City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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11
Jan2013

“TAKE EVERYTHING”

Even though Christmas decoration was much more modest this year in Athens, still one could see on Omonoia Square an odd imitation of the natal scene, with plastic statues dressed in supposedly Biblical costumes, surrounded by Palm Trees. Until a few years ago, the mayors of Athens were proudly organising big fiestas on New Year’s eve, and were advertising the city’s Christmas tree as the tallest one in Europe.

Perhaps as one expects, Athenians’ mood was not lifted much from that decoration. The noise of the cars speeding around the giant roundabout (that Omonoia Square is) combined with a huge crowd of unemployed people in front of the job centre (ΟΑΕΔ) at the beginning of Stadiou Avenue dominate the rhythms in that part of the city during January morning. Along Stadiou, once a thriving commercial street, within the last year almost half of the shops are shut down, while the ones working are empty of clients with just a few sales personnel standing next to the piles of clothing. “People expect the big sales in a few days” a smiling sales woman in a big shop explained to me when I asked what happened to the customers “It was also Christmas and people did their shopping earlier” she added behind a tight and stressed smile. However, the deserted shop across the street said another story in just two words written on a huge yellow sign on its window: “TAKE EVERYTHING”. Another big poster under it states: “CLOSING DOWN”. 

The size of the big clothing shop I am in is disproportionately big for the three people dispersed on the hundreds sq metres floor, I wonder how many of her colleagues were fired the last few months and how much her salary was reduced. Official unemployment in October 2012 was almost 26.8%, from 19.7% one year earlier. Many of the employees who manage to keep their jobs these days, they are getting paid 40% and 50% less in comparison to one year ago. The new employment laws in fact cancelled minimum wages, while there is no more legal requirement for employers to agree with unions on payment. The retail sector was one of the first to apply the new labour strategies, years ago, but now they are legitimised even further. These days company managers invite the employees asking them to sign new lower paid contracts - in those cases where contracts are indeed available. Otherwise as they claim the business will have to shut down and so everyone will lose their jobs in a time that jobs are not any more available.

One of the many new scandals is linked with the leak of taxation forms of some of the most famous and richest businessmen of the country, it seems like the most “wealthy” of them earned as a physical person just 30,000 last year… Altogether the state’s budget for 2013 expects 44,3 billion euro from taxation, only 1.5 billion will come from legal persons, namely companies, the rest of the money will be taken by physical persons, including unemployed people. 

However, the Greek state apparatus is not only busy sorting out the financial emergencies, the state never sleeps in this corner of the Mediterranean and deals with every emergency. For example, since August 2012 when the sun has set and many shops close down for the night, the area of Omonoia sees one of the largest police operations the city has experienced recently. This is the operation Xenios Zeus, ironically or as provocation, named after the ancient Greek God of hospitality. Xenios Zeus targeted exclusively migrants walking in the centre of Athens, detaining hundreds every night in order to check their documents. Between August 2012 and November 24, 2012 within the framework of Xenios Zeus a total of 54,751 “foreigners” were detained in Athens city centre, 3,996 of them were arrested because they were lacking the proper documents while just 33 were arrested for breaking other laws.

Walking around Omonoia today one can notice a very obvious decrease in the number of migrants present there in comparison to six months ago. But migrants are not the only casualties of the Greek state of emergency. Squatters are the other enemy within of the Greek state at the time of crisis. On December 2012 Villa Amalias, a 20 year old squat was evicted by the police. Villa Amalias was a school abandoned for almost two decades before squatters occupied it in 1990, maintaining it and making it a living space and open social centre. Yesterday, on 09/01/2013, the squatters re-occupied the building for a few hours, before special forces of the police re-evicted the squat and arrested the 93 occupiers, charging them with felonies for having their faces covered. Yet they did not really have their faces covered. The law that turns any crime committed with a covered face into a felony came into being a few years ago, in fact in order to ban protest. One of the main anti-protest tactics of the Greek Police is the en-masse use of powerful tear gas, usually thrown into the crowd so demonstrators who try to protect themselves from poisonous gases covering their face in fact are risking to be charged with felony. The problem is that there is no evidence other than police officer’s testimonies about a person’s covered face or not and this in that case is enough. 

Villa Amalias was housing a print press run by Rotta Collective. Rotta was printing mainly political posters that cover the walls of central Athens. Villa also had a small concert hall where to a great extent the Athenian Punk scene of the 1990s was shaped. More recently, the squatters have protected the neighborhood from racist attacks that occur so often in Athens these day. In fact, that part of the city in the night often times is loomed by Neo-Nazi gangs who do more or less what the police is doing during the Xenios Zeus operation, but in a more informal –and often much more violent- manner.

But a few hours after the re-eviction of Villa Amalias on the afternoon of 9/01/2013 police, in a show of force, evicted another large central Athenian squat, the Skaramaga squat a few blocks away from Villa Amalias. Skaramaga squat has a different story from Villa Amalias. It is a historical offspring of the December’s 2008 revolt. Also run by a collective, it has a very rich library, large rooms where talks, film screenings and other events were organised along with communal kitchen. It also housed the only artificial climbing wall in central Athens, while Yoga lessons were provided twice per week, to mention but a few of the activities, all these of course gratis. From time to time the squats would organise benefit events to get some money for maintenance, but otherwise it was located outside the commercial nexus. Certainly Skaramaga squat has been one more pole of anti-racist actions in central Athens, tonight guarded by masked police officers.

Somebody recently laughed when they heard that the current project is on public spaces in the city of crisis: “Athens will soon have no public and no spaces, they will take everything away”, he added.

Link to statement by the 93 arrested at Villa Amalias from inside the police headquarters

 

by Dimitris Dalakoglou

 

 

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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...