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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

A Conversation on Exarchia Square

Somehow it came to pass that over a year later I was sitting in Exarchia Square with Petros, enjoying a beer and taking in the warm evening air.  Even in the little time that had passed I noticed that Exarchia was being gentrified.  There were more alternative fashion stores, more nice bars and restaurants for young urban professionals.  First come the hipsters, then the investments, then the police.  Petros tried describing to me what it was like ten years ago.

“But, there’s nothing you can do.  It always happens this way.”

“I disagree.”

His voice was tired when he responded.  “Yes, you can go and smash up the nice shops, we’ve already tried that.  But what does that do?  You can’t have everyone as your enemy.  And this bar, for example, the owner’s a good guy, he’s friends with my friends.”

“No, no, I’m not talking about smashing things up.  But that’s a necessary part of it.  Although, better than rocks—I read that in the autonomous neighborhoods in Berlin they used to throw heaps of shit in the expensive restaurants right during dinner time.  That can’t be good for business!”

We both shared a good laugh.

“So, my friend, what do you propose?”

I leaned forward.  “There’s no reason to just smash these places up, because the people who come here—of course they want to enjoy a drink with friends in the park, or eat in public sometimes, instead of always in their own house.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s natural.  And after all, the anarchists have their own bars in this neighborhood; it would be a little hypocritical to just go and smash other people’s bars.”

“Yes, of course.”

“So, autonomy has two aspects.  The police are afraid to come into this neighborhood, because they might get attacked.  And that’s great.  But defense isn’t everything.  Really it’s just a chance for autonomy.  And I know this is presumptuous of me, I don’t know the situation here so well, but I don’t see anyone trying to develop the material basis of that autonomy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, people are coming here to buy alternative clothes, have a beer, a meal.  There’s a big park here.  Anarchists could be serving free meals in the park.  Folks can learn how to homebrew beer and sell it here at cost.  Artists who make patches and do screenprinting can bring that stuff here, give it away, sell it for a little bit of money, or to raise funds for the prisoners.”

“Hmmm.”

“I mean, the people coming to these fashion stores aren’t total scumbags.  They come here because Exarchia is cool.  Because resistance is cool, and because everyday life under capitalism is boring as hell.  But if they’re not brave enough, or even if they don’t have the right social skills, they can’t join in.  There’s no place to sign up to be an anarchist.  And in the meantime, if we’re not making clothing ourselves, or making food ourselves, people are going to get it somewhere else.”

“Yeah, but I think you’ll find little support for that.  Anarchists in Greece are very skeptical of charity.  We don’t give charity, we’re not like a church or a welfare organization.  I don’t think people would support that.”

“Okay, it doesn’t have to be charity.  The purpose doesn’t have to be feeding the poor.  You could announce a potluck—”

“A what?”

“Oh, a potluck.  It’s an indigenous tradition, from North America I guess, a big meal where everyone brings a dish and everyone shares.”

“Ah, great.”

“So you announce a shared meal right here in the park, ask everyone to bring a dish, spread word among your friends.  It wouldn’t be charity, just a shared meal among friends, but anyone is welcome.  And if someone comes their first time and they haven’t brought anything to share, then of course they can eat with you, you just ask them next time to bring whatever they can to contribute to the meal.  And if they continue taking without giving, then they violate the spirit of sharing, and they lose their chance to become accepted.  But in the meantime you have an expanding circle of friends, and friends of friends, everyone coming to share free food in the park, maybe drinking some cheap homebrewed beer, getting some patches or screenprinted t-shirts.  And it can expand from there.”

“Hmmm, I like this.”

“And if any of the businesses around here are hostile towards us or treat us like competitors, then we target them and shut them down, while the places that are sympathetic, the ones that don’t want to gentrify Exarchia, they can stay until we abolish money and figure out what comes next.”

“Sure.”

“But if we don’t create the alternative, of course the neighborhood will gentrify and die out.  Exarchia has been autonomous for decades, right?  And only now capitalism is moving in to fill a niche we’ve left open.”

“So, when are you going to move to Athens and get started on this?” he laughed.

“Who knows?” I sighed nostalgically.

“Hey, look behind you, slowly,” Petros instructs me.   “The guy, sitting at the table there, the one missing an eye?  Blue shirt.”

“Yeah.”

“He was in the armed struggle groups, years ago.  A bomb blew up in his hands, that’s how the police caught him.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, you can always see people like that here in Exarchia.”

“What a great neighborhood.”

“Cheers to that, man.”  We clink our beer bottles together and drink.

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