You don't have to walk far in Athens, Greece, to see signs of the local anarchist community: Circle-A symbols are everywhere. In most American cities, that would simply suggest the punk rock kids had gotten their hands on some spray cans. But the Greek left has an active anarchist wing, and it does more than paint its emblems on walls—it one-ups the state by offering its own grassroots social services, from soup kitchens to health clinics.
The center of that anarchist activity, if anarchist activity can have a center, is the neighborhood known as Exarchia. When I visited in June, I found a bohemian district filled with small shops, narrow alleys, and elaborate street art; stenciled slogans denounced fascists and cops and declared the graffitists' solidarity with Kurdish revolutionaries.
Many of the residents' homes are squats: abandoned buildings taken over by urban homesteaders. But the Exarchians' unlicensed reconstruction work goes beyond making homes for themselves. Shuttered buildings around town—here a school, there a hotel—have been transformed into "accommodation centers" for thousands of foreign refugees, with private rooms, collective kitchens, child care services, and a system of self-administration that relies on the refugees' labor rather than government grants.
Such projects have earned the anarchists some grudging respect—The Atlantic, The Guardian, and other outlets have run positive pieces on the refugee centers. But Athens' anarchists typically get more attention for smashing than for building. Exarchia periodically flares up in violence, usually directed at police but sometimes spiraling in other directions. (Greek anarchists have allegedly firebombed banks and other businesses.) Articles about Exarchia routinely claim that cops can't enter the area without setting off a riot.
I can't say I witnessed any riots on my visit. But then again, I didn't see any cops either.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Exarchia".