As I walked down Athinas Street one Saturday night last month, getting some air after dinner in a lovely little restaurant in the Prisi district, I noticed a commotion. It appeared that youngsters were bustling to enter a music venue, perhaps a heavy metal gig. Curious, I continued, whereupon I soon discovered I was mistaken.
A group of 50 or so, most in their twenties, was spilling onto the street and blocking traffic. Most were dressed in black and a few wore bandannas wrapped around their faces. Many, the majority, carried baseball bat length sticks. Something was going on and I’d strolled into the middle of it. The youngsters seemed elated. A few were spray painting slogans on a shop’s security grill. They jigged up and down as they highlighted key words. When the messages were complete a cheer arose.
A handful of onlookers had stopped to watch. I was holding a map and my iPhone. Without thinking I raised my phone to capture the strange scene. As I did so a large bearded man with a barrel chest glared and shook his fist to indicate I should stop. Realising it is not the best idea to upset mobs clutching sticks while on a weekend break, I put down my phone. “Tourist,” I said. He glared again. The group continued on their way.
On reflection, I had been naïve to film the mob. But after the adrenaline of the moment dissipated, a wider reflection came to mind. The troubles of Greece are well documented. Youth unemployment is dreadful, affecting more than 45 per cent of those between 15 and 24, and the consequences of the 2009 economic collapse continue to play out. Austerity is sadly part of everyday life.
The flourishing anarchist movement is all part of this sad mix. Many in Athens live in the Exarcheia district, a short walk north of Prisi. Riot police buses wait on the edge of this graffiti-covered neighbourhood 24 hours a day ready to step in should trouble flare (although no police appeared close by on Athinas Street). One local told me Exarcheia is as good as lawless.
That is the background. But the reasons behind the frustration are almost irrelevant. What struck me most about the scene was its sheer normality. Locals simply walked on by as the youths clattered their sticks and chanted. Most shops bore slogans on their security grills. What I had witnessed had been nothing unusual.
Yet the black garbs and sticks were sinister: violence hung in the air. Had I continued filming, I would have been in trouble. That much was clear. It was both eerie and unnerving. There I was, in the capital of a European country (one that invented democracy, no less), and un-policed gangs were roaming the streets. All part of the city’s day to day life.
It did not matter to me that they were probably left-leaning, rather than right-wing “brown shirts”. They were thugs being thuggish, and they were threatening and in control. The excitement of the mob was tangible. It was caught up in the moment, ready for action. In the cradle of civilisation – in a neighbourhood Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would have known well – civility was in short supply.
It left a bitter taste after a very good meal.
- The “lovely little restaurant” was Karamanlidika, by the fruit market in Prisi (karamanlidika.gr, 1 Sokratous Street).
PICTURES: graffiti in Exarcheia, Athens