Athens, Greece—One day the riot police were no longer stationed in front of Greece’s National Archeological Museum. For most of August, a group of them, wearing olive green military-style uniforms and wielding giant shields, had posted out front, facing the adjacent Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia—just waiting.
Exarcheia has long been a nucleus of radical intellectual thought and anarchist activity, and it is not welcoming to police. Residents have plastered the area with anti-cop slogans, politically charged street art, and anarchy circle As. “Evict Airbnb Not Squats” is scribbled on walls, and anti-Airbnb banners are strung throughout the gentrifying neighborhood.
At dawn on August 26, the riot police raided four formerly abandoned buildings known as “squats.” Two housed refugees, and two were anarchist squats. Now the security forces from the museum have occupied this hostile territory.
The early morning operation forced 143 refugees, including 31 minors, most of them from Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, into police vans. Greek authorities say the detained refugees may be confined in overcrowded detention camps, and some will be deported.
“Riot police are all around the neighborhood now,” Tasos Sagris, a theater director, poet, and member of the anarchist cultural group Void Network, told me. “Violent assaults and homophobic and sexist attacks by fully armed policemen against activists, students, refugees, and common people are a daily phenomenon, as is launching large amounts of tear gas in residential areas.”
Still, Sagris said, the police haven’t suppressed the rebellious energy of Exarcheia: “People from different areas of Athens and from all over the world still meet every day at Exarcheia and share dreams, desires, utopias, strategies, and methodologies of social struggle.”
Residents are fighting to keep it that way by pushing back against two related foes: the police and Airbnb.
The raids and increased police presence are a show of force by newly elected Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of the center-right New Democracy Party, who campaigned with law-and-order rhetoric and promised to “clean up” Exarcheia.
The vice president of the Greek Police Union Federation, Stavros Balaska, likened the security operations to a “silent vacuum cleaner” ridding the neighborhood of “dust” (the migrants) and “garbage” (the anarchists). He has since apologized.
On September 14, thousands marched through Athens to rally against the raids and police presence in Exarcheia. Within the past several days, there have reportedly been attacks against police stations, New Democracy Party offices, and banks. Anarchists are gluing shut Airbnb locks.
These demonstrations are not surprising; protests have historically accompanied and followed police repression in Exarcheia. In 1973, students rallied against the US-backed Greek military junta dictatorship at the adjacent Polytechnic University and were met with violent force: The junta crashed a tank through the gates of the university, killing at least 20 people and wounding hundreds. Once the dictatorship fell, the Greek government banned police from university grounds, and Polytechnic became a hub of political activity. Today lecture rooms hold community assemblies, political slogans are scattered throughout the halls, and banners fly outside. But in early August, the new center-right government repealed the university asylum law.
In December 2008, after a police officer murdered 15-year-old anarchist Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Exarcheia, riots ensued and spread throughout the city for weeks. Vaso Makrygianni and Haris Tsavdaroglou described in their essay “Urban Planning and Revolt” how residents became acclimated to upheaval: “A few days after 6 December, it seemed normal for someone to sit on a couch in the middle of the street while a bank was in flames nearby.”
December 2008 radicalized a new generation and emboldened the anarchist movement. As a result, self-organized projects took off in Exarcheia. Shortly after the murder, for instance, neighbors and friends came together to build a public park in an empty lot near where the officer killed Grigoropoulos.
Yet Exarcheia isn’t truly “autonomous” or “self-organized.” Many parts of the spacious neighborhood function as any other. There are ordinary businesses, and most tenants have probably never thrown a Molotov cocktail. Still, what separates Exarcheia from other neighborhoods is the anarchist appreciation of “the commons”—resources or spaces that are open to all, shared collectively, and managed by the people.
Most of the social projects take place in state-owned buildings that have sat unused for decades. Sagris told me, “Initiatives of people from different social and cultural backgrounds give life to these buildings all over Greece by creating open public spaces that function through open assemblies grounded in equality, solidarity, and mutual help.”
When homeless refugees came to Greece, for example, anarchists welcomed hundreds into empty buildings that were otherwise collecting dust. Prior to the raid, a squat resident from Afghanistan told The Guardian: “I am so happy here, I feel safe. Here we work together and have a good life.”
But the squats do much more than provide housing infrastructure. “These social spaces offer free education and food, free cultural events, psychological empowerment, and the hope for a world without exploitation and loneliness. People do not need to be employed or have any kind of personal income to enjoy these spaces,” Sagris said.
One squat, K*Vox, has organized a free health care clinic in Exarcheia since 2013 with doctors, dentists, and psychologists. At the end of August, riot police reportedly threw tear gas grenades into K*Vox while it was full of people, and one person was hospitalized. The clinic remains open for several hours on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Fridays.
This collectivist activity has long been a concern for the Greek government. Antonis Vradis, co-author of Athens and the War on Public Space and a lecturer at Loughborough University, said, “Newly elected governments have used a discourse of ‘taming’ and ‘controlling’ Exarcheia as a way to appease the voter middle-ground. And every single time they’ve gone in with some noise, but eventually they have quietly retreated and failed.”
Exarcheia’s anti-capitalist characteristics, however, are ironically propelling the transformation of the neighborhood into a capitalist’s dream. Airbnb’s “Sweet Anarchy: Exarcheia” cultural walking tour is a prime example. The home rental company, with a valuation of about $38 billion, is partially responsible for the gentrification of Exarcheia, residents have said. Entire-home Airbnb listings, dubbed as “ghost hotels,” are most destructive. They form when a real estate owner evicts their tenants, or decides not to replace their former tenants, and transform the apartment or home into an Airbnb. This creates a housing shortage, which drives up rent.
An analysis done by Athens Live, lists Exarcheia as having the second-highest number of Airbnb rentals in the city at 499, 367 of which are “ghost hotels.” Chinese investment companies are buying up real estate in neighborhoods like Exarcheia to set up Airbnb rentals. A single company reportedly lists 58 “ghost hotels.”
From 2017 to 2018, Exarcheia rent spiked 34 percent, up to an average of 5.5 euros ($6.05) per square meter, according to Greek publication The Sparrow. So a 100-square-meter apartment may have cost €363 ($400) a month in 2017, and €550 per month in 2018 ($605).
The real estate market, sustained by Airbnb is the greatest threat to Exarcheia, according to Vradis. “The major worry is the role of Airbnb, touristification and gentrification in all this. The riot police units come and go, but the force of Airbnb can actually expel people for good—it already does,” he wrote in an e-mail. “If combined, there’s a real worry they will be strong enough to bring a tipping point, after which Exarcheia could indeed become a shell of its former self, a sort of tourist-friendly caricature of rebellion that is there for people to consume.”
Airbnb investments are incentivized by so-called golden visas, issued by the Greek government, which grant investors a renewable 5-year residency in Greece following the purchase of real estate.
The government’s actions boil down to economics, Vradis said. “The political agenda of the New Democracy [Party] is a continuation of Syriza’s policy. It aims to transform the entire region into easily exploitable land for local and foreign capital.”
For many residents, Exarcheia’s struggle against the police and Airbnb symbolizes a larger fight for a life worth living. Sagris told me that the neighborhood experiments make visible an anti-capitalist alternative: “Social spaces people share horizontal voluntary work, common efforts for freedom, and the struggle for a better future for all—and this is a message that can be understood anywhere around the world and by anybody.”