This photo was posted to the Golden Dawn's first website before the site was taken down by hackers.
On the evening of March 23, I found myself in the back of the Taverna Greek Grill, a small, family restaurant in Howard Beach, Queens, picking at a plate of tzatziki and pita bread. I’d come to the boonies of New York City’s outer boroughs to meet a band of Hellenic fascists known as the Golden Dawn.
Initially, I contacted the group out of a sick fascination—the kind you might have with a pus-inflamed wound: Your eyes fixate on it, even though your stomach tells you to turn away. Besides, as events in Greece have illustrated, if one doesn't keep a careful eye, the infection can spread and sometimes turn deadly.
Politics in Greece have become increasingly polarized. The country's economy collapsed under the weight of a sovereign debt crisis when the world financial meltdown broke in 2008. Since then, Greece has endured a series of unpopular austerity measures imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that have only exacerbated poverty and social unrest.
The drama has played out with general strikes, clouds of tear gas engulfing large demonstrations, and the ascension of political parties that stand on radical ends of the spectrum. Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, went from winning 3.9 percent at the polls in Greece's 2004 general election to receiving 26.9 percent of the vote in 2012, becoming the country's leading opposition party.
In the shadow of the country’s economic malaise, the right-wing movement of the Golden Dawn rose in opposition to Syriza and pretty much everyone else. Their party symbol is a Greek meander, which looks an awful lot like a swastika. Since its ascension, the group has been tied to an uptick in deaths and beatings of immigrants, gays, and leftists.
On September 17, 2013, about 30 Dawn thugs surrounded anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fissas (Killah P.) in an Athens café and stabbed him to death. Nineteen leading members of the party were arrested and charged with running a criminal organization. Still, with widespread reports of the Dawn infiltrating Greek police forces, questions remain over just how thick the blood runs between law enforcement and the fascists.
Despite their renowned penchant for violence, polls have shown that more than 11 percent of Greeks support the party, and their spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, has stated his desire to spread cells “wherever there are Greeks.” So far they have established branches in Melbourne, Montreal, Nuremberg, and New York City.
Before a meeting with the Dawn's New York cell could be arranged, a guy calling himself Georgio interrogated me over the phone. After my lengthy cross-examination, Georgio started to open up.
I asked about his accent. “I was expecting someone who sounded Greek,” I said.
“I don't have a 'Hello, I'm from Greece,' kind of accent,” Georgio said. “But we have guys like that. They just came over. We have some Greeks that have been here since the 70s, and we have Greeks that were born here in Queens—Astoria and White Stone. We're pretty much regular people. We do charity stuff. Even though we live here, we still have close family ties over there, and it kind of bleeds over.”
Bleeds being the key word. About two years ago, when the Golden Dawn began making appearances in Astoria's Greek community, many people were worried that blood would be spilt.
“They work out,” said Nicholas Levis, an organizer with Aristeri Kinisi (Left Movement) New York. “They look tough. They like to march around.”
The Dawn first showed itself by coming around to local Greek businesses and asking for donations to help their people in the mother country who were hit with economic woes. They didn't identify themselves at first. A few days later, they showed up offering free Golden Dawn T-shirts to those who pledged monetary support. Business owners were horrified.
Even the Golden Dawn's charitable efforts were tinged with xenophobia, which is ironic considering they are the immigrants in the US. A box asking for donations of clothing and canned food, placed without permission at Stathakion Cultural Center in Queens, was labeled “For Greeks Only.”
“I almost had a fist fight with one of their members,” said Christos Vournos, who works at the center, explaining how Dawn members loitering by the charity box had resisted his entreaties to leave. They eventually complied and left the building, but that wasn't the last the cultural center saw of them.
At a May 2013 screening of Greek American Radicals, a documentary about 20th-century union activism among the Greek diaspora, about 200 people turned up, including four Golden Dawn members. The Dawners were upset that the film lacked patriotic spirit. “Not a single Greek flag is in the promotional poster,” the Dawn's website complained.
“They didn't do anything until after the film,” recalled Nicholas, who was at the screening. “But afterward there was a question-and-answer period with the producers. The first question was being answered, and then they came out with a megaphone and were like, 'We have a question.' A hundred people fell on them. They were grabbed and thrown out.”
Photo by Peter Rugh
The Dawners pouted on the web that a “group of 15 or so elderly communist zombies tried to silence us.”
“They conflate everything,” said Nicholas. “Aristeri Kinisi to them is a front for Syriza, which is a front for the Jews, which is a front for the world communist conspiracy of George Soros.”
Nicholas and other activists I spoke with told me that a group of expats sympathetic with Syriza had planned to have a meeting last October in the basement of an apartment complex in Astoria. The Golden Dawn heard about it and showed up the night before, chucking rocks at the building's windows. The next morning residents found banners bearing the Dawn's swastika-like insignia strewn along the building's exterior.
Though most in the Astoria community are weary of confrontations with the Dawn, the group's provocations have activated circles of the lefty diaspora in New York. On March 22, outside the Greek Consulate on the Upper East Side, a crowd of about 50 people turned up to mark a global day against fascism. Velina Manolova, with the Balkan Queer Initiative, said she joined the rally even though she is Bulgarian, because fascist groups are on the rise across Europe. They could gain traction in the US if people don't take them as a threat.
“It's tolerated by governments over there,” said Velina. “It's represented as this extreme, radical fringe thing when, in fact, it's rounding up all this nationalist sentiment in precarious economic times.”
The Golden Dawn's presence in New York has been heralded in the seedy corners of the white-supremacist internet and greeted with trepidation by most Greek Americans. Yet little is known about their activities in the city, just that they claim to be conducting charity operations.
The New York group has never spoken to the press, nor have its members ever been publicly photographed in their Dawn paraphernalia. When I headed to Howard Beach, my goal was just to find out who the hell these people are without getting put upside down on a vertical spit, shaved into little pieces, and stuffed into a gyro.
Georgio was 15 minutes late to our meeting at the Taverna Greek Grill, before I decided to call him. He said the guys were wrapping up their weekly meeting and would be joining me shortly. Forty-five minutes passed. I’d finished dinner, a plate of spanakopita (spinach pie), and there was still no sign of the Golden Dawn. On my way out the door, I called Georgio again and asked why he had wasted my time. He started to seethe.
“The Golden Dawn does not give interviews!” he shouted. “You are communists. You are the enemy. Did you really think I'd let you talk to us? This is Rocky IV; you're Ivan Drago.”
Georgio hung up, but on my way home I got a call from a blocked number.
“Is this Peter?” a grandfatherly Greek voice wanted to know.
“Who is this?”
“This is Beano. Where are you, Peter? Are you at the restaurant?”
“Do you want to interview the Golden Dawn? Why don't you go to the restaurant?”
“I went to the restaurant. Nobody showed up.”
“Nobody came to meet you? This is a mistake. What happened? Why don't you go back to the restaurant? Wait, and we will meet you.”
Something told me that if I returned to the restaurant, they'd try to snuff me out the same way their brothers in mother country did Pavlos Fissas. Beano kept trying to entice me to turn around until I hung up. When I got home I noticed I'd missed a call. There was a new message waiting for me.
“Peter, tell me what's going on with you guys?” It was Beano, again. “If you want me to tell you something I can tell you anything you want. But [are] you this kind of faggots and communists and like Syriza from Greece? I don't know, man. I don't know what's going on with you guys. Probably you take it up the ass, you know? I hope not, because you are a man, you know? All right, Peter, all right. I hope [if] you can take a dick in your ass, you can take a dick in your mouth too, you know?”
Hearing Beano's ridiculous message made me ruminate on the Golden Dawn cell in New York's main purpose: to help bring legitimacy to what the group is doing abroad. But with mouth-breathing apes like Beano at the helm of the group's US arm, that goal seems pretty unattainable. Nonetheless, if the group's rise in Greece has proven anything, it's that, given the right series of unfortunate events, Golden Dawn's brand of xenophobia and hate can become pretty appealing to a portion of the population. Let's just hope in the states, where an austerity program is also underway—including an $8.7 billion cut to food stamps this February—their vitriolic and contentious politics stay on the fringes.
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