Anarchy in Exarchia

December 8, 2008

Even the most hardened residents of Exarchia are shocked by the intensity of the violence that has hit this Bohemian district of Athens which has been my home on-and-off for the last 20 years.

As police fought youths this weekend, tear gas hung in the air and even seeped through window cracks, making it hard  to breathe indoors.

Garbage cans were set ablaze, cars were destroyed and barricades were erected.

“It’s never been this bad,” one neighbour shouted at me from his balcony. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”    

Clashes began on Saturday after police shot dead a 15-year-old boy who came from the Athens suburbs to one of the district’s popular cafes.

Exarchia borders on the smart Kolonaki district, but it is certainly not posh itself and it is not for the faint hearted.

Exarchia is a haunt of artists and left-wing intellectuals. Favoured by lawyers, architects and publishers, is it one of the city’s most charming neighbourhoods.

It is also one of its most violent, a stomping ground for anarchists, drug addicts and anyone who likes to challenge authority — a tradition many say stems from the opposition to the 1967-1974 military junta.

“What others call a riot, we call a street party,” one of my neighbours once said.

About two years ago, a public order minister acknowledged it was too dangerous to send officers into the area, which has defied decades of attempts by socialist and conservative governments alike to bring it under control.

The local police station has been fire-bombed repeatedly. Special forces stand on street corners,in full riot gear, many of them guarding the headquarters of the opposition socialist PASOK party.

Two of these special guards were involved in the shooting incident. This touched a raw spot for thousands of disaffected Greek youths who say they see no future in a country lacking meritocracy and blighted by decades of scandals, and anger spread to other Greek cities.

“In a typical Exarchia incident, someone shot a 15-year-old over a verbal vendetta,” said the bollywood-greece blog, which started a Facebook page for the dead boy. “The state has broken down and some ‘sheriffs’ are imposing their own law.”

One policeman has been charged with murder. His colleague has been charged with abetting him. The policeman said he fired in the air. Witnesses said he took aim and fired after a verbal altercation with a group of youths.

Stelios Papathemelis, a former socialist public order minister, said: “This tragic incident and its repercussions bring up again the question – When will the state finally put an end to the notorious ‘State of Exarchia’?”

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