A Baptism of Fire

"Silence is Violence", Athens Polytechnic, May 2011. (by Luigi C.-)

Anarchists, riots, and a situation much like the one experienced here in Buenos Aires. I was quite young back then, in 2001, to take to the streets. This time, however, I was ready. Against all odds, I was going —to show support, to show solidarity, to be with the people, to talk with them. And, most importantly, to see it all first-hand.

A Baptism of Fire

Greece had been out of my radius ever since my highschool years, where we had to study the Greek Empire and its cultural legacy, its philosophers, its history.

That was till 2008. December 2008. The news of the killing of Alexis Grigoropoulos swarmed the news wires. The story of a fifteen-year-old kid shot down by a ruthless cop out of the blue triggered feelings of rage instantly. I tried to peruse the facts in detail, hardly able to comprehend the backdrop of such crime. Accounts followed of riots, crude battles with the police, general strikes, and the global sinking of the economy. A word kept repeating itself in most accounts, a name actually, the name of a neighbourhood: Exarcheia.

Next thing I remember is reading about certain guerrilla-style groups, underground cells of individuals —anarchist in nature— who went all the way for direct action. And, of course, the burning Christmas tree. Fucking great. A display of rage to show the world the Greeks were not messing around. This was for real. Merry Christmas, capitalism!

And so, through the net, I read news accounts from independent media, watched videos of fierce battles against the police, and all those marvellous huge pictures of the riots, as if taken from a movie. Only it was not a movie —this was happening to people, common folks like you and me. It wasn’t so great after all.

And then, enter the ‘Arab Spring’. I was planning my long-awaited vacations: Italy, to see the place where I was born, La Spezia, and meet part of my family there; and Egypt, to see the pyramids, and Athens, Greece, to see the Parthenon, the Acropolis. Only I wasn’t really going there for its historical icons. I had other plans in mind. All of a sudden, Egypt is in real turmoil, and travelling there is not advised. As much as I wanted to be there and show support, I was not going. Who knows what would happen?

On the other hand, Athens seemed more appealing. Anarchists, riots, and a situation much like the one experienced here in Buenos Aires. I was quite young back then, in 2001, to take to the streets. This time, however, I was ready. Against all odds, I was going —to show support, to show solidarity, to be with the people, to talk with them. And, most importantly, to see it all first-hand.

This may all sound a little naïve. Nonetheless, later on I became well aware of the culture of squats, anarchism, social centres, and the Polytechnic —that symbol of resistance, a hub of melting ideologies, of knowledge and sharing, which I would finally set foot on and be able to discover by myself.

And I knew which my first stop would be: Syntagma Square.

Reaching Athens by plane from Rome is like flying in can of sardines. The pressure inside the plane is almost unbearable. The air currents seem to be quite strong, making the plane tremble at times as if in a roller coaster. By this time I had already taken several flights, but none compared to this one. Fucking pilot! I was determined to spit on his face upon landing. Who the hell gave him his licence!? I later learned that the air currents create the kind of pressure I experienced on board, making me arrive pale as a ghost, dizzy, and with my stomach revolted —the little breakfast I had taken on the plane, about to spill on the floor in a stream of vomit. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Athens Airport. Thank to the Gods!

And so, after finding an available hotel on Ermou Street, I stumbled into Athenian streets in search of Syntagma Square. I could see the Acropolis from the balcony of my hotel room, yet I knew it was not going anywhere. For those who have not been there, Athens is literally full of people. Monastiraki station is crowded: street vendors, taxi drivers almost getting you inside their cabs, the thousand immigrant faces, the smell of street food stands, coffee, the flea market. It reminded me of Buenos Aires in a strange kind of way. After all, both are capitals, metropolises, and both have a huge concentration of people living in their midst.

The street leading to Syntagma is full of shops, fancy clothes stores, restaurants, and of course, people. Why weren’t they in the square, I wondered? A question partially answered later on during my stay. (Apparently, the permanent influx of people in the square is revitalized constantly, with people leaving, others arriving…)

And there she is, the centre of action, the refuge and battlefield of thousands of Greeks, young and old, fighting for their rights, together. First thing I see is a huge white banner, king size sheet, with a phrase in Greek. I ask one the guys there what it says, and he replies something like “Pirates get out”. I also see another banner reading “En Grecia también se os oye. Democracia real ya”. Some Spanish compañeros have come all the way from Spain in solidarity. I get closer to their little stand —a tent and a little table— to the right of the square and inquire about their activities. I’m amazed at the diversity of people: young, old, children and dogs. Athenian dogs are huge canine figures and they are everywhere. They roam the streets like watchdogs of the people, like guardians of the night. They all have collars around their necks, and are apparently fed by the locals. They have no masters, no gods. They are free.

I move closer and the huge steps of the square are in front of me. I’m thrilled alright. This is it: I have seen this square a hundred times, in pictures, in videos. It looks smaller here, but no less spirited. I climb the steps and join the protesters.

This is my very first demonstration, and deep inside I wanna riot. But it takes only a split second to realize this is not about riots. Not only, anyways. This is about the people; their suffering, their rights, their peace. In front of us we have the lackeys of power. Police in riot gear, and I fear the worst. Yet, a part of me still craves for it. [Late April or early May saw some wild rioting, with some cops burning on the ground; and after I leave, a general strike ends up in a bloody riot]. Yet, I walk about and take some photographs of what I see. Parliament, cops, flags and banners (a man wielding a Communist flag enters the crowd, yelling something, and the people almost literally kick him out of the demonstration —there are no political parties represented, but rather a single people, united in this despair). However, it’s the sounds that shake you to the bone, that make your heart beat faster. “Kleftes! Kleftes!”. I talk to a man next to me, a school teacher. He is taller than me, and he kindly translates their screaming. “Thieves”, he says. And then another, “Ούστ! Ούστ!”. “That’s ‘Out!’”, he describes. And, what is everyone doing with their hands, shaking them this way and that? “That is ‘Malaka’. Fuck off”. There are some huge Greek flags flying around here and there, and a tactic imported from the South American lands: the pots and pans banging. Ah, it feels like home.

And then, enter the rolling thunder. A crash as if the Greek gods of yesterday were getting ready for battle. Zeus must be raging. A thunderstorm, quick and to the point, rages in the skies. And people yell and cheer in support everytime a thunder strikes. People keep on chanting against the politicians inside, in different moods of anger. “Papandreou, malaka, dn irthame gia plaka!”, another chant goes [Papandreou, asshole, we are not here to have fun!]. And so the rain comes, and I hide under the teacher’s umbrella for a while, till the storm settles down, and I return to my hotel.

A naïve fear keeps me out of the streets at night. A silly thing, because there is people there all the time. I’m not quite hardened by these streets yet, I must admit. Not in a foreign country, anyways. But I don’t miss much of the night, for I’m quite tired of walking and travelling and I need some rest.

Next day, after duly visiting the Acropolis, the Parthenon, I set on my walk to Exarcheia. I want to pay a visit to a social centre, Nosotros, and to walk the streets of this neighbourhood, called by burgeoise press “an anarchist haven”. Blabber, yet the posters in the streets are manifest.

I arrive at Nosotros, but it is closed. There is sign on the door, but it’s in Greek and I cannot read. By the door there is poster advertising a music festival, and it’s likely that the folks from the social centre went there to sell their stuff and spread the word. Two girls are walking by and I stop them to ask for help. I ask them what it says on the sign. At first, they were somewhat dubious —they thought I was a junkie asking for change. Apparently there are quite some junkies roaming the streets asking for change for a new fix, and we are approached by one not long afterwards. Rain falls once more, and we take refuge under the little roof of Nosotros. We chat and they strongly encourage me to try souvlaki. In fact, there is a bar next door where they serve it, and there is a guy on the street munching one with concentration, the rain now over. I would later submit myself to the delights of this typical Greek dish. Once you try it, there is no way back.

So I set on my way once again, having said goodbye to the girls —not to see the rest of Exarcheia though, but to the Polytechnic. I have never seen so many anarchist posters on the streets, and I’m marvelled. A huge street banner hangs from lamp posts; it’s in Greek, yet the A encircled at the foot of it needs no translation.

The Polytechnic reminds me of the public university here in Buenos Aires, albeit without the political partisanship of its students. What I see here is a more radical stance, and solidarity with many causes. Yet, I think the causes are one and the same: self-determination, solidarity, respect, freedom. Regardless of language barriers, borders and currencies, we all suffer the same machinations of this capitalist system, and there is resistance, in every language spoken, in every country or nation of this world, and paid in the same kind the workers and students and immigrants and unemployed have, sweat and blood.

I must say, I dare not venture inside; not yet, though. I feel like an outsider intruding in someone else’s home, watching everything, taking a photo here and there of something that catches my sight. I see the posters on its walls, the huge murals, Palestinian flags… So I circle the grounds and move forward. Back to Syntagma.

And so here we are. Now the square is filled with some painted pictures of Mr. Papandreou: as a clown, along with his fellow buffons; on top of a rocket of the USA/IMF and the words “Ούστ” below signalling his (their) expulsion. A huge black flag draped on the side of the square with the words “Et vous, combien de temps allez-vous dormir?” (How long will you sleep?), demanding a call to action; Spanish flags, Egyptian flags, Irish flags… Greek flags. I climb the steps towards the street and I see the people, shaking hands and booing “Ούστ”. And there, to my left, there is a clearing among the crowd, some taking pictures… What is it? I tiptoe and I see a man and his bride walking by the hand among the people. They pass us by and stop for a bonding kiss in front of these makeshift witnesses. Newly weds. Now, that is pride and humility. A Greek couple marrying among their own people, in the square. Everyone cheers them up and applauds.

On my last day I finally walk the very streets of Exarcheia. After visiting the amazing Panathenaic Stadium, I pass Navairnou Park, a community garden, filled with locals just hanging around —a green space among concrete buildings. A breath of fresh air and hope. There is a little space for kids, and at the entrance of it, some William Blake’s quotes: “Prisons r built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion”, and the famous “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. There is graffiti and some murals too. Drawings and paintings. Mpatsoi, gourounia, dolofonoi. ΜΠΑΤΣΟΙ ΓΟΥΡΟΥΝΙΑ ΔΟΛΟΦΟΝΟΙ (“Cops, pigs, murderers”).

I continue walking in search of a bookstore to buy “Revolt and Crisis in Greece”. I had several addresses, but I end up in a small shop in Valtetsiou Street, a place called Eleftheros Typos, if I’m not mistaken. There are two men inside assisting, and they are both called the same. “We are anarchists, you know?”, one them says after I ask for the book. I was glad to find it, since all the other places I went to were closed, like Aytonomo Steki on Zoodohou Pigis.

Anyways, I got my book, I chatted a while with the anarchists at the bookstore and was again walking down the streets towards a squat, Villa Amalias. I was hoping to find it open, though I knew there was a chance for it to have been evicted by the cops. And so it was indeed.

My hopes of making contact with local anarchists, squats and the like did not turn out the way I’d expected —yet and I am glad it happened that way, because I met lots of people here and there, and I have to say, people have been very very kind, and I feel it is unfair what is happening to them —which, in a way, is happening to all of us.

And again, for the last time, I walk to the Polytechnic, I get inside —from a side entrance—, expecting the call of someone there saying “Where are you going?”. But no one said such thing as I walked the inner pathways, amazed at the enormity of the place. There is not a single wall without some kind of protesting claim on it —solidarity with the peoples of Palestine and Iran, posters, banners, graffiti and those huge murals near the classrooms: skulls, distorted faces, all in coloured designs.

I finish my day and my stay with the people. Syntagma at night is beautiful. Everyone is there, even the dogs! I walk around the crowded square, and I see there is a small assembly in the center. There is a huge circle of people listening to others speak. The Spaniards are still there, and street vendors sell food to the demonstrators. Others bring coffee or beer. I choose the latter and climb up the steps. I mingle with the crowd and end up talking to some Greeks there. One is unemployed, thinking of going to one of the islands for work, though he loves Athens and wants to stay. The other used to be an Olympic runner till he messed up with drugs too much and quit. He had a vuvuzela and played it once when the chanting started. I filled my lungs with air and blew it myself. The deafening sound marking a stand. The cops stayed paralyzed in front, and the Parliament lay there, empty, enduring the screaming and yelling of the protesters.

Some people with laser beams were pointing them at the hotel across the street. Parisitic journalists, too afraid to report from the scene, gathered on their luxury hotel rooms. I, on the other hand, stayed around. I did not want to leave, but I was leaving with the satisfaction of having been here, lent my support to this struggle, and become aware to a much deeper level.

‘Silence is violence’, read a graffiti on one of the walls of the Polytechnic.

Rest assured the Greek people will not be quiet anymore. Their voices still raging for justice, their struggle still pounding in my heart.

Luigi Celentano,
Buenos Aires,
September 2011.-
luigicelentano[at]gmail.com