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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Of War and Mountains

Τεταρτη14 Μαρτιου

The people on the television here in Athena are saying it’s a war, which most everyone I’m talking to has met with giggles.  And the weather, first it was too gloriously warm and balmy for there really to be a war, and now it’s too cold and grey.  Still, there’s a strange feeling in the city—the riot cops standing in large squads on random corners, police with submachine guns guarding all the government buildings… It’s been just a few weeks but such a great distance in getting here.

On Sunday night, 18 February, I left Kyiv.  My dear bicycle I entrusted to my younger brother, and we said our goodbyes on a train platform in the freezing cold, our bodies casting deep shadows in the shallow yellow lamplight. On creaking joints the train clanked and strained and pulled itself south on electric ropes, settling into a fast canter that lulled all the passengers to sleep. The sun’s first rays caressed our tired faces as we lugged bags down onto the platform in Odessa and looked out at the silver domes and spires of the city outshining the pale sky, while the flocks of gulls called out for the sea to deliver up their breakfast. Odessa was the end of the line, but there was a bus to take me over the wide fens of the Dniestr delta, through the forlorn hills of Moldova draped with a sad mist, to Chisinau, where another train could take me to Romania.

I got to Craiova, in southern Romania, on Marţi, 20 Februarie.  Members of Initiativa Autonoma and the anarcha-feminist group Love Kills met me at the train station, and I wondered how this first meeting would go. I was headed for Barcelona, via Greece and Italy, but I didn’t know a soul in the world ahead of me. After months of making friends and a temporary home, I was on my own again. In Abolishing the Borders from Below or from friends in Kyiv I had gotten a few contacts in Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, so I already had places to stay and was even scheduled to give a few presentations, but I had no idea what kind of people they were. I hoped to find enough solidarity and hospitality to get me by.

Ioana and Corva brought me to their apartment and put me up in the bed usually claimed by their dogs. I was nervous and shy at first, but these two strangers were so earnest that in the end I could feel nothing but the love that pours out from the heart and fills up one’s belly when people who share a struggle that is real in its dangers and sincere in its dreams cross paths. They took care of me because I was a comrade. That’s an ugly word in American English, thanks to Soviet dishonesty and the Red Scare. Perhaps it’s better to say companion, someone who accompanies you on the long path forward. For a few wonderful days I shared their path with them, hearing about their projects, the obstacles they faced, and telling them about the things I had seen and learned. We traded enough of ourselves that years later, reading letters from one another, we could see that we were still on the same path, looking for the best way forward.

Anarchy is a gift: it is a meal you cook in order to share it, and it is the pleasure you get from sharing. Ioana and Corva fed me well on rich, salty, oily food, always accompanied by bread, wine, and pickled peppers, much of it made by their family members in the countryside. And they showed me their town. They lived in Craioviţa, a working class neighborhood that held a fifth of the city’s 400,000 inhabitants.  Arrayed around it like immobile constellations were a graveyard, a Roma village, and a toxic waste dump.

The anarchist movement in Romania was tiny.  The dictatorship fell in 1989 during a stage-managed spectacle that took its cues from events in the rest of the region.  Well connected people knew where to invest their stocks in the transitioning economy when the state sold off its properties, while ordinary people typically invested in their places of work.  The higher ups, who were investing elsewhere, bilked and bankrupted these local companies, so the workers lost everything while the party aristocracy seamlessly transformed into a private aristocracy.  There was no history of social movements in Romania.  The very idea of a social movement is often criticized by the more insurrectionary of Western anarchists, but I think they don’t understand how vital these movements are, not as an end in themselves, but as a starting point.  The dictatorship had destroyed social movements as a popular habit, a social feature, a tradition, even as a memory, and left behind the mutually destructive, cynical individualism characteristic of the post-Soviet world. Punk music gave a voice to the alienation one would expect in such a setting.  To paraphrase Corva, reading Kafka made them punks and listening to Dead Kennedys made them anarchists.

After some years there were over a hundred anarchists centered around the punk scene in Craiova alone. They had no literature at first: Corva told me in all seriousness that they even resorted to looking up anarchy in the encyclopedia.  But their foundation was not strong enough. As government repression mounted people gave up, moved out, fought one another, or turned to an increasingly escapist punk culture.  Now the group was very small.  The few remaining members were doing their best to spread ideas—by holding protests and publishing zines—to overcome the isolation built into the social fabric.

In Romania I learned that to a passing tourist, a police state will probably look like a pleasant place. Someone spending a few weeks in Romania, staying in a hotel, and not befriending any marginalized people would never know about the visits by the secret police, about the torture in the police stations, about the special attention given to anyone who wanted more from life than shopping, about the unmarked car parked outside an anarchist’s apartment, watching them for weeks. The police visited members of the anarchist group after an anti-election campaign, after political stickers went up, after they checked out the library’s sole anarchist book—an old one by Bakunin. If the cops wanted to “invite” an activist to an interview at the station they would leave the summons with the neighbors so everyone around would know the person was in some kind of trouble, and become suspicious, and help with the surveillance. If the cops saw that a young person was starting to radicalize, starting to talk with the anarchists, they would talk to the person’s parents, to the employers, to mobilize social pressure and bring that person back into line and isolate the committed anarchists from the world. While I was there some anarchist graffiti went up in the city, and afterwards one of the few employed members of their group got fired from his job after the police paid a visit to his boss.

I never thought to stay long in Romania but Ioana and Corva convinced me to stay a few days more and go with them to a punk concert in Timişoara. We took the bus, through the southern spur of the Carpathians, supine and steely-eyed mountains looking down on the river. On the other side was Serbia.  Here they call the river Dunâre, following the Dacians, the ancient Celtic inhabitants, who called it Dunerius.  In English we’ve shortened the Romans’ Danuvius to Danube, and some of the other ten nations through which this river flows call it the Donau, Dunaj, Duna, and Dunav. Danu, incidentally, in Proto-Indo-European, means river, and the same root can be found in the Dniepr, Kyiv’s river, and in the Don of Russia.

The concert was in a building like an old citadel, which Timişoara’s anarcho-punks often used.  Six bands played, but the only ones I remember were the two I enjoyed—Pavilionul 32 from Bucureşti, and Aktivna Propaganda from Slovenia. It was sad seeing the punks drinking themselves to death, and sadder still for the opportunity that was missed. Concerts like these were some of the few times that anarchists from the whole country could come together and talk and network, but not enough people were motivated or sober enough to make it happen. Ioana and Corva were distressed

Resistance can’t stay still.  It can either become more effective or it can become a posture; a posture soon becomes a gesture, and finally these gestures only mask hypocrisy as they become self-defeating. There is a final unintended honesty in their gestures: “smash the state” say the lyrics and the patches for sale. By now they’re so much a part of the state of things, and they’re smashing themselves to bits.

I wished fervently to be able to pull the word “solidarity” out of a hat and have it manifest as something real, something born out of the sheer desire to give them something that would make their struggle a little easier. With the typical guilt of the outsider, I felt awful about leaving them in those circumstances. And I felt awful about feeling awful; of course they can take care of themselves and keep on fighting.  But sometimes one wants to take on all the despair and hold it close; take that rich, heavy sadness that like a buzzard shadows our lives of fighting against everything, for everything; turn it into beauty that cuts just as sharp; and turn that into insane hope, and enough craziness to believe in it, that we will win, and that maybe even our ghosts will be substantial enough to smell, just once, the sweat and breath of these things we dream about.

But I could say nothing more poetic than “take care” and “keep in touch” when I finally headed out of Romania in the midst of a series of hassles like those that always accompany and overwhelm the pursuit of things lofty.

A small group of anarchists persisting in a police state
The way they conspire in smoky cafés
ducking the watch
of the secret police
to plan their desperate rebellion
is as beautiful
as the sight of a rich blue sky
through gray bars
framed in a dirty concrete wall.

Bucurest Pride Bloc June07

Anarchists convene a black bloc to protect a Gay Pride parade in Romania from attack by nationalists.

On the 26th, I was scheduled to give a presentation in Sofiya, the capital of Bulgaria.  I had intended to get there on Sunday the 25th—Nedeli, 25 Fevruari.  But the Romanian train system was just switching to computers, and I was thwarted by a ghost train.  The next non-phantasmic transport would get me to Sofiya four hours after my presentation.  In the end I crossed the border on foot at Giurgiu, walking over the Danube bridge.  Then I hopped on a bus that rushed me through the brown, stubbled mountains, and made it to Sofiya a few hours early.  Georgi, my contact, met me at the bus station and took me to his place, where I could wash up and prepare.

The event was at an NGO-funded cultural center that often let the anarchists in the back door, under the radar of the Western donors, among them George Soros, comically enough. Similar to Kyiv, the anarchists here had no social center and had to rely on the generosity of liberal friends who supported free speech in a way the chairpersons of the Western NGOs employing them would not have appreciated, had they known.

Lots of people came and seemed to enjoy the discussion on the concept of a diversity of tactics. I detailed some actions and struggles from the last few decades that had used a combination of peaceful and destructive tactics to good effect. I wanted to give a wide range of examples that would be both accessible and inspiring for people in a movement with a low capacity for action, so we talked about things like simple education and solidarity work in support of militant struggles abroad like in Oaxaca or Iraq; popular riots like the Stonewall Rebellion; and urban guerrilla groups like Direct Action in Canada. A number of social movements were on the rise in Bulgaria, but people were unsure what actions might be effective, and how the struggle could develop.  There was plenty of passivity but fortunately that was recognized as a weakness.  Nonviolence as such hadn’t really emerged and hopefully it never will, unless George Soros has his say.

 

katarzis

Katarzis, a Bulgarian anarchist zine


As in Ukraina and Romania and the rest of the region, the dictatorship had prevented the emergence of any social movements in Bulgaria. The common apathy and isolation were at work here too, though the social movements seemed relatively larger, and growing faster.  Interestingly, Bulgaria had a huge anarchist movement up until the 1940s, and those members of it who survived the war and passed through the prison camps of the Communists had in recent years handed the torch on to the next generation.  There was a bit of a split in Sofiya between the old-fashioned anarchists who minimized the importance of gender and ecological issues—a couple were even homophobic, I’m ashamed to say—and the newer anarchists for whom these latter issues were very important. Quite in contrast to Romania, Bulgarian anarchism had little to do with punk, and most of the anarchists would not stand out in a crowd.  But just like the Romanians, their hospitality was heartwarming.  One night, we stayed up late in one guy’s apartment, talking about the struggle, sharing experiences and stories of our various efforts.  The next night, they brought me to a film showing at a bar whose owner was sympathetic to the movement.  The place was packed, and they were excited about using the place for more events, but after I left I heard fascists visited and made the proprietor afraid to associate with anarchists any more.

BulgarianPaper

Free Thought, the newspaper of the Bulgarian Anarchist Federation.


On the 1st of March I came by train through the evocative, snow-capped mountains and into Greece. Twenty minutes after I arrived in Thessaloniki, still tired because I’d stayed up late saying goodbyes in Sofiya, my contact picked me up on a motorcycle and, with my big hiking backpack pulling me precariously backward, whisked me through the busy city streets, shouting over his shoulder that I had come just in time for a major student demonstration.  He took me to their squat to quickly drop off my backpack and retrieve two black flags which he had me hold, and away we sped to the university.  The flags were really transparent pretenses: a little bit of black cloth stapled to a thick and sturdy club which was the real purpose and substance of the affiliation flags usually denote.

In Greece, universities were public. When I told one anarchist here how much I had to pay at my relatively cheap state school before I dropped out, he said “That’s not a public university.” Here, studying at a university was free and available to all, by constitutional guarantee. Universities also had asylum, meaning the police could not enter. This was in recognition of the role student riots played in toppling the US-backed military dictatorship in 1974.  Now, as part of the authoritarian, neoliberal social engineering of the European Union, the Greek government was trying to pass a law to privatize the universities, give them a more corporate management structure, such as exists in the US, and take away or at least weaken the asylum.  They even had to change the constitution to accomplish this.  The law was tremendously unpopular among the students, and since last spring—with a short break in the fall to allow for exams for the previous semesters—the students and teachers had been on strike, and the universities had been occupied.

The buildings were all covered with graffiti and draped with banners. They held frequent assemblies at which the students made decisions about the resistance.  Every week for a while now, there had been protests against the education reform in Thessaloniki, Athena, and other cities.  Various communist parties controlled a large part of the student movement, though everyone worked together, with a strong dose of that acidic arguing that seems typical of Greece.

When we pulled up, several thousand students were assembling just inside the university, safe from police because of the asylum.  The march started off, and soon the air filled with energetic, rhythmic chants.  The people of the city watched the demonstration pass by, supportive or at worst unoffended.  Young people leisurely spraypainted slogans or stencils over all the buildings they passed.  If a surveillance camera was low enough they would boost up a comrade to spraypaint the lens black or just smash it.  If it was higher up they would open the box that contained its electrical wiring and set it on fire.  An ATM or two got smashed for good measure.

At some intersections we saw groups of riot police a block away, hiding around the corner, shadowing the march, constantly in defensive posture. In Greece, people saw the situation more clearly than in the States. If police showed up at a protest, it was a provocation and they should be beaten.  At this protest, the police were choosing not to fight, so they kept their distance. This experience crystallized for me a feeling I had from US protests, how the riot cops stomp boldly on both sides of the march, as well as in front and in back.  This obviously is not to keep the peace or protect anybody, and I realized it isn’t even primarily to maintain control or prevent rioting: in fact throughout the 70s and 80s police experts determined it was better to show less force at protests because physically threatening crowds provokes riots.  So they began a decades long project of social engineering to make people accustomed to policing and social control. On the one hand they created friendly neighborhood police units that would get involved in community affairs, coupled with an increase in surveillance and stricter control of light crimes like graffiti, and on the other hand they developed hyper-militarized riot and counterterrorist police meant to be used in increasingly frequent states of emergency, and intended to terrify normal people and bystanders into perfect obedience and submission.  Nowadays, they have brought back the overwhelming display of force, the threat of violence in protest situations, specifically because it provokes people—it  makes people live under constant provocation by the authorities and accept it as normal and even comfortable.  The goal of the state was not to keep the peace but to increase their power.  The fact that they had to change their policing tactics to avoid rioting must have left an awful taste in their mouths—it reminded them that they were not omnipotent, that there still existed a thing called society which they had to be afraid of.  So they retreated, but only temporarily, changing course in order to sculpt society and get one step closer to engineering humans that they have dreamed about for millennia: humans that are completely passive, that respond to provocation and domination only with more obedience.

In Thessaloniki that day, there was no fighting with police, because the police chose to avoid it.  The march got back to the university after having redecorated much of the city, and finally I got to rest.  Later in the week the student assemblies at the majority of universities voted to continue the strike, as did the teachers’ union if I’m not mistaken.

fampnika-ufanet

A sticker from the Thessaloniki squatted social center Fabrika Yfanet

Thessaloniki was a chaotically calm city.  Motorcyclists wove carefree through traffic, pedestrians crowded the streets, lazily sidling out of the way of passing cars.  Flowers blossomed and orange trees bore fuit, palm fronds tossed in the wind.  Everywhere trotted amicable street dogs, street dogs who walked into parties on the university or converged in their dozens on the protests and came along with the marches.  Mountains gathered close around the city, an eager semicircle facing the sea, which extended flat and forever.  Thermaikos Gulf: oily water straitjacketed with piers and cargo cranes.  Apartments lined the harbor down to the White Tower—a former prison—and the statue to Alexander the Great, known to others as the Butcher. Cats fucked in open pit archaeological excavations that revealed ancient layers of Thessaloniki.  These pits just lay there throughout the city, alongside apartment blocks that looked like stacked sediment rock.  It created the impression that over time new stories were simply added on top of these sinking blocks; that if I were to descend to the long abandoned basement of one of these apartments I would find the ruins and mummies of what a hundred years ago had been the first floor.  The streets I walked those days will be buried in a thousand years.  Curiously, it may be up to us to determine just what kind of society will be up there peering down at the ruins, shovel in hand.

Revolutionary politics in Greece were immediately more complicated than in the old Soviet bloc.  It helped that there were tens of thousands of anarchists, several major leftist parties, and everyone was fighting everyone else.  In broken English, my hosts explained to me the infighting among the Greek anarchists.  The worst split, but by no means the only split, was between the insurrectionary Black Bloc anarchists and the more leftist, formally organized Antiauthoritarian Movement, also known by its Greek initials, alpha kappa.  The folks I was staying with hated alpha kappa, and when they found out that I planned to visit a social center in Athena that happened to be run by alpha kappa, they urged me not to go.  The feud seemed to be at its worst in Thessaloniki, where people from alpha kappa had allegedly beaten up a few anarchists they suspected of stealing a computer at one of their events, and in retaliation some people firebombed alpha kappa’s social center.

The movement in Greece clearly had many strengths, but in my short time there it seemed flagrantly obvious that healthy communication and restorative forms of conflict resolution were not among them.  Neither was their resolve to combat patriarchy that strong.  Many of the anarchists were quite macho and dismissive of gender problems.  There was an important minority of remarkably strong women who were empowered and respected, but in a curious dynamic I noticed in other macho countries as well, the leading women seemed to have the same attitude towards feminism as the men.  They were, I suppose, self-made leaders, and didn’t need any women’s movement to support them.  I imagine it would be a very difficult movement for milder women to participate in.  For me, as a man who doesn’t want the role society has given me, I was sometimes uncomfortable in the tangibly macho atmosphere, though the people around me were so gregarious that for better or worse I nearly always enjoyed myself.

Paraskevi, 2 Martiou was the day of my presentation. In the morning we walked around the city pasting up the last of the 1000 posters they had printed to announce the event. I’m still amazed at how prolific the Greek anarchists are at making posters and other propaganda.  Some of the people hosting me ran Thessaloniki’s chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross, which supports political prisoners and anti-prison struggles.  When they had found out, during our email correspondence, that I was involved in similar work in the States, they had invited me to speak in their infoshop about the prison system and prisoner support work in my country.  About 40 people came, and I was very pleased by the Greek attention span.  They stayed three hours, and most of it was questions and discussion.  Generally, people were already sympathetic to the idea of supporting not only political prisoners but all prisoners.  I also pushed the idea that a large part of getting rid of the prison system, and the state itself, was forming strong community relationships that can repair conflicts and social harm without reliance on the police and courts.

On Sabbato the 3rd, I finally went to Fabrika Yfanet, a huge squatted factory with housing, meeting and event space, a bar, a library, ping pong tables, art rooms, a climbing wall, and an indoor halfpipe set up for bikers. The squat had been the center of a weeklong meeting on fighting the EU immigration regime.  Greek and immigrant anarchists had come from all over. In addition to a lot of protests, No Border camps—in conjunction with Bulgarian or Turkish anarchists—and other solidarity work, Greek anarchists had even broken into and shut down some of the concentration camps where Europe’s undesired refugees were warehoused.  After watching some video clips of protests against the detention centers over the past few years I sat alone on the steps on the edge of the crowd.  But I soon found myself, over a bottle of cheap wine, in a moving discussion with a small group of immigrants who came up to me and just started talking.  We spoke about nationalism, nationality, violence, compared the situation in the US and in Greece, and discovered even more reasons why the state needed to be destroyed.

Later, after some rounds of ping pong, we found ourselves three stories up on the roof of the squat, watching the shadow of the earth swallow the full moon whole. Amidst the chatter of Greeks, Albanians, Turks, and Arabs, I felt, perhaps with unforgivable meaninglessness and sentimentality, like the dark silent exocenter of the universe, the ring of points where the outer edges come together, opposites meet and continue in the other direction. And the world went on like we can hardly keep it from doing, the shadow began to slip off the other side and back into the pool of nightblack sky, and the irrepressible Greeks, a group of Situationists in this case, soon began belting out, for all the neighborhood to hear, the traditional protest chants modified to urge people to come outside and watch the eclipse.  And then there was a punk show in the occupied university—the previous night had been disco, there’s no music monoculture in the movement here—and a little later I went off by myself to find an internet café and see if I had any emails from friends, as World of Warcraft and Cindy Lauper sounded in the background.

On the 6th of March I came to Athena.  My hosts were steeped in the revolution of everyday life. Inhabiting a comfortably ill-defined ideological terrain somewhere between insurrectionary anarchism, mystical Buddhism, and Dadaism, their group explored the radical potential of raves and street parties in the Reclaim the Streets tradition from the UK. Some of them seemed like normal Greeks, some like hippies—but without that mushy, noncritical edge that pisses me off about American hippies.  They generally didn’t take sides in the infighting, tried to work with all groups, and they liked having long conversations, so we got along pretty well.  The first night we had dinner at Petros’ apartment, feasting on cheese and olives and oregano from his village.  I liked the concept of having a village.  I wished I had one. I wonder how much we can retrofit ourselves into the life and past we find ideal, whether we have to be born with it or forever pine for it, or if alienation is really the human condition—even for those who have roots—and we’re all just imitating imitators.

The next day they took me to Exarchia.  That’s the neighborhood’s official name.  It means “outside of authority,” and it wasn’t an exaggeration.  Exarchia was a countercultural haven.  Many people who lived and hung out there were radicals, and they left their mark.  Anarchist posters and stickers outnumbered and overwhelmed the corporate graffiti—the advertising.  The autonomy of the area was visible in other ways as well.  Police rarely entered.  Gangs of riot cops stood on watch at all hours on the borders; alert, nervous, shields at the ready.  In Greece, anarchy was a feature on the map.

On the 8th there was to be a demonstration: the weekly student protest march.  Two weeks earlier, 30-40,000 people had marched from the university to Parliament, and many people were saying that was the high water mark.  Nobody was expecting to make history this day.  And folks were a bit worried: they recognized that if anyone got arrested at this protest, “they will be fucked.” For one thing, three anarchists who got arrested almost a year ago finally got released after going on hunger strike and winning international solidarity, so as they saw it the state needed some more prisoners. More importantly, the police had been embarrassed in the media lately, and they needed to show force.  The other day, police had shot live ammunition over the heads of a group of anarchists destroying a surveillance camera.  The Minister of Public Order justified their actions, saying that in Greece the police are “at war” with the anarchists.  But students and others came out anyway to take the streets this day.  We all gathered in front of a university building until our numbers swelled to match the size of the protest two weeks ago.  An hour or two after the scheduled time, the march was ready to start.  On the way to Syntagma Square a few luxury stores got smashed.  It was almost customary: the anarchists did it calmly and the employees watched unhappily but unfrightened until the security gate came down and everyone moved on.  Masked protestors set fire to some banks and took down more security cameras.  Others covered the walls in painted slogans.  Constant and exuberant were the chants of the crowd.

8-6-2006, Greece, Anarchists students

Greek students clashing with police

Certain areas of the march were less savory, less lively.  The communists always marched behind their banner, every time led by a tight line exclusively made up of men with locked arms and faces of self-righteous severity.  And there was a certain martyr complex about them, clear in the way they lined up against the riot police on the edges of the march.  Their intention was to control, or from their perspective protect, the crowds behind them and prevent fighting, but you could see in their stern faces their real motivation was a desire for the police to beat them.  They apparently could not conceive taking the initiative themselves, but if they were attacked, they won a moral high ground, and a pretense for demanding justice.  Fortunately, others in the protest did not need to wait for the police to misbehave in order to fight them.

After the march reached Parliament, the tempo picked up.  With growing anger, people yelled at the squads of riot police guarding the intersections and entrances to Parliament, and in the background  an ominous “tock tock” began to sound. Evidently someone had brought a big hammer to break the pavement into stones to throw.  This single innovative person would change the course of the entire protest.  The clock ticked down.  A dangerous calm gripped the crowd.  Then there was a flurry of red and black flags.  A bloc from the Antiauthoritarian Movement charged ahead, clubs at the ready, clashing into a line of riot cops and trading blows.  It had started.  Soon there was the boom of tear gas, and people ran back, then pushed forward again. A few molotovs were thrown and cops ran around trying to extinguish themselves.  Trash cans, recycling receptacles, and wicker chairs from the luxury Hotel Bretagne on the corner were set aflame, and they burned much longer than the cops.  If only the people had realized that the Big Day comes when we bring it.  We could have used more molotovs, but judging by their scarcity it seemed that only one or two affinity groups had considered it worthwhile to make them.  Fortunately, someone had taken along a hammer.  The results were spectacular.  A thick rain of white rocks pelted the cops for what seemed like an hour.  At the most intense period the rocks kept the police at bay, but in the end it was not enough to drive them off.  They had to be cautious, and try to catch the rocks on their shields, so during the barrage they were kept busy even though they weren’t in much danger with all their armor.  It was the molotovs they were really afraid of, but these were already used up.

With a little bit of tear gas the police were able to push back the main group, separate the march, and arrest a few people.  This really shouldn’t have happened.  A charge might have forced the police back, but nobody dared.  And the rocks, of course, were not a good tool for unarresting somebody—they were just as likely to hit unarmored comrades as the fully protected cops.  There were other targets, however, and it seemed someone had saved up one last molotov.  We saw it sail through the air, perfectly aimed, completing its graceful thirty meter arc to burst into flames directly atop one of the ceremonial guardhouses that stood before Parliament.  The guards, the kind so honorably decorative they had to wear these ridiculous skirts and go around with a silly, stiff-legged march, had to beat a dignified retreat, abandoning their 24-hour vigil at the memorial of the unknown soldier, right at the front of Parliament, for the first time in the history of the current government.  The anarchists cheered.

There were a few hours of restive peace, while the guardhouse burned to a crisp and gas continued to waft through the crowd.  The air tore at one’s nose, lips, and lungs.  People walked around, their faces streaked in maalox to counteract the teargas, or they sat and waited, argued over what to do next, walked forward to throw the occasional rock.  Around six in the evening, after many of the more militant people had gone home, the police attacked in force, beating, gassing, and arresting anyone they could get their hands on.  They put perhaps fifty in the hospital, and arrested dozens of others, bringing the total number of detainees up to 61.  Most of them were students.  About twelve of those were charged with felonies, one with attempted murder, just for fighting the well armored cops.  The media that night said the burning of the guardhouse was sacrilege, and they said the Minister of Public Order should resign because the police were not strong enough.  Many of them said it was a war.  The right wing of the media blamed it on the communists and socialists, saying they protected the anarchists, and of course the communists and socialists flocked to the cameras to blame a small minority, just anarchists, for ruining the movement and acting on their own.

For the most part, the coverage blamed it on a hundred, or even just ten koukoulofori, masketeers—their depoliticized term for the anarchists.  In the US, dissidents often fall all over themselves conforming to this “good protestor, bad protestor” divide, never realizing how much they’re weakening their own position, much less backstabbing allies.  Sanctimoniously they’d say, “see, violence hurts the movement,” without realizing that they’re the ones dividing the movement and siding with the police and the media.  The anarchists in Greece don’t fall into this trap so easily.  Many people still remember the dictatorship, and they understand that desiring freedom goes hand in hand with fighting cops.  That day, the education law was passed, though the politicians had to do it with the smell of teargas in their hallowed halls.  A few of them came out to watch the protest, presumably after voting to screw over the students, but they were sent running back inside by a well aimed bottle rocket.

On Friday, several thousand students and anarchists marched again on Parliament to protest against the police action and support the prisoners.  Among other things, they ironically chanted “We are the ten masketeers” to show their solidarity with the tactics being demonized by the media and the movement leaders.  Along the way, they spraypainted the walls, took revenge on at least half a dozen surveillance cameras, bashing the hell out of them, and they set a large fire in a rich commercial district.

Diadromn

A Greek anarchist newspaper

On Saturday night, coming back from the 17 year anniversary party of the squat Villa Amalais, two of us on a motorbike ran into a group of riot police.  They looked scared as they swarmed us, took us off the bike, separated us, questioned us, and went through my bag.  The two of us probably would have gotten beaten and taken for questioning if I hadn’t been a US citizen: the police, and few others in Greece, like Americans, because of our perceived right wing politics.  Still, it didn’t help that I had a can of spraypaint in my backpack.  Ummm, I’m an artist?  Fortunately we both came up with the same lie, and were sent on our way.  We learned later that about a dozen anarchists that night had caught a squad of the MAT, the hated riot police, and beat them up with sticks and molotovs, hospitalizing two of them for several days.

The same weekend another group firebombed a police station.  On Monday, when they were supposed to give up and go back to school, students began blocking roads throughout the city; they even rushed the courthouse where the authorities were prosecuting the arrestees from the protest, though they were unable to get inside.

And every night there were meetings in the occupied buildings. Meetings that lasted for hours, until 3:00 in the morning or later.  I went to a few of them, while Petros provided occasional translations.  They consisted largely of sharing information and perspectives.  No facilitator, no clear progression, and in the end, hardly any decisions.  Discussion drags on, everybody is smoking.  The air gets thicker, finally it’s saturated, nicotine precipitates out of the atmosphere and starts running down the walls, the people start evolving, we grow gills to keep breathing, drink it up.  At no certain time the meeting ended, perhaps there was some formal conclusion after we walked out or perhaps it kept going, quiet and haphazardly, until there was only one person left in the room, arguing with himself.  At one meeting, the only major decision they came to, after five hours, was not to do a certain thing.  To be fair, they also shared a lot of thoughts that would inform the actions of smaller affinity groups.  It was a culture of action, so things would still get done, but they wouldn’t be as coordinated as they could be.  Many of the anarchists here, in fact, struck me as passive, opining that the student movement would give up soon enough, rather than working out strategies to work with the heavy sense of opportunity that filled the air these days.

As reflected in the nightly news coverage, the conflict had captured the attention of all Greece.  One national news program managed to get in touch with some anarchists and pushed them to come on the air.  None of them wanted to do it, both because they did not trust the media and because they thought they would be portrayed as representing all the anarchists, which was strictly taboo—many anarchists here opposed all contact with the capitalist media.  But they were also seduced by the possibility of getting their point of view, however briefly and poorly edited, to all of Greece, and counteracting the constant dehumanization of the anarchists pursued by the media, on behalf of the police as part of their strategy to justify harsher repression.  It was wonderful to see that in Greece the struggle was not being fought in the media, where it instantly becomes a dead thing, but the culture of aggressive infighting and factionalism probably scared many anarchists away from doing certain things only because it would be unpopular.  Although the mass media need to be abolished, there have also been times when radicals have successfully exploited democratic hypocrisy and conflicts within the elite by using the media on a limited scale.  But whether anarchists decide to avoid the media or not, we face the struggle of building a capacity to communicate with society ourselves.

Yiorgos, one of the people I was staying with, said, “anarchists come up from the ground in Greece.” To a large extent, the culture does not respect authority, and thirty years after the fall of the dictatorship they still carry anti-government sentiments.  They are not at all crippled by pacifism, and there is a strong and conscious effort by anarchists to build a foundation for action.  They organize social centers that stay busy with events of all kinds—music, theater, film screenings, classes, discussion groups, presentations—and many of them  put out their own newspapers.  They are not sequestered to any single subculture, but contain all manner of dress and musical tastes.  Well, maybe not all: I didn’t see any anarchists wearing business suits or fur coats.  But the anarchists here won the support of the surrounding community to a far greater extent than I’ve seen in the US.  I remember in Thessaloniki how one anarchist pointed out a cellphone tower on top of a neighboring residential building.  “That shouldn’t be there.  It can make cancer.  I want to go burn it, but it would be best to talk with the neighbors first, and maybe they will come to burn it with me.  This would be much more powerful.”

Yiorgos and I continued on our tour of the city, talking about the struggle.  He explained Greek culture to me, the history of the movement, and the possibilities before it.  We ended up on the famous trinity of hills above the city: Acropolis, topped by the Parthenon, the temple of wisdom, open only to a select few; Areopagus, the hill of justice and executions, dedicated to the god of war and revenge; and the Orator’s rock where the slaveowners made democracy.  It was a breezy day with the whimsical feeling blowing around that if we just pushed hard enough and kept pushing, the whole flimsy stack of lies would come tumbling down.

8 March Syntagma

Stones cover the street as rioters and cops take a short break

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