When 57 people were killed in the train crash near Tempi, Greece on February 28, protests erupted around the country. This is no bad luck or a defective wagon issue: many consider the crash to be the expected result of 15 years of austerity that devastated the country’s economy and public services. While public transportation in Greece has become a life-threatening hazard, Exarchia, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Athens, plans to replace its main square with a new underground train station, threatening its existing social bonds. Exarchia has turned into a crude representation of government presence accompanied by increasingly violent encounters between local inhabitants and the police. Public services are not only failing the people, but are actively, and violently, functioning against them. Arts of the Working Class spoke with the No Metro at Pl. Exarchion assembly about the neighborhood’s solidarity against the construction of the train station, gentrification, and the austerity measures that have snowballed into the criminalization of protests.
Can we start with the history of the neighborhood of Exarchia in Athens and your positioning within its history of uprising?
The universities around the neighborhood created a friendly environment for bookshops and bookbinders, printing houses, theater schools, students, music lovers, and all art seekers who gathered to discuss, exchange ideas, and find new creative paths. People who did not fit into the political system found Exarchia to be the open space where their different views could turn into action. Nowadays, Exarchia is famous for its restlessness, its solidarity with those in need, and its political venues that help us all to create movements against social and economic violence.
Yet a new train station is planned for Exarchia. Why are you opposing it, and how do you think it will affect the social fabric of the neighborhood?
The Greek government has always sought to “control” Exarchia, and therefore, its inhabitants. For years, the government has cultivated a narrative of criminal activity in the neighborhood to legitimize increasing police presence here. This time, the constructed underground train station is part of a story about bringing “law and order” to its surroundings. This station, which is already surveilled by police forces around the clock, will replace the only public square in Exarchia. It is the only free green space where we can gather, meet in case of emergencies, and where children can play.
But now, it will be a construction site for more than a decade. The result will be an imposing station with no trees for oxygen or shade in a city like Athens, which reaches 40 ºC during the summer. It's clear to us that the intent behind planning a huge station in this very small square, where other means of public transportation are five minutes away by foot, is simply to destroy the alternate way of living we have in Exarchia. Political places, squats, self-organized medical centers, and collective kitchens do not serve the government’s dream of profits and therefore must be eradicated. Many “investors” have already bought buildings around the square in order to advertise luxury apartments, forcing locals who rent apartments to leave if they cannot afford the extravagant rise in rent. Tourism is the motivation for all of these processes: gentrification occupies Exarchia and forces students, working class people, activists, and whoever dares to live differently to scatter elsewhere. With those people gone, the conscience and the characteristics of this area will also disappear, and with them, the history and the memory of all social struggles that react to the state’s austerity.
The recent Tempi train crash has been attributed to the austerity measures and related budget cuts to public companies. How should protestors struggle against state policies?
The murder of 57 civilians at Tempi revealed the crime of privatization in pure light. The shock we felt was not only because the crash happened, but because we expected that something like this would eventually happen. As early as a month before the crash, rail workers’ unions were warning us about the lack of security in train services. Despite that, their previous strikes were pronounced illegal by the government and their paid journalists, who strongly suggested that protests would result in market disorder. But general strikes and protests are the only way to push any government to listen and step back. It is our duty to demand justice for those people who died because of the state’s negligence and greed, and to prevent further privatization.
Considering this in relation to the soon-to-be-built Exarchia train station, it is astounding that new train stations are being constructed while old ones are never maintained. Why do you think public money has been so misplaced?
This is exactly what troubles us, especially if you take into consideration that the crashing trains had been rejected by the other countries for being “non-functional,” but were bought by the Greek government anyway. Our politicians’ greed has no limit, even if people’s lives are at stake. Public money is how politicians grow their fortunes while misleading the public with financial scandals.
Is there a general feeling of anxiety regarding potential violent clashes between the population of Exarchia and the police?
The presence of the police enforces the safekeeping of the station, as the state knows that the neighborhood opposes its building; it is not planned based on the public needs of the area but on the private profit of the contractors. Records show that police presence in Exarchia invites violence. It is no longer just a feeling of anxiety, it is our reality. Children are afraid to pass by the square because they fear finding their parents checked by fully armed cops. Visitors are hesitant to come for a drink due to possible fights with the police, who often harass women and make sexist comments. We never know if replying to their provocative remarks will lead us back home or to the police station.
It's been 15 years since the financial crash that spiraled Greece into never-ending austerity measures. Do the recent protests regard the “re-development of the neighborhood” as a direct result of EU policy?
I don’t think that the EU cares that much for Exarchia, although they definitely opened the gate for uncontrolled investments in order to profit from it. The “re-development of the neighborhood” is part of a general plan for the development of tourism that is presented as the only possible remedy for the economy and as the only “solution” for the country. The current construction fever running through Greece is transforming the historical center of Athens as the “new tourist destination,” and aspires to make its suburbs the “Athenian Riviera.” This is a direct result of the EU’s austerity measures imposed on Greece, and their impact has multiplied in the past four years since the election of the current right-wing party, Nea Demokratia. Privatization and dismantling the social state, or what is left of it, is their official program. Gentrification is the result of capitalist greed and is a transnational phenomenon that violently changes cities throughout Europe and the world. However, limited economic and political resistances facilitate the pace and intensity of gentrification. Austerity measures in Greece have deprived the population of 25% of the GDP in less than a decade, more than what was lost during World War II. This violent impoverishment and the political apathy it has generated has had a vertical effect on resistance against oppressive policies.
Is there a tradition of protests that influences your actions?
Exarchia has always been at the center of protests in Greece after the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974. It is a "non-quiet" area, and we have the feeling that every generation here passes on the torch to the next one. There will always be a place where alternatives can become reality; where the desire for a better world has a place to grow.
The assembly No metro station at Exarchia Square started in May 2021 from people of the neighborhood.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover, fig.1, fig.2
@ No metro station at Exarchia Square / Όχι μετρό στην πλ. Εξαρχείων