Frustrated by a broken system, anarchists battle for a new way of life in Greece

Anarchist banners among those of other far-left groups hang outside the Philosophy Building at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. 
Photo by Bridget Peery

Story by Cody Mello-Klein ·

THESSALONIKI, Greece – On what should be a calm, warm night in Thessaloniki’s city center, the streets are blocked off and the police are out in force. The anarchists are out tonight. Dressed in dark colors and carrying massive banners with arched red lettering, close to 100 Thessaloniki anarchists march down Egnatia, a main street that dissects this normally peaceful seaside city, chanting in Greek, “Throw fascists in the depths of the well.”

The crowd is nearly at the Arch of Galerius, an ancient landmark at the center and the designated endpoint of the protest, when five figures in black hoodies creep out of the crowd, light their Molotov cocktails and throw the incendiaries at a police motorcycle. Fire covers the vehicle and bystanders rush away, screaming, as the loud pops of tear gas grenades fire off behind them.

Images like this on the nightly news in Greece have helped to transform anarchism, a philosophy rooted in offering freedom from oppression, into a political boogeyman. In fact, among those in Thessaloniki’s growing anarchist movement, explosives and extravagant acts of violence are likely to elicit as many eyerolls and arguments as they are cheers and chants. While violence, revolution and anti-capitalist sentiments remain at the core of anarchism, in Thessaloniki anarchists are starting to use their ideology not to destroy society but to offer constructive alternatives to it.

“They’re actually providing social services to populations like refugees,” said Andreas Takis, a professor of law and political philosophy at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.  “[They want] a holistic social structure of sociability and social services that lets it exist apart from the rest of society.”

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111 Egnatia, a building occupied by nihilist anarchists on the street of Egnatia in Thessaloniki, is closed off from anyone not identifying with the movement.
Photo by Bridget Peery

Even though many people assume anarchism is about destabilizing society and destroying the state – anarchism’s main focus is an anti-state society – anarchists are striving to create a new social order that can exist without masters or oppressors.  

I would describe [anarchism] as a social movement whose goal is freedom in society,” said Wayne Price, an author and anarchist scholar from New York City. “It aims to end capitalism, the state, and all other forms of exploitation and oppression.”

However, Price clarified, defining anarchism can be difficult. Like any political ideology, anarchism is a spectrum of ideas. Methods vary according to each anarchist collective, or small clusters that operates independent of other groups, but across Thessaloniki those collectives are very much focused on localized change first.

“Leftists have parties, anarchists have collectives,” said Takis. “[In Thessaloniki] there’s much more concern with governance of local affairs.”

Living free

All anarchists believe in creating a horizontally organized direct democracy, a system that unlike most forms of democracy runs bottom-up, not top-down, with no elected leadership, making decisions and living free from capitalism and a state-run society. Group assemblies, where decisions are truly made by and for the people, provide the basic framework for a self-organized anarchist collective. It’s an oftentimes vague and utopian vision of society, but it’s this decentralized, horizontal organization that sets anarchists apart from most left-leaning political groups in Greece, including Syriza, the leftist party in power, which still operate with state power and in a capitalist system that oppresses people by limiting their free will.

“[It’s] a society of freely associated humans, organized in voluntary organizations and communities, to carry out all social tasks in freedom,” Price said. “Decentralized, directly-democratic, face-to-face workplace councils and neighborhood assemblies would manage their own affairs as much as possible.”

Anarchism has had a presence in Greece since at least the 1970s, but the kind of anti-state sentiment that developed after the economic crisis meant many were looking for political alternatives. It has taken on a particular identity among active Thessaloniki anarchists, who number between 1,000 and 1,500, according to the mayor’s office.

The weekly farmer’s market for local producers hosted at the Scholeio squat.
Photo by Cody Mello-Klein

Occupying abandoned buildings – or squatting – remains a primary strategy for anarchists in Thessaloniki. Although the exact number is unknown to the local government, there are seven major squats in the city’s center alone.

Squatting, a strategy that southern European anarchists have employed since the 1980s, is a way to repurpose property and society itself. Squats are more than just abandoned buildings that young people are sitting in; they are social centers, places where this particular group of people can talk about issues and organize protests and demonstrations.

“The purpose [of squatting] was to house the sub-proletarian youth and of course the fermentation of militarized ideas,” said Takis.

Scholeio, a school in Thessaloniki that was owned by the Greek Orthodox Church before it was shut down in 2004, is just one building that has become a social space for anarchists, anti-authoritarians and other radical thinkers. Not wanting the building to go to waste, the group occupied it in 2010.  

“[Scholeio is] by the society, for the society. It’s not just a squat that someone took over for themselves,” explained an anarchist at Scholeio, who, like all anarchists in this story, identified himself only with a first name, Vasilis. “We try to take our lives into our own hands and try to free ourselves from the capitalist chains.”

Walk through Scholeio’s black iron gate and it’s possible to find a market stocked with organic honey and biodegradable soap, or a makeshift dentist office.

But anarchists are not only repurposing the city’s physical space, the are using the city’s existing infrastructure – specifically the universities – to grow their movement.

Take it to the classrooms

Thessaloniki’s massive student presence provides an even more potent environment for anarchists. With around 80,000 students, Thessaloniki has the largest student population in the country. Not only do these schools provide spaces for intellectual thought and the fermentation of political ideas, they represent a history of student-led social movements.

Anarchists in Thessaloniki cite the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising as the tipping point for their movement. After the right-wing Junta dictatorship, which took power in 1967 and banned student elections and instituted a forced draft, a series of student protests took place. The protests reached their peak when students and anarchists at Athens Polytechnic went on strike and occupied the law school. The military sent a tank into the university to batter down the gate, and the ensuing clash between police and students resulted in the deaths of 24 civilians, including three students. This, along with the 2008 police shooting of 15-year-old student Alexandros Grigoropoulos that led to worldwide riots and protests, is an important point of reference in the Greek anarchist mythos.

That history is still relevant today. Police are still extremely reluctant to enter public university campuses and often won’t engage with anarchists or criminals if they run to a campus to hide.

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Common space in the center of the Philosophy Building on Aristotle University in Thessaloniki.
Photo by Bridget Peery

“It’s more of a tradition than a law,” said Leonidas Makris, advisor to progressive Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris.

However, this unofficial agreement between police and public universities is almost never broken. That means public universities like Aristotle University, the largest in the city, have become staging grounds – a place where, after protests, anarchists occupy the philosophy building. On a campus, anarchists can hide in plain sight with no worries of police coming in with tear gas or riot gear.

But squats like Scholeio and the occupied factory Yphanet are also starting to offer anarchists places to organize.

At weekly general assemblies, participants in the collective can sign up to teach lessons on anything from martial arts to French. No one lives in the school. Anarchists take shifts working in the bar, kitchen or market, as well as doing maintenance work around the squat. Every service provided or item sold  at Scholeio comes from the collective work of everyone involved.

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Terra Incognita, a building occupied by anarchists near the Roman Forum in Thessaloniki.
Photo by Bridget Peery

Direct democracy isn’t perfect though. Vasilis and many other anarchists at Scholeio still think of the squat as an experiment. And not all anarchists in Thessaloiki agree with the Scholeio way. Some squats, like 111 Egnatia and Terra Incognita, two abandoned apartment buildings currently occupied by more militant nihilist anarchists, remain closed off to the public and media. During multiple encounters with both 111 Egnatia and Terra Incognita, members of the squats refused to be quoted and reacted with distrust or outright hostility.

Tentative support

Despite the complicated nature of the movement, the mayor’s office claims it remains open to anarchism.

“We’re not against these types of movements as long as they’re not violent,” Makris said. “Different groups are involved in a civil society and we try to listen to these groups.”

Violence is still a tool in anarchists’ revolutionary arsenal. Mailed parcel bombs, like those discovered by police in Athens on March 21, and planted explosives like those used by anarchist group Conspiracy of Fire Cells in 2013 to car bomb Maria Stefi, the director of a high-security prison in Athens, are still common tactics. But the question of when and how to use violence remains a divisive issue among anarchists in Thessaloniki.

“In principle and theory, there is not a clear division between anarchists themselves but the most important distinction is…the strategic use of violence,” Takis said.

For some anarchists, these militant tactics aren’t violence; they’re antiviolence.

“Antiviolence is like self defense,” explained Jerry, a nihilist anarchist. “It’s holy almost, sacred…We have to protect refugees, poor people.”

But it’s a delicate and sometimes blurry line to walk. More often than not it’s an issue of representation.

“There are always people who use the ideology to do things they just want to do and it ends up reflecting badly on us,” said Steven, a Thessaloniki anarchist unaffiliated with any collective, referring to lifestyle anarchists.

A collection of anarchist graffiti from throughout Thessaloniki. Photos by Bridget Peery.

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Themida, an anarchist in Scholeio, acknowledged that the division isn’t always clear, but she admits that lifestyle anarchists have a way of dropping away from the movement.

“[They] don’t really want to be part of the revolution,” Themida said. “That’s why you see people that are 18 to 24 that go to university, get a job and drop it.”

Giannis, a reformed anarchist who now drives a cab in Thessaloniki full-time, was an active anarchist in Thessaloniki in the late 1980s. He believed in the movement, loved having philosophical debates and organizing protests. But his life changed.

“I used to be an anarchist, but you know I have a family now,” Giannis said. “I started working more. Plus anarchists now, I don’t like them. Anarchists used to idealistic.”

For Giannis, the impulsive acts of violence started to eclipse the ideology and potential for social change that anarchism offers.

That idealism hasn’t totally disappeared. Athenian anarchists may be using violent spectacle to draw the ire of the state, but in Thessaloniki the squats remain a practical outlet for anarchism.

Anarchists still go to protests and demonstrations in order to pledge solidarity with causes like workers rights and environmental protection. But like anarchists at other squats like Yphanet and Mundo Nuevo, Scholeio is more interested in providing free, direct democratic alternatives to the state. It’s a local, small-scale approach that starts with educating people about alternative ways of living. For Vasilis, that’s as good a place to start as anywhere.

“People [in Thessaloniki] are starting to participate in social spaces,” Vasilis said. “I’m hoping people start thinking of alternative ways of thinking and living in a capitalist system.”

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