many wolves was too much responsibility, so we decided that we are each a pack of dwarves, or maybe a lousing. And that kind of quelled the anxiety of overlooking this overcrowded, cement house maze that went on non-stop until the mountains in the east and the sea in the south.

Once the sky was finally dark we found our way to Scaramagra, the lower Exarchia squat that is the closest to the occupied Polytechnic University. Even though Lily didn’t live there she kept calling it her squat, and had a set of keys. I think this is one reason their squats survive as long as they do- they are not just homes, they are meeting places, and there is a band, a crew that overlooks it collectively. This might also be why things we describe as meetings are less stressful there than here. People come to the squat sometime in the night, the fridge is full of dollar beers and often hours after it was supposed to start people get around to discussing some intended topic or another. Then slowly discussion will appear to be facilitated but its not. Things are coming up as if off an agenda but they is most certainly no agenda. Each person speaks until they have said what they needed, no timers, and no deadlines. It drags on and on. There is no process for meetings in Greece. In so many ways they are inefficient, scattered, but they find a rhythm eventually, and rhythm has more possibilities than being efficient because of guidelines. Yes, I am suggesting no rules. No stack, no facilitator, no agenda.

From any direction you walk towards Exarchia, you know you are getting closer by the concentrations of graffiti. While the spray painted walls are more often than not really smooth, a-political tagging with good hand style, one does not have to walk a block without seeing a bright menu one or two or three ACABs, cops-pigs-murderers, sloppy circle As, and witty slogans of all kinds. This paint sets the tone of the uncontrollable youth and insurgents that use the grounds as home base. There is barely a wall, storefront, marble pillar, or statue that has been left to appear as it was designed to appear. Where there is room, posters with long, rambly texts are wheat-pasted in place describing something relevant to the anarchist space.

It is not all glory. Exarchia square, like our neighborhoods, has sadness. There are poverty stricken and homeless drug addicts, cops, and tourists. Not to mention a fair share of other undesirables: drum circles, hot topic like stores, and bratty teenage boys. Nonetheless, Exarchia lacks a certain sadness that I feel strongly in West Oakland where most of my friends and I live. It lacks the sadness of guilt and the baggage of self-identifying as evil, white gentrifiers.

What would it feel like to personally put fire to this blame? I propose that the design of gentrification is a false term. Prior to my arrival in my neighborhood decisions about how that neighborhood should change and look were made. Developers, urban planners, city officials and the cops imposed behavioral constraints in order to raise property value. Yes, there are initiatives that we hipsters take to play along. But there is an interaction between individual decisions and how the space changes based on precise state planning. This could look like community gardens, bike paths, and graffiti buffing, rapid foreclosures. This manicuring of cities leads to the isolation of certain cells of the population and the creation of ghettos.

An extreme example of this type of planning is that to dirty up Exarchia and create schisms amongst subcultures the police chase junkies into the park that lines the occupied polytechnic. One morning my friend said she entered the square to find that all night long the police had been putting every junkie in Athens in the square and there were 600-700 at least.

By allowing these designs to continue as patterns we are abiding to a social contract of the prevailing democratic majority. Maybe instead, we can become a minority of comrades who insist on carrying the autonomous initiative to move forward and attack. To borrow nothing from Athens but its bravery. Then we can use that to create our own thing, something that is big and new, something that has never been done.

On my last night before leaving Greece my travel partner and I were enjoying the usual rowdy, crowded atmosphere of Exarchia. I realized that the question he asked me on arrival he had never had the chance to answer cause I had been ranting too much about how I didn’t get Exarchia and didn’t want it and all this grumpy stuff (Which in days was replaced by a crush like admiration and longing).

“Hey! What about you?” I asked.

“What, about me?”

“Do you want this?”

He took his usual, pre-emptive breath, “Yes, the time has come to say things without mincing words: yes.”