“We dedicate this song to the people of Greece. We hope everything works out well for them?”
That was how a young guitar player apprehensively kicked off last week’s Greece solidarity rally, held in Astoria’s own Athens Square. It would soon become a microcosm of the chaos that engulfed both Greece and Europe in anticipation of last Sunday’s referendum — the result of which was a resounding “No.”
From the outskirts one could have mistaken it for a run of the mill left-wing gathering, with Spartacists, LaRouche-ites, and small-s socialists making the rounds passing out their flyers and newspapers. As Greece and the European Union continue their showdown over the Greek debt, the leftist Syriza party has become a rallying point for radicals the world over.
It might have seemed like a gathering of would-be revolutionaries. That is, if it hadn’t been for all the Greek flags. Or the signs in Greek. Or the older men and women huddled around benches speaking Greek. Meanwhile, in the middle of the square a teenage rock-band called “The Inoculated Canaries” covered Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II.”
Of the hundred or two people gathered under statues of Plato, Socrates and Athena, few seemed to hold anything in common.
A group of older Greek men standing and chatting among themselves looked at one rallier and asked him if he was Greek. When he answered no, one asked “so why are you holding a Greek flag?” That man, identifying as a member of the “Pakistan-USA Freedom Forum,” said he was just there to support the people.
A pair of high school age girls were filming the boys on stage. They assured passers-by that they had nothing to do with the ralliers or their dozens of flags and signs that read “OXI,” or “no” (pronounced okey as in okey-dokey). They pointed to a middle-aged man, Joe, the concert’s organizer.
Joe, for his part, had booked the square in advance for the Federation of Italian-American Organizations of Queens, Inc. and the band. Asked about the rally, he shrugged and said, “Whatever the Greeks do that’s their problem.”
Meanwhile the guitarist made an attempt at bantering: “Some of you may know Dave Grohl broke his leg recently… he’s my hero.” They proceeded to play a decent enough cover of the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.”
As the boys’ set drew to a close, someone hung a sign behind them reading “Support Greece, Continue the Negotiations.” With many of the protesters supporting a “no” vote and an eventual Greek exit from the Euro, the move provoked no small measure of drama. Several of the demonstrators stood before the sign and chanting “OXI, OXI, OXI,” as the Inoculated Canaries packed their things up quickly and left. Joe took the microphone once more and pleaded: “Let’s everybody leave in peace now.”
The music had evidently kept the peace thus far.
A small group primarily composed of men in suits then took over the stereo system and blasted Greek ballads from the speakers to drown out the “OXI” chants. One of the men in suits sported a beard and a pipe he had been smoking since before the band even began playing. Once things quieted down, Petros Galatoulas, President of the Federation of Hellenic Societies, took the stage along with the other suited men, at which point things quite literally became Greek to me. They gave a series of stump speeches, interrupted by chants of “OXI.”
A young man named Alex explained that the Federation of Hellenic Societies was of a more conservative bent (Republican billionaire John Catsimatidis is a long-time patron), and that they were the ones who hung up the sign. Though their speeches apparently invoked solidarity and called on the ralliers to let the Greek people decide for themselves, they were preventing anyone from the “OXI” side from speaking.
Eventually they did allow a dissenting voice to speak: a Greek-American union-member. Invoking the Fourth of July, he insisted that “the people of Greece must make their own Declaration of Independence from the troika,” the trio of international organizations putting pressure on Greece to accept severe austerity measures. The well-dressed men, including the smoking man, repeatedly tried to take the microphone back. He asserted that Greece should turn to economic stimulus instead of budget cuts. Alex, who defined himself as politically neutral and had been nodding along with the other speakers, admitted that “that’s what 90% of Greeks want.”
The event fizzled out shortly thereafter. Alex at one point remarked: “If they don’t beat each other up, it’ll be a miracle.” Rumors circled that supporters of Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn were present, quietly waiting in the wings. But it never quite came to blows.
Despite the efforts of what one self-described “old lefty” called “the bourgeois contingent” to control the affair, the rally drew a surprising crowd, united only in agreement that the teen band played an alright show.