“As if it’s actually called Beaver,” says a friend as we walk to the lesbian co-operative café-bar in Athens, Greece. Yes, it actually is called Beaver, and it’s an institution for the Athenian queer community. She’s open day and night, though she’s in her prime just after sunset, as the moon starts to creep up behind the Acropolis.
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Tonight, like most nights, Beaver’s courtyard is filled with people – about 80% queer women – sipping frosty steins of Alpha beer and diving into Greek salads coated in thick balsamic vinegar and local olive oil. The bar was created – and named – by a group of eight women “lesbians and feminists… who used to play basketball together,” one of the founding members, Maria T, tells GO. The name is part nod to the hard work involved in its construction; “we created this place ourselves, we built the bar, painted the walls,” Maria T says, “just like the animal; it works a lot, by itself, making its own house.” And then there’s the other meaning, the North American slang version, which no reader of GO Mag needs me to spell out.
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Inside, an ever-expanding family of stuffed and ceramic beavers greets you at the door, alongside ubiquitous ‘Please Wear A Mask’ signage and pamphlets for community yoga. The tiny kitchen and bar merrily churn out small-plated miracles, with most products bought in economic solidarity from Syn Allois co-operative.
Beaver has always been cool, chic, DIY-minimal in aesthetic, but something happened during the lockdown. She looks rejuvenated, streamlined and brighter: like Beaver spent lockdown juice cleansing and aligning her chakras.
“Obviously, lockdown itself was difficult,” says another Beaver owner, Maria K (I promise not all the Beaver team are called Maria). The second lockdown, which started in November 2020 and continued until May in Athens, “was far more difficult, it was longer and had a series of detrimental psychological, social and financial effects,” she tells GO. “[I]t was much harder to cope with the indefinite [nature] of the situation, being constantly on hold for the opening.” With no customers to feed and water, and with the Beavers locked in their dam for most of the pandemic, it was a good opportunity to make “renewals and adjustments,” says Maria K, gesturing to the smoothing out of rough edges around the venue.
“Overall, Beaver is good after Corona,” she says. “The atmosphere is different but at the same time feels as if not a single day has passed. The main difference is the precautionary measures against Covid, like not using indoor space if you’re unvaccinated, not being able to hold events like book presentations and parties.”
Though the parties have stopped, the tantalizing music continues to gush from Beaver’s sound-system: Cher, Sade, Róisín Murphy, Robyn, Mel C. It’s an exclusively femme playlist: indiscriminate in genre, sky-high in caliber. You’ll be lip-syncing to Kylie Minogue’s “Better The Devil You Know” one moment, then bopping along to Björk’s “Big Time Sensuality” the next.
The tunes are there, the cocktail shakers rattle like maracas, the stage is set for a dance party, but in lieu of dancing dykes, the dance floor holds hanging t-shirts and tote bags immortalizing and calling for justice for Zak Kostopoulos, a Greek-American activist for the LGBTQ+ community and those with HIV. Kostopoulos was beaten to death by members of the public and police in broad daylight in central Athens three years ago. His tragic passing haunts Beaver’s dance floor, as it haunts Athens’ queer community to this day.
Outside, on the terrace draped in fairy lights and vines, queer women are deep in conversation. Nightlife here may be different now – more tracksuit, less catsuit – but the new pace seems well suited to Athenian nocturnal sensibilities: people constantly roll cigarettes, drink alcohol or, more likely, coffee, and converse with intention that looks to dive deep into the pounding heart of socio-political life. Earwig for long enough and you’ll bear witness to conversations on freedom, existentialism, fascism, the refugee crisis, the border with Turkey, the fact that Greece isn’t quite the West, nor is it Middle East, a buffer, a hybrid in the middle.
At my table sits an amalgamation of Athenians – a criminology student, a teacher, a waitress sipping an Irish coffee, an economist from a feminist think-tank, a tour guide fluent in seven languages and a lawyer specializing in refugee rights – all acquaintances from the scene. The table’s conversation soon turns to Zak Kostopoulos, the activist whose memory sways from hangers on Beaver’s dance-less dance floor.
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On the afternoon of September 21st 2018, two men initiated a brutal assault on Kostopoulos, relentlessly kicking him as he lay defenseless on the ground. The men claimed he was robbing a jewelry store; according to eye-witnesses and footage from the scene, this is a complete falsehood. Multiple videos from passersby then depict police officers arriving at the scene en masse. Upon finding Kostopoulos, lying bloodied on the ground, they proceed to verbally and physically abuse him, kicking, kneeling and violently handcuffing his limp and lifeless body. Kostopoulos was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital later that afternoon.
Six people have been charged with inflicting fatal bodily harm – a charge all deny – and each faces up to 10 years in prison. According to Amnesty International, for Kostopoulos’ family (and many members of the queer community) this charge is inadequate, and a criminal complaint has been filed, asking for the two civilians and all nine police officers involved to be charged with homicide.
“They started the trial a few weeks ago; six men on trial, four of them are police officers. After three years of nothing, nobody in jail, all free,” says the teacher I’m sitting with, referring to the delays in the trial due to Covid-restrictions, while a little sandy Alopekis snoozes on her lap.
“But they were surely suspended?” asks the feminist economist.
“Suspended, yes, but they’re out, living their lives, going to the supermarket, having dinners with their families.”
“And there are videos, at least three full, detailed videos, showing how Zak was killed, beaten in the middle of the day by a group of men and the police,” states the Irish coffee-drinking waitress.
“The most depressing thing for me,” says the criminology student, “the thing that leaves me feeling most empty… is that the whole system tried to hide the murder. The media immediately tried to insult his memory, framing him as a junkie, drug-user, a thief, before the coroner had even revealed anything about Zak.” Indeed, Amnesty International highlights that the initial reporting of the case was “filled with stigmatizing remarks and the reproduction of fake news.”
“He wasn’t a ‘good victim,’” says the refugee rights lawyer, curling her air-quotes. “He was proudly and loudly queer… an activist, HIV-positive.”
“The toxicology report came out and there was nothing in his system, no drugs, no alcohol, nothing. But the damage had been done already,” says the Irish coffee drinker. “The Greek population had already inhaled this negative image of him.”
“Such little effort was made by the authorities as well,” says the criminology student, now in a more heated tone. “The crime scene was literally cleared before evidence was taken, the police didn’t check CCTV, they said they couldn’t find witnesses; the whole thing seems so wrong, so corrupt!” she says.
Forensic Architecture, a research agency based in London that investigates human rights violations, were hired by Kostopoulos’ family in 2019. The agency collated video evidence and 3D modeling technology to demonstrate multiple gaps in the investigation, drawing attention to glaring question marks and suspicious circumstances surrounding Kostopoulos’ murder, which suggest something more insidious and premeditated at work.
“They kicked him to death on the street,” says the teacher with the Alopekis. “Even if he was everything they lied about him being – even if he was stealing or high or whatever – to out-number and beat someone to death as he tried to run away.”
The conversation pauses as one of the Beaver team drops off a martini, and clears empty plates. “There was a demonstration the other week, when the trial started,” says the Irish coffee drinker. “I couldn’t go. Not again, I feel vulnerable and weak to do this all the time. I’ve gone to so many protests.’
“I didn’t go either,” says the teacher. “I’m tired of always demonstrating and nothing changing.”
They are likely not alone in their exhaustion. According to Amnesty International, countless demonstrations demanding justice for Kostopoulos have been held across Greece and Europe.
“I think it’s necessary,” says the student. “We must continue to show that we are watching, fighting, surviving.”
Contemplative silence sinks into Beaver’s courtyard as the moon prowls higher into the starry night’s sky. “Missing” by Everything But The Girl appropriately permeates through the bar as we mask up to pay inside. I am grateful for the safety of this space, for the community it contains, for those late night conversations with strangers that make you feel aware, awake and part of something. Fairy lights twinkle on the ‘Justice for Zak’ lino-cut t-shirts. His memory holds court in Beaver, as it will continue to hold court in Athens’ queer scene, until justice is done.
Beaver Cooperativa, Vasiliou Tou Megalou 46Α, Athina 118 54