Protesters hold signs saying “ochi” to creditors.
BY LYNN EDMONDS
A small park in Astoria became a microcosm for the tensions that were gripping Greece, days before the country’s historic referendum on whether to accept more austerity measures in exchange for bailout funds.
As the president of the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York, Petros Galatoulas, took to the stage and began his prepared statements, he was drowned out by about 20 protesters who waved signs and chanted “ochi” or “no” in Greek. Some of them accused the Hellenic federation, which organized the event, of being biased toward a ‘yes’ vote on the referendum. Others said they had been informed that this was a ‘no’ rally, and felt misled.
“We’re here to show our support for our country – that’s it,” Galatoulas said.
Dimitris Filippides from Ellas FM, a Greek American radio station, managed to slightly calm the agitated crowd.
“I don’t care [about] the ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ I care that people are hungry and are paying for the wrong choices” made by politicians, he said in Greek. “Greece doesn’t have the support – it’s counting on us.”
Though 61 percent of Greeks voted on Sunday to reject the deal offered to them by their creditors, ahead of the vote they appeared to be evenly, and deeply, divided, on a ballot that many felt would have grave significance for their future. While their government told Greeks that a ‘no’ vote simply meant they wanted relief for their unsustainable debt, and an easing up on austerity, European lenders said that rejecting their offer would very likely mean default and forced exit from the euro currency.
One-degree removed, the Greek Americans and recent immigrants who came out to Athens Square Park from Long Island, New Jersey, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens were still charged with excitement, as were non-Greek participants in the rally, who mostly came from leftist groups such as the Green Party, Jacobin Magazine, and Socialist Alternative, to show solidarity with Greece and opposition to the austerity measures.
The event had a festive air initially, especially since it overlapped with the Italian Federation’s live music event, featuring rock band “The Inoculated Canaries,” but anxiety and anger surfaced too, as the night went on.
Protesters ranged all ages, with older Greeks sitting in a line on the park’s stone wall and slowly waving plastic flags, while a young boy toddled with his own flag in hand nearby. One protester in his 20s wore a large Greek flag draped over his back, while a sculpture of Socrates had a flag draped over its lap. Adults of all ages carried signs with English and Greek slogans including “Not one step back!” “No, No, No,” “No to Troika tyranny,” and “No to fear.” A large banner was tied to the ancient-Greek-style column at the back of the park that read “Support Greece, Continue Negations, We are on the side of Greece.”
The banner was the cause of conflict when one protester who carried a sign with “OCHI” written in large blue letters accused a member of the Federation of Hellenic Societies of failing in their effort to be neutral. “Continue negotiations,” she and her friend argued, “that means you support a ‘yes’ vote.”
In fact, many of the ‘no’ supporters wanted Greece to continue negotiations, though some ‘no’ voters thought Greece was better off without the euro, a pattern which mirrored Greek voters.
Whatever their political beliefs, the protesters all recognized the hardship Greeks had undergone, as their economy shrunk 25 percent since 2009 and the unemployment rate has hovered above 25 percent since mid-2012.
Vago Tzoros, who wore the Greek flag draped over his shoulders, said he wasn’t sure if he supported ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but he knew “that it’s a really tough time for my family in Greece.”
His friend Ilias Tsoukantas, a Greek American from the Bronx, said he worked in finance and saw the crisis mess with the markets every day. He supported a “no” vote because he thought it would help Greece negotiate for a better deal with creditors.
On the other hand Dino Dellos, an older Greek who had been in Astoria for 30 years, said that he wanted Greece to be independent, and that it was better with the drachma, Greece’s currency before the euro.
His friend Anthony Ortegas, who’d lived in Astoria since the 1960s, disagreed. “Greece has no choice, has to give in. It’s hopeless.” Referring to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, he said “he’s young, he’s honest, he has a lot of ideas, but he’s all alone.”
Natassa Romanou, carrying an “ochi” sign, had a similar analysis.
“All these years, Greece said yes. Now we have a government that stood up for the ‘no.’ It’s the first time this has happened and Europe wants to overthrow this government.”
But she was more defiant than Ortegas.
“Why should the wealth of a nation be sold to sign an agreement?” Romanou insisted.
Nonetheless, she did not want a ‘Grexit,’ or Greek exit from the eurozone, either. “It’s not no to the euro. It’s no to austerity, no to injustice, unemployment, homelessness, and social catastrophe.”
The Vice President of the Federation, Timoleon Kakouros, said Europe had to get back to the negotiations table, no matter what. “Today we call on Merkel” he said, “We call on President Obama,” “A solution can happen and must.” Kakouras stressed “We do not accept failure. Failure is impossible.”
He emphasized Greece’s historic place in Europe and called for solidarity among the other nations.
“Greece is the heart of Europe. They should not put money above people. People and the nations should be above money.”
Nikos Papagianakis also felt that Europe needed to think of the Greek people when engaging in negotiations. “They’re playing with 11 million people’s lives,” he stressed.
For many, a “no” vote was a way to express their frustration with Europe’s seeming callousness to the poverty and despair that has gripped Greeks for the last five years, as they implemented harsh austerity measures with no apparent benefit.
“We came here to say a big ‘no’” Xenia Efthimiou, from Long Island, said.
“If austerity had worked, I would have nothing to say,” Dimitris Akrivos, a young man who had lived in Astoria since the age of 13, said.
“Greece been painted as some kind of bully when in fact the country has been dominated for the past five years.”
Eleftheria Tsapelis had come all the way from New Jersey with her teenage daughters, one of whom had a handmade “no” sign.
She said he felt for her friends in Greece who hadn’t been paid their salary in three months, and wished she could be closer to them during this difficult time.
Greece “cannot afford what they’re asking them to do,” she said.
As a Greek American, it may have come naturally to her to seek parallels between Europe and the United States.
“What if the north and south in the United States treated each other the way northern and southern Europe treat each other?” She pointed out.
Creditors have given Greece a deadline of Sunday to reach an agreement.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana