Argiris: A long time anarchist activist from Athens
Exarchia Square and the neighbourhood assemblies
So it was like this. We were sitting in a house, something like four hundred meters away from Exarchia Square. This was around June, 2003. It was like 2:30 in the afternoon, we were drinking coffee and smoking the first joint of the day. And suddenly they called us on the telephone. Our friend was in the square, she said to us that there were some workers on the square, and some machines, construction machines, and it was looking like they wanted to begin construction on the square, in the general spirit of construction for the Olympic Games. At that period there was gentrification in all the city for the Olympics. So immediately we understood that our time had come to face this problem in the square. The funniest thing I remember is that immediately from the moment we hung up the telephone, though we were just four people in the middle of a big city, we had a natural, powerful feeling that we could stop all the Mayor's construction projects by ourselves. That afternoon i felt this passionate enthusiasm that had no rationality, just this feeling of power and commitment. Because we decided that would never happen, it would never happen for sure. We were sure. There were four of us walking to the square and I felt like I belonged to an army.
It was like we were carrying a monster with us, and this monster was the reputation, the mythology of the anarchist movement in general. We carried with us all the power of all the actions that had come before us. We were not just four people, we were 2,000 people.
And so when we arrived there, we went directly to the workers and we asked, "What are you doing here? Who is responsible for this work?"
They say, "We don't know, we don't know", but they pointed out this fat guy in the café drinking a frappe and overseeing the work. He was in charge. And as we went to speak to this man, we saw that they had already made a hole, 1.5 metres deep, 2 metres wide. So we go to this man and we ask him, "Why are you here? What do you want to do?"
"They've made a plan for big changes to the square", he said. The planning is already decided. He's not responsible for these decisions but he's responsible for finishing the construction. And we ask him very politely, "What is the plan, what will the square look like?"
He said they would throw away the statue, the classical statue in the middle of the square with the ancient god Eros. The statue was symbolic for the punks and it was something like a guardian angel for the junkies who hung out there. They write graffiti on it, sticking up posters or announcements. It is the symbolic centre of the square.
We're surprised, so we ask if he's sure they were going to remove the statue.
He says, "Yes, all the middle of the square will be taken up by a pool, with a fountain."
The benches of the square were old, falling apart, so we asked about the benches, will they put in new benches?
"No, we're going to rip it all out and put in new things."
"What kind of new things?"
"We will put in a cement platform for the people to sit on."
"How is it possible for old people to sit on this cement thing? No one will come to sit."
"It doesn't matter, normal people don't hang out here. I don't care what you say, it's already planned."
So we say to him, "You stay here and wait, just see what happens."
All that afternoon, there were many people like us calling each other and talking about this. And through this, an assembly for Exarchia Square was called. So next afternoon, spreading the word by phone or word of mouth, about 400 people gathered. Half of them were inhabitants of the area, and half were anarchist who hung out at the square. And then we went and we threw all the construction machines in this hole, destroyed them, we told the workers that the people of the square would not allow them to work here, we would not allow them to build a metal barrier around the square to hide the construction from the public view. And we said that whatever construction will happen in the future, the locals will decide the design, and any construction will happen in the public view. Out of this struggle the assembly of the "Initiative of Exarchia residents" was born, and this assembly continues today, playing an important role in resisting the police presence in the neighbourhood.
Because of this organised struggle, the construction stopped for many months, and in the period that followed, the representatives from the assembly of Exarchia went to the construction company and asked about the planning. In the beginning, the company said that because they were a private company they didn't have any obligation to show us the plans. So the assembly decided they didn't have to allow any construction, and that only if the construction company accepts the architectural ideas of the assembly would any construction be allowed to happen. So the assembly prepared plans, which included an expansion of the green area of the square, to add more trees and bushes, keep the statue, not put in the fountain, and they would install new high-quality benches.
In the first months, the mayor of the city sent riot police to guard the construction site. But because of the inhabitants' negation of the plan, the riot police could not save the construction project. They couldn't enforce it themselves. And after one month the riot police left, because every time they went away for a moment, we destroyed the machines and the metal construction barriers. Three times this happened. So the works stopped. And they stopped for almost one year. And it was very funny because during that period, there was no cement, the construction workers had taken away all the paving stones to prepare the construction. Suddenly Exarchia Square was bare earth. So in the meantime we enjoyed this, we put a volleyball net and announced that we now had a beach in the square.
To defend the square, the anarcho-punks stayed there. All around the square all different sorts of people regularly gathered, but in the middle of the square it was the anarcho-punks. This lasted for almost one year, the period of the beach in the park.
Due to all these factors, the construction company realised they had to accept the planning of the inhabitants' assembly, and they announced their concession. As this was the period of the reconstruction around the Acropolis, for the Olympics, this was when the first two neighbourhood assemblies started. Philopapou, around the Acropolis, was the first one, and then the assembly of the inhabitants of Exarchia. Both of these assemblies were successful in stopping construction projects and stopping gentrification. The spirit of these assemblies produced many other neighbourhood assemblies in other parts of Athens and other cities throughout Greece.
This was the beginning of a new period in the anarchist movement, the meeting of the powerful direct action of the anarchists with the interests and the hopes of the inhabitants, their dreams for their own neighbourhood. The inhabitants felt this confluence between their dreams and the power of the direct actions of the insurrectionist anarchists, that it was good.