Exarchia Square is the heart of the radical area of Athens. People come see friends, make plans, catch up on news, have a drink and hang out in relaxed surroundings, either in the square itself, or in one of the many bars which surround it. Convivial and open, groups mingle, merge and split apart, people are introduced to other visitors that they may not know and conversations take place in many languages – sometimes changing as the composition of groups change – to the most accessible for all participating.
Traditionally the police have left Exachia alone, facing massive resistance if they try to enter the area, which has given it a reputation of safety for immigrants who can no longer walk the streets of Athens without being demanded to produce their papers, and being carted off to one of the many concentration camps should these papers prove not to be in order. The area has always been self-policed, sometimes brutally – where thieves will receive beatings and hard drug use or dealing is not tolerated. Fascists are distinctly unwelcome.
This is changing. At the end of last year, suddenly groups of drug users struggling massively in a country which had just shut down drug services and needle exchanges started congregating in large numbers at the lower end of Exarchia, with police watching them carefully but not intervening. Open drug use and drug dealing had started to infest Exarchia, it would seem with the blessing and even encouragement of the police. In the last six months and possibly longer, Mafia organisations have also started to gain some base there. There are at least two murders and one bar fire-bombing that I know of in the area that are said to have been linked to mafia protection rackets, and again the police are implicated in encouraging the various Mafias that operate in Athens to establish a base there.
Local cafe-owners and taxidrivers which operate in the area are paid as “ruffianos” or police informers to pass on information to the police on happenings and people who may pose a threat. Like in Nazi Germany, one must be very careful what you talk about where, and who is listening.
The state loathes Exarchia. The heart of the antagonistic movement it is a challenge to all that they stand for and they are determined to exterminate it – to rip the heart from the community and to destroy its character. For people getting together and talking openly is a challenge to the totalitarian system which now operates in Greece under the guise of democracy. The mass media can be controlled, but having an area where people can talk directly to one another without fear is a challenge to all that they stand for.
In February, a series of raids on Exachia by the police went on for a number of days, each one following a familiar pattern. Last night there was another raid. Around 11pm suddenly there was a movement of people out of the square, and I watched, warily as MAT riot police took up positions on the corners. This is a familiar tactic from February, and signals bad things to come. Once the corners of the square were controlled, scores of riot police moved in like storm troopers. The square which was by now already half empty, emptied completely as people ran for the safety of nearby bars, or to the edges of the square to watch what was happening, to witness and testify to the brutal repression which is gripping Greece.
The police grabbed at people – seemingly particularly targetting young men. Any that they got hold of was immediately surrounded by a swarm of riot police beating and kicking as people tried to reach them to pull them away from the violence. A small group of police, found themselves surrounded backed into a huddle as people shouted at them to leave. Inevitably a bottle was thrown and suddenly the police charged throwing flashbangs, stun grenades and smoke bombs into the crowd as they grabbed the nearest young men and kicked, and beat, and thumped and walloped, using their shields to push away any who were seeking to help them.
Another group of police who were blocking off one of the exits to the square found themselves attacked by a group throwing bottles. With their visored helmets, plastic shields and full protective uniform, they brushed them off like swatting flies until again suddenly they charged at the bottle-throwers. Only one was caught, but even after he escaped with a massive gash on his forehead and blood running down his face he went to get more bottles as his mates pulled him away to safety. His bravery cannot be under-estimated. I’m not a great advocate of political violence, primarily because they state can always outgun us (literally) but by god did I want to see those bottles do some serious damage.
Then the infamous Delta Squads moved in, zooming in on motorbikes, they charged at a group standing outside a cafe whose owner had denied them refuge, beating and thumping; grabbing and kicking. One young boy, no older than 16 on a pushbike who was quietly watching the proceedings from the edge of the square was grabbed from his bike and beaten as people tried in vain to save him. A nearby kiosk ended up as a temporary first aid tent, as people bleeding and battered were brought there, as others attempted to keep the police away. Bystanders, many themselves bleeding, were trying to patch up the injuries as best as they could, with no thought for their own safety in a country where HIV transmission rates are growing massively.
When the riot police and Delta squads finally left, I found my comrade that I had been separated from in the melee. She was clutching her nose which was swelling rapidly. As she had tried to reach one of the people on the ground being battered by a group of police, another had rammed the edge of his shield into the bridge of her nose. Both of us then left the square, trembling – in part from adrenaline; in part from fear.
Later that night and on through the day, I’ve heard snippets of the aftermath – apparently there was an attack on the PASOK offices a few hours later and the cafe which refused to give refuge to those who were being beaten now has no windows, but a few molatovs and broken windows cannot compare to the sheer scale of state violence in this country. With Indymedia Athens and 98 FM – the main sources of independent news in Greece being shut down in a series of raids earlier this month, and the mass media under the thumb of the state, most people will never hear of these happenings, or if they do dismiss it as the rightful acts of the forces of law and order against the lawless minority, for to admit the truth is to admit complicity.
The movement here, particularly in Athens despite the romanticism that the foreign left press likes to portray, is weak. Five years of austerity, five years of repression, five years of state violence has taken its toll. The core is exhausted, overworked and demoralised; the periphery losing hope that the left can save them are turning to the fascists in a vain hope that siding with power can save their skins
….and the world watches impotently as a fascist totalitarian dictatorship once again controls a European country.
Republished on Union Solidarity International on 26th April 2012