Heading west by car from the outskirts of Istanbul, it takes around six hours to reach the Halkidi peninsula in Greece. On the drive out of Istanbul, the surrounding region becomes increasingly impoverished and remains so after crossing the Greek border. Driving along highway route 2, the road roughly follows the coast of the Aegean Sea, sometimes curving inland but eventually returning to the water. Near the town of Asprovalta, a car can exit the highway and proceed down the third finger of the peninsula, passing through the villages of Stavros, Olimpiada, and Stratoni before finally arriving at the village of Ierissos.
The village has been destroyed several times by the Romans, the Venetians, and the Turks. Most recently, it was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1932. After the disaster, a German urban designer was brought in by the Greek government who created a gridlike layout for the new village. To this day, it is the only village in the surrounding area that is designed in such a manner, standing out against the traditionally chaotic and narrow streets. On the hills above Ierissos, the ruins of the previous village are still visible.
To the south-east of the village is the Holy Mountain, a semi-autonomous region controlled by the Greek Orthodox Church. Women are forbidden to enter this area that encompasses nearly all of the third finger of the peninsula. During the second world war, Hitler allowed the Orthodox monks to maintain their autonomy and after the war, five Serbian generals allied with the Nazis fled into the region and became monks. It is unknown who else is hiding there.
Since 2011, the inhabitants of Ierissos have been trying to stop the establishment of a new gold mine in the mountain above their village. All of the surrounding villages still receive their water directly from the creeks and rivers of the mountains. Miraculously, the water is still clean despite centuries of exploitation by various empires.
Two tunnel mines already exist in the surrounding area, but the new one will be an open pit mine as wide as the boundaries of Ierissos. Hellas Gold operates one of the pre-existing mines above the village of Stratoni. Since it began operations, there has already been one overflow of mine waste that has spilled into the sea along the edge of the village. But this is irrelevant when the oldest form of western wealth is buried underneath the mountains. According to the Deputy Energy and Environment Minister Asimakis Papageorgiou, “We can no longer accept this [area] being left unexploited or barely exploited.”
Hellas Gold was recently acquired by Eldorado Gold, a company based in Vancouver, BC. In an effort to pacify the inhabitants of the region, the company has begun dispersing money to the local governments and financing the construction of civic projects. Despite the obvious and visible effects that the gold mine above Stratoni has had upon the coast, the majority of the village supports the company due to the fact that most families have someone who works in the mine. However, the company has been stoking anger in Stratoni against anyone who opposes the mine. The village has Hellas Gold-sponsored loudspeakers that warn the inhabitants of any protest that may occur nearby. The support for the gold mine in the village has reached such insane dimensions that some inhabitants have taken to spray-painting “WORK BEFORE HEALTH” on the walls of the nearby buildings. This village is the opposite of the rebel village of Ierissos.
When the Ierissos villagers first learned that Eldorado wished to dig a new open pit mine, a group constructed a small house in the forest where the mine was proposed. A few people kept the house constantly inhabited through the seasons, burning wood in the stove during the winter and leaving the windows open in the summer. But when the company made its move, the workers from the nearby villages personally destroyed the house before the company and the police sealed off the area. This was the beginning of the current struggle.
All local resistance to the project is centered in Ierissos, with many demonstrations starting at “the stoplight” of the village. After getting coffee and pastries at the nearby cafes, the people converge at this main intersection before getting into caravans that travel up into the mountains. Since the destruction of the forest house, there have been dozens of demonstrations in the woods, most of them involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people. Most of these demonstrations also turn into fights with the police who at this point work for Eldorado, obeying their commands and following their orders. After these fights, dozens of people return to Ierissos with bruises, broken bones, swollen eyes, lacerations, and burns. But in this rebel village they are safe and can recover.
Ierissos is almost completely against the mine and there are only a few people who support it. The authorities have referred to it as a “center of chaos.” However, the village closest to the proposed open pit mine, Megali Panagia, is not entirely against it. Like Stratoni, the village is divided based on how many people work for Eldorado and how many do not. The story is the same for every nearby village and tension has vastly grown between the two sides.
On February 17th, 2013, a group of around 50 people entered the future site of the open pit mine. Wearing balaclavas and equipped with shotguns and molotovs, members of the attack group held two security guards hostage while others destroyed all the mining equipment. Immediately after this attack, the stock price for Eldorado fell by 6 percent. But before any of the mine’s opponents had the time to rejoice, the police raided houses in Megali Panagia and Ierissos. When the police entered the rebel village, the church bells began to ring, signaling for everyone to respond. Unfortunately they were not in time to stop the anti-terrorist police from kidnapping several well-liked villagers in front of their families at gun point.
After they were taken, the villagers began converging on the police and a fight started. Soon the ground was the littered with stones and the air filled with tear gas. Once the police were pushed away, the villagers sealed off the two entrances to the town with barricades and then proceeded to burn down the police station and two police vans in the parking lot. The owner of the building that housed the police station was not jubilant upon seeing the fire, but he was not especially angry either. Currently, there is a black flag hanging over the remains of the station. Since this incident, the police do not enter the village except in large numbers.
Life in the autonomous village continues as it always has. Along the shore, boat builders continue to cut their own lumber underneath corrugated tin roofs. Black flags adorn one of these workshops, blown by the breezes from the sea. The fishing boats they build in these places are similar to the ones they have built for hundreds of years. In the morning, the fishermen leave the harbor of the village, throw their nets, pull them back in, and return with their catch. Between the mountains and the sea, the people of Ierissos could sustain themselves even if everything collapsed around them.
The rebellion against the company and the police has brought all the generations together. Old women have had their ankles broken, old men have made their first molotov cocktails, and children have taken care of their wounded parents and grandparents. Both people from the left and right are together in this village rebellion, ignoring the dictates the political spectrum would otherwise impose upon them. Together, the villagers have torn down stairs to the beach built with company money and created new ones with their own hands. Together, they have refurbished a school and kept it out of the hands of Eldorado, refusing to allow the company to purchase the loyalty of their children. And recently, together, they have organized a concert that brought 5,000 people to the beach and houses of the village.
At the barricades of the village, everyone takes turns keeping it occupied. In the event that the police decide to approach, the church bells will begin ringing without pause. In the winter, when the air was still cold, people at the barricades huddled around fires as night fell, and during these moments, Ierissos was no different than the autonomous village of Cheran in Guerrero, or the recently occupied Gezi Park. In the light of the flames, the eternal power of the barricade manifests itself, connecting these rebels with the insurgents of the Paris Commune and the Planton ԁе Oaxaca. Tying them together is nothing more than the commitment to defend a place and to not back down until either defeat or victory.
Thessaloniki is two hours away from the rebel village. A drive over the mountains and across the plains delivers the traveler to the edge of the metropolis. Near the outskirts, close to the airport, is the Viome, a factory that has been occupied by its workers. Many of the products that it currently manufactures (organic laundry detergent, glue, cleaning supplies, etc.) can be found in most of the squats and social centers in Thessaloniki and Athens.
On her way back from Ierissos, Naomi Klein recently gave a talk at the occupied factory, explaining that the European crisis has been manufactured in order to extract natural resources from the economically weak nation states like Greece, Cyprus, Spain, and Ireland. Her new film and book will explain the situations in autonomous places like the Viome factory and Ierissos and call for a replication of the type of tactics demonstrated there as a concrete way to fight global capitalism.
Posters for her talk at the factory lined the walls of the metropolis in the days preceding it. There is a lot of graffiti and many posters all over the busy city. Some of the posters will lead the curious to events at the Micropolis, a four story social center in the middle of the commercial district. Created by the anti-authoritarian movement, this rented space contains a bar, a kitchen, a print lab, a gym, a day care, a general store, and a space for events and music. From the balcony extends a red and black flag, hanging over the busy shopping district below with its american pop music, perfume, mannequins, and expensive shoes. Micropolis is the biggest social center in Thessaloniki and buzzes with people every day, utilizing all that is offered and maintained by this rented space, standing in contrast to the surrounding area where luxuries are bought and sold while people beg in the streets.
The original name for the city was Therma, the Greek word for malaria, once a common illness in the mosquito-filled marshlands along the sea. Near the rivers that flow down the mountains and through the metropolis, mosquitoes still swarm thickly in the night air. One of these rivers flows by a squatted textile factory named Yfanet, the largest squatted area in the city. Since 2004, the expansive buildings of the old factory have transformed into housing, a show space, a vast BMX park, a library, a bar, and a kitchen. There are over a dozen large fig trees, one of which wraps its branches around an old rusting bus in one of the courtyards. Young people in the neighborhood use the BMX park for entire afternoons and evenings, people come to the weekly bar nights and kitchens, and hundreds pack into the show space. It is one of the explicitly queer spaces in this ancient and traditionally religious city.
On nearly every street is an Orthodox shrine or church. Passersby light candles, make the cross on their chests, or mutter something to pictures of Jesus. Recently, an Orthodox priest called Gay Pride an “unholy and unnatural event” and claimed to have received 19,000 signatures from Thessaloniki residents asking for the event to be canceled. A week after Pride, the police began to arrest transgender women off the street, bring them into the station, and tell them that if they did not “return to normal” they would be arrested for prostitution. Nearly simultaneously, two immigrants were stabbed by fascists, uncommon for a city that has thus far escaped the rise of Golden Dawn. These events reveal that all these actors stand steadfastly in the fascist camp: the church, the fascist hooligans, and the police.
In March of 2013, there were 20,000 people on the streets of the metropolis demonstrating against the Eldorado mine. The authorities tried to spread a rumor that most of these people were actually tourists following a very small march. In the mainstream media, this event was consistently downplayed and dismissed in similar ways. One man who has a large stake in Hellas Gold and the Eldorado project is a media tycoon who owns one of the major television stations. He is one of many capitalists who are exploiting the crisis to their own advantage. With the recent closure of the public ERT television in Athens, the government is making it clear that no one will be allowed to broadcast information that diverges too strongly from the official story.
With the police and the government enforcing the austerity measures on the inhabitants of Thessaloniki, those who are fighting back and becoming autonomous are a true threat. If the rebels can prove to the population that Greek people are not lazy, that work is not more important than health, and that there is a world outside of capitalism, the plans of the economists will begin to crumble. Every day in Thessaloniki, old men and women sell Serbian black market cigarettes in the parks, immigrants wander the streets waiting for their good luck, the bakeries open, store shutters go up, and the buses fill with workers. The alternatives to this daily routine are small and appear irregularly, sometimes expanding, often times encountering extreme resistance and becoming isolated. But glimpses of it appear as constellations on the landscape, pointing the way out of the trap.
Gold. This is what Plato believed ran through the blood of the kings. And now, thousands of years after his death, his student Aristotle’s birthplace is being assaulted in order to supply more life blood to the kings. As young Aristotle left his home in Halkdiki to travel to Athens, he had no idea of what drastic consequences would follow from his education. Together with Plato and his contemporaries, these philosophers taught kings the laws of the universe and advised them during their conquests. Gold is still the life blood of the kings, but now it does not just sit in their vaults. It resides in computers and cell phones, it appears as a fluctuating series of number at stock exchanges, and it orbits the planet in hundreds of satellites. Gold has been the common currency of kings throughout time, but now it has spread itself out through the fabric of capitalist reality.
In Halkidiki, people invoke Aristotle as a reason to not build the gold mine, as if his memory itself would make the company go back on its decision to dig the open pit mine. But this little boy from an ancient village definitively left the land of his birth when he entered the city of Athena. After having extended their empire too far, the Athenians were challenged by the Spartans and lost their war against them. When Aristotle arrived, the metropolis was in a period of defeat and weakness, watching as the Macedonians invaded more of the nearby land. The armies of King Phillip II of Macedon destroyed the village of Aristotle’s birth and enslaved its population. But eventually, because Aristotle had taught his young son Alexander, the king rebuilt the village and returned the slaves to liberty as a favor to the philosopher. Perhaps now, the memory of Aristotle will spare Halkidki from war and pillaging, but if history repeats itself, it will only be after the worst has already been done.