Statement by Nicholas Levis, Occupy Astoria LIC
October 9, 2012
My name is Nikolaos Levis. Tonight I am here as a member of Occupy Astoria LIC. It is my privilege to welcome you.
To start off, we have to give a very special thanks to the Church of the Redeemer – El Iglesia del Redentor – for generously providing this venue. The Church of the Redeemer is not an organizer or an endorser of tonight’s event. However, they are our friends and comrades in the peoples’ struggle for peace and justice. It takes some courage to host us. I spoke with the Father and he told me they’ve received some complaints. He read to me one e-mail he received, in which he was urged to cancel this event because our groups are, and I’ll quote – “violent anarchists and communists.”
So now you know who you are!
We know where the real violence comes from. We know who the real haters are.
We want to make the most of this evening. We want to leave here with a plan, with a sense of coalition going forward. We want to act together, not just in the struggle against neo-fascists of all varieties, but in the struggle for a different world – the struggle to transform this world – to end the system that produces neo-fascists as only one of the most horrible of its evils.
We hope you will be signing up with the sponsoring groups. The sign-up sheets are over there for Aristeri Kinisi – the New York Greek-American left movements in support and in solidarity with the Greek movements and the struggle of the people in Greece, which Alan will be telling you about. For Strike Debt and Occupy Wall Street, you’ll hear about them from Marina Sitrin. For Situations magazine, out of the City University of New York. And for Occupy Astoria LIC. Occupy Astoria LIC is an all-volunteer effort, inspired by Occupy Wall Street to take action and do outreach on the neighborhood level. We are one of many neighborhood Occupy general assemblies in New York City. We started last December, and we’ve been a busy group. There’s little time to go through all the things we’ve done and alliances we’ve made. You can find out about it on OccupyAstoriaLIC.org or come to our General Assembly every other Sunday and other events, and find where you fit in.
I should mention that together with the Greek Solidarity Network, Occupy Astoria LIC marched at the end of the Greek Independence Day Parade on Fifth Avenue back on March 25th of this year. That was something. We brought the message that Greece is still struggling for independence. Not against the Ottoman Empire of 1821, but against the bankers of 2012!
Which brings us to tonight. This outpouring of righteous outrage that has brought you all here started just a couple of weeks ago, as more and more people became aware that the neo-fascist Golden Dawn had started a chapter in New York. It’s important to be accurate about this. We’re still learning the details. Golden Dawn is not a mass phenomenon here. It’s unclear whether they have a handful of members and sympathizers, or a few dozen. You’ve probably all seen the pictures of their group that they posted online, in their black t-shirts and with a swastika made out of the Greek key. And it’s telling that they always have their backs turned. They know this is not a place for them.
Tonight we can point to our first victories in making sure this will never be a place for them. Whoever they are, however many they may be, they have worked through deception. This summer, they went to Greek people and Greek-owned businesses in the neighborhood and presented themselves as a charity drive for food, medicines and clothing to send to Greece. I know that in some cases, they didn’t say they were Golden Dawn. First they collected the stuff. Then they came back with gift tee shirts. That’s how they played it. Incognito, polite, then bam! The tee shirt. You’re a member.
At least some of those pictures you’ve seen of them were taken at the Stathakion Cultural Center near Ditmars. They used the Stathakion Cultural Center as a collection point. They may have had sympathizers there. As far as we know, they put labels on the collection boxes that said, “For Greeks Only.” And they took pictures of themselves in the Center. But now that this has been exposed, all the people at the Center who didn’t realize who they were dealing with are in an uproar. Whatever Golden Dawn may have been doing, they have been barred from Stathakion. Members who tried to enter last Wednesday were sent away at the door. The Center is lost to them as a haven – thanks in part to us, to the way we’ve exposed what was happening.
An official from Stathakion denounced Golden Dawn at a press conference last Thursday in Athens Square Park. Local politicians have also noticed that Golden Dawn is active here, and whatever you think of them, let’s give them this much credit. They turned out to condemn the fascists (at least the ones in Greece). Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, the Democratic District Leader Costas Constantinides, and even Councilman Vallone, as well as representatives of the Jewish community. They spoke to Greek and American press and media last Thursday. That’s also thanks to the publicity that a lot of people in this room helped to generate.
Does Golden Dawn have an office in New York, like they’ve claimed? We don’t actually know. But if such an office ever opens for business, we will know, and we will be there, until they close again!
Now I need to tell you a personal story.
Believe it or not, I was born across the street, in what is today called Mt. Sinai Astoria Hospital. I grew up in Astoria until I was 18. This is where I’ve lived most of my life. I am a Greek American – eimai Ellino-Amerikanos. My parents are both alive today. They emigrated individually. But they are both from the same village, in the Mani, the Peloponese. It was once a place for fisherpeople and goatherders and sailors, on the Ionian Sea. My mother came here first, 55 years ago, and began to sew for a living. She’s still sewing. My father came here in 1963, after 12 years on the ships and, ahem, he went into restaurants. They found each other here, and married.
Growing up, I learned the story of how they came to be here. I had a lot of siblings and cousins. Why were we all born here, and not in Greece? At the center of that story was the war that brought horror to Greece, the war brought to our people by fascist powers. I could tell you things that would stir you to anger and grief – if I could, as Shakespeare put it, put a tongue into every wound inflicted on our people. Because of the German invasion and occupation, my one grandfather was shot, my other grandfather was tortured and died later of complications, and my one grandmother was so devastated by losing her loved ones they say she died of the grief. As everywhere at that time, war and occupation meant murder, starvation, upheaval, terror. Greece was invaded and occupied for strategic reasons, but to the supremacist ideology of the Nazis, the Greeks were an inferior people, not fully human, and they suffered exceptionally for it. A stubborn, courageous resistance of the people held throught those years and ultimately helped make the country impossible for the occupiers to hold. But afterward, as a result of further great power machinations, Greeks fought amongst each other for four more years. Most of you are probably on the left, others are on the right, and it was mostly those on the left who were massacred, but I think we all know that civil war is one of the worst hells of all, and in the end no one is blameless. The country was left impoverished. People emigrated. Villages like our own declined. And so our family came to live here.
As I grew up, I learned these stories of the war. They defined our identity for me, and for our cousins who grew up here. So you see, I take Nazis personally. But you don’t have to be Greek, or Jewish or Russian to take Nazis personally. You don’t have to be Muslim to take Islamophobes personally, and Islamophobia is Golden Dawn’s new specialty. You don’t have to be black or brown to take racism personally.
As I grew up, eventually, I learned about Greek politics – never a simple thing. As a minor detail, I learned that there was, incredibly, a Nazi party in Greece. They never got more than a half-percent of the people to vote for them. To call them neo-Nazi is not an analysis, by the way. The leadership of Golden Dawn explicitly adopt Hitler as their hero. As crazy as that sounds, in Greece. The leader of Golden Dawn, still the leader today, wrote in praise of Hitler and the racism of the Nazis. Now in the end, I believe fascism and racism and hatred and extreme authoritarianism are always defeated. Most people find enough of their better selves to resist, to fight back. Tyrannies rage and destroy, but they also fail. They always fail, Gandhi said. These ideologies are sick, dare I say: unnatural! But in each generation, these plagues of the mind also find their new appeal.
In one of his articles praising Hitler, which you can find online, this leader of the Greek neo-nazis attributed a quote to Hitler that in its way is frightening, because it tells you something important about how they win their influence over so many people. Supposedly, Hitler said: “The people do not exist for the economy, and the economy does not exist for capital. Capital serves the economy and the economy serves the people.” That is frightening to me, because: Who here would not agree?! But with Nazis this is the packaging, the sales pitch for hatred and for scapegoating those whom they define as outsiders, inferiors, foreigners. In the end, they don’t go after capital. They go after the vulnerable.
Unfortunately, in recent months this fake-socialist sales pitch has become all too effective. The Greek people find themselves in a deadly economic crisis, a crisis that is only one part of an international, a European, and, as we all know, a world-wide crisis. Unemployment is now at 50 percent among people under 30. Fifty percent! That barely begins to describe the suffering of the Greek people, alongside I might add the peoples of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland, and throughout Europe, and peoples experiencing even worse all around the world, even in some places right here, where the neoliberalism continues to rage. There is another endless story of pain and inhumanity to anger and sadden you. We will be hearing a lot of it today.
And the system that caused this crisis in Greece has no solutions. As you know the international media blame the Greeks for their own misfortune. Greeks are defamed as lazy and irresponsible. The crisis is styled into something Greek, rather than global. The Greek government enforces, by violence, the country’s slavery to an odious, unpayable debt. They impose an austerity that is insane, because it is shrinking the economy that is supposed to pay this debt. The people must pay for the losses of the bankers. For generations! The international troika, of the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF, are demanding the Greek austerity measures in exchange for bailouts that are bogus. They pay this so-called bailout money that just gets paid back straight into debt service. Greeks don’t see almost any of it. All they get is the future interest payments – and the teargas.
And so Golden Dawn has their opportunity. They can play like they are the true opposition to the troika, the real nationalists. They can step up and present themselves as a welfare party with food and freelance policing services for the masses, so they can gain in popularity and disguise who they really are, although they still scapegoat and attack immigrants. And this is convenient for the establishment parties, who are in big trouble, because they can point to the rise of Golden Dawn and say it’s either us or the extremists! One thing we should all be thinking of is how we can support real material help for the people living in Greece. You can’t let the fascists present themselves as a charity without challenge.
We’re all here to show our outrage over Golden Dawn, but I daresay this crisis, which is one part of the global crisis, is our true concern today. This crisis is also an opportunity for progressive forces. It has meant the rise of the left in Greece to the point where a genuinely leftist, anti-austerity party was the second strongest in the elections last spring. SYRIZA missed out on winning by less than 2 percent of the vote. Left parties were in the majority, but the left vote was, as always, split! So while tonight is about stopping Golden Dawn, we will also be talking about the Greek crisis. And the world crisis. And about the left and resistance movements in Greece, and in Europe, and beyond. And where do we all fit in? How can we respond? Locally and globally.