In an unsolicited e-mail sent to Latitude News, the New York branch of a far-right Greek political party, Golden Dawn, denied that its members tried to attack prominent Greek politician Alexis Tsipras after a speech he gave in Manhattan last week.
So . . . what are Greek neo-Nazis doing in New York? And why are they denying an incident we haven’t yet reported on?
The backstory to Golden Dawn’s presence in the U.S reveals a worrying rise in extremism in Greece and illustrates the potential impact of the Greek American diaspora on politics back in Europe.
In September Latitude News reported on Golden Dawn’s outreach in Queens, which is our best guess as to why we received the following unsolicited message:
“The Golden Dawn of North America is extremely busy organizing and opening chapters all over the United States, and we don’t have time organizing demonstrations against every Mr. Tsipras.”
The statement went on to blame Alan Akrivos, a Greek American, for starting the rumor of an attack. Akrivos had helped organize the talk by Tsipras, Greece’s left-wing opposition leader, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York last Friday.
In an interview with Latitude News, Akrivos says he never accused Golden Dawn of any violence or mischief-making, though he and his fellow organizers did recognize four members of the group in the audience. Akrivos says that one of the Golden Dawn members was “visibly agitated” and tried to approach Tsipras after the session was over.
“He came over in a very insistent way,” Akrivos explains, “saying: ‘I want to ask a question! I want to ask a question!’ We said, ‘You can’t talk to him today.’ We told him to get going. After he stood there for a minute, he retreated. We escorted him out [without the help of security guards]. He was mumbling to himself. He was clearly kind of obsessed with immigrants or whatever his problem was.”
The Greek press, Akrivos says, over-hyped the incident, claiming it was an attempt at physical intimidation. The left-wing Greek paper Eleftherotypia reported that the four Golden Dawn members seemed to be plotting something during Tsipras’ speech and then moved “threateningly” against him. Only a “human wall” of SYRIZA members and the intervention of CUNY security guards prevented further confrontation. But in a statement to Latitude News, a spokesperson for Graduate Center, CUNY confirmed that their security team reported “no incident” at the event.
UPDATE: Latitude News has spoken with several people who were present in the auditorium. None witnessed any altercation or shouting, and all confirmed Akrivos’ rough version of events: one or several members of Golden Dawn tried to approach Tsipras after the event as he talked to a crowd of people, but were rebuffed by the conference’s organizers and left without incident. “If this hadn’t been reported in Greece,” says Stathis Gourgouris, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia, “it wouldn’t even have become an issue at all.” Gourgouris also warned us that Golden Dawn thrives on such publicity. Andreas Kalyvas, an associate professor of politics at the New School, added that the Greek press had only managed to distract everyone from the real story: the content of Tsipras’ speech.
Although there was no violence at the event in New York, Golden Dawn’s members have assaulted people in Greece, especially foreigners. One Golden Dawn MP attacked two female politicians on live national television. Uniformed activists have also attacked immigrant street vendors with, the BBC alleges, police collusion. While Golden Dawn rejects any comparison to Nazism, the party uses a swastika-like design as its symbol and campaigns under the slogan “Rid the land of filth.”
Not the most lovable crew. But in a time of political and economic turmoil, Golden Dawn’s anger is attracting disaffected Greeks who feel their country has been overrun by illegal immigrants and transformed into an impoverished puppet-state of the European Union. The party currently holds 18 of 300 seats in Greece’s parliament.
From Athens to Astoria
Now the party’s leaders want to tap into that disaffection in the wide-ranging Greek diaspora. Reports place Golden Dawn activists in Montreal, Chicago, Melbourne and other cities around the world with Greek immigrant populations.
But Golden Dawn’s decision to open up an office in Astoria, Queens — an historically Greek-American neighborhood — in September 2012 was met with condemnation from many Greek Americans and local Jewish groups. The hacker collective Anonymous quickly crashed the group’s website, which now appears to be up and running once more. The “office” is now wherever the group’s members choose to meet.
“They claim to be growing,” he says, “but in reality they’re not doing much. There is a small section of Greek Americans with a backwards idea of patriotism. Every nationality has it: ‘We’re special, we’re God’s chosen people, there’s a conspiracy against us.’ But the rest of the community is against them.”
In their statement, Golden Dawn called Alexis Tsipras, who leads Greece’s left-wing party SYRIZA, a “rich ‘communist’ . . . [who came to the U.S.] to gain support from the bankers, some intellectual snobs, and some dirty ‘leftists.'”
In his speech at CUNY, Tsipras for his part referred to Golden Dawn as a “Nazi gang.”
Tsipras’ trip to the U.S. was widely perceived as an attempt to soften his left-wing image and make him more palatable to Western leaders as a potential partner if SYRIZA wins the next elections. The party currently has 71 seats in parliament, making it Greece’s second most powerful after the center-right New Democracy. Tsipras, who also spoke in Washington D.C., advocates a U.S.-style stimulus for Greece, where unemployment stands at 26.8 percent, the highest in the EU. For young people it’s an astonishing 60 percent.
Alan Akrivos argues that Golden Dawn is using immigrants, gays and leftists as “scapegoats” for Greece’s problems, much as the Nazis used the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s. He says it’s tragic that Golden Dawn has become a political force in Greece and troubling that their rhetoric is finding even a limited audience in the U.S.
“It’s a scourge, an absolute disgrace,” he says. “Greek Americans over the course of our history have suffered quite a bit of racism: anti-Greek riots in the 20th century, the KKK burning our churches. And these people have the nerve to portray themselves as patriots! At the core of this group is a neo-Nazi organization.”