By ALAN FEUER and DANIELLA SILVA, The New York Times
IT was news to arouse the indignation of many residents of Queens: Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi group based in Athens, had established an office in Astoria — or so it seemed.
The evidence was elusive: late last month, a professional Web site suddenly appeared, showing the party’s swastikalike logo set against a dark Manhattan skyline and calling on the city’s Greek diaspora to donate food and clothing to a charity drive to benefit struggling poor people in Greece. There were pictures on the site: one was of a group of men with their backs turned to the camera, wearing black T-shirts reading, in Greek, “Golden Dawn New York.”
Although the site went down within days of its emergence — targeted, it was reported, by Anonymous, the hackers’ group — it provoked sufficient outrage that local politicians, doing what they do, rallied at a news conference to condemn the right-wing party, and a grass-roots protest movement sprang up in an effort to oppose it.
The problem was — and, indeed, still is — that almost nothing is known about the party’s actual presence in the neighborhood. Does Golden Dawn really have an office in Astoria, the center of the city’s Greek community? That is not clear. What are its goals? Also unclear. Is its membership significant or minimal? No one knows for sure.
As far back as two years ago, one local resident says, he saw a car in the neighborhood with a Golden Dawn bumper sticker. “They’ve had people in New York for a while now,” said the resident, George Davis, 34, a Greek-American financial adviser. “It’s not like these guys woke up yesterday and decided to join.”
The Golden Dawn sightings became more frequent, and perceptible, over the summer when a few business owners in Astoria were approached by members of the group, asking for donations for the charity drive, said Nicholas Levis (pronounced Luh-VEES), an activist with Occupy Astoria-L.I.C. The men did not identify themselves at first, although they apparently returned days later with Golden Dawn T-shirts for those who had made contributions. When the business owners realized that the food and hand-me-downs they had given were destined for an ultranationalist party, some of them, Mr. Levis recalled, became upset.
It was around that time that party members also placed charity-drive collection boxes at the Stathakion Cultural Center in Astoria with labels that read, “For Greeks Only.” Christos Vournos, the first vice president of the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York, which is based at the center, said that he confronted the party members at the time and that they left the building — but only after a near-altercation.
“I almost had a fistfight with one of their members,” Mr. Vournos said. “One of their supporters came back and apologized and I said: ‘If you want to perform your activities, it can’t be here. Not here. No political parties — none.’ ”
Riding waves of economic apprehension and fears about illegal immigration, Golden Dawn won 18 of the Greek Parliament’s 300 seats in national elections in June — even after the party’s chief spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, slapped a rival during a televised political debate. The party has increased its presence in middle-class areas of Greece with vows to “rid the land of filth” and is accused of being behind attacks against immigrants and journalists. According to its home page, the group has opened offices in Greek communities as far away as Montreal and Melbourne, Australia.
In New York, the party seemed to increase its outreach efforts starting late last month, after the appearance of the local chapter’s Web site.
Christos Skarlatos, 67, works behind the counter at the Little Coffee Shop in Astoria. He said he was approached one day last month by a Golden Dawn member who asked if he could leave some Golden Dawn cards near the cash register. While Mr. Skarlatos said he had no fondness for the group — “I try to stay out of politics,” he offered with a shrug — he let the man leave about 30 cards behind. Within a week, he added, they were gone.
Mr. Davis, the financial adviser, said that he saw members of the party, in groups of three or four, coming and going from the Stathakion Cultural Center only weeks ago. “This is still going on,” he said, adding that he had asked officials at the center if the party was meeting there. “Now that the leadership has seen the reaction from the community,” Mr. Davis said, “they’re denouncing Golden Dawn.”
That much seems to be true. Elias Tsekerides, president of the Hellenic federation, said in an interview this month that several Golden Dawn members had, indeed, dropped by the center weeks ago and hastily snapped some photos — including, it appears, the one of the men in the party’s black T-shirts.
“They took some pictures without our knowledge and posted them to the Internet,” Mr. Tsekerides (pronounced Seh-ker-RIDE-ees) said. “We had calls from here and from Greece asking us, ‘What are you guys doing giving them shelter?’ But there’s no such thing. We do not associate with political parties, and they are extremists. What do they have to offer the community at large? Just divisiveness, nothing constructive, in our view.”
Eventually, this street-level conflict, and its attendant whispering campaigns, caught the ears of local politicians who, on Oct. 5, held a rally in Athens Square Park in Astoria to denounce Golden Dawn. There was much condemnation of “extremism” and “intolerance” and “bigotry” and well-meaning words in praise of “diversity” and “openness” and “broad coalitions.” But what there wasn’t was any new or actionable information about Golden Dawn New York.
Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, who organized the event, acknowledged that no one knew the whereabouts of the party’s supposed office or the number of its supporters in New York. Costa Constantinides, the Democratic district leader, said he had never actually seen any local members of Golden Dawn and was more or less going on what he had picked up indirectly.
After the event, a phone call in search of some specifics to Peter F. Vallone Jr., the local city councilman, produced an e-mail from a spokesman saying that Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, who represents Astoria, knew more about the group. While trying to be helpful, Ms. Simotas said, “I only know a little — and it’s all secondhand.”
Nonetheless, the following week, in a forceful show of solidarity, more than 200 people crowded into the basement of the Church of the Redeemer in Astoria to protest the presence of fascists whom no one could definitively locate. The groups represented included the Socialist Alternative, Al-Awda NY, the Union Theological Seminary and the Hell Gate Anarchist Black Cross.
Because it was not possible to speak in detail about Golden Dawn New York, the gathering became a kind of teach-in, with academics lecturing on Greek history in the post-Nazi era, what was called the failure of European immigration policy and the symbiotic relationship between Golden Dawn in Greece and the Greek power structure.
“Does Golden Dawn have an office here like they’re claiming online?” Mr. Levis asked at the start of the event.
“We don’t actually know,” he said. “But if they do turn up somewhere, at a storefront or a building, you can rest assured we’ll be there till they’re gone.”