By Garen Yegparian
We may be making progress–minor and mixed though it might be. I’m referring to participation in this year’s commemorative activities–of course.
Last year–I’d observed that being a multiple-of-ten year seemed to have helped turnout. Without that reason–numbers in two key places were up this year. Others were less inspiring.
In Burbank–the ANC ran an essay and art contest for public school students. The theme of "Learning from the Past–Shaping Our Future: What Does the Armenian Genocide Mean to Me" garnered 140 participants. Three students won cash prizes in each contest–and another four received honorable mentions. The winners were also recognized at the April 18 Burbank City Council meeting where the annual Genocide proclamation was issued by the city. During that ceremony the art was exhibited–one of the essays read–and a Siamanto poem recited in translation. The meeting’s invocation was given by the Armenian clergy as well. Also on April 18th–the Armenian students at Burbank High School organized an event in the gym featuring Armenian bands. It drew a few hundred students.
Meanwhile–about 100 people marched from McCambridge Park’s eternal flame–dedicated to the memory of Burbank soldiers who died in war–to City Hall. There–a program was held on the steps. Just over 200 attended. This matches last year and is weak relative to a high point of over 600 a few years ago.
One of my two big disappointmen’s was the youth rally organized by the ARF Shant Student Organization. This event has drawn standing-room-only crowds for at least the last two years. This year the numbers were anemic. The program was substantive–but I heard mumbling about insufficient publicity. I rather think it was the absence of a name-draw. David Barsamian and Samantha Power gave the preceding two years’ rallies substantial star-power. Just goes to show–if we organize well and provide substantive material–our community will support youth (and other) efforts. Failing that–people just won’t attend except out of guilt–and/or because nothing else fit their schedule.
By far the biggest disappointment was the gathering at the martyrs’ monument in Montebello–not least because attendance was under 2000. Once again this year–the organizers deviated from the tried-and-true–to the detriment of the event and our community. Instead of having the gathering on the 24th–it was shifted to the 23rd. BAD CALL. Last year the corresponding event was moved to Glendale High School damaging the standing of the event. This year it was the date change. Why don’t we get it? Our community–rightly–wants to have a solemn gathering–at the monument–on April 24th. I would argue that even the speakers are superfluous–and we should simply have the clergy performing requiem services repeatedly over the course of several hours as people lay flowers–a la the Yerevan monument.
Regarding the program–I have to confess it was better. First–and most important–it was not interminable–under an hour and a half. Having Ragip Zarakolu speak–though a bit too briefly–was a good touch. He brought two key ingredients. As one of the Turks involved in breaking the wall of silence–he inspires hope among Armenia’s. Plus–he has a universal–pan-human worldview–often acutely absent in our community. Unfortunately–his presentation was very short. This has an eye-opening effect–especially coming from "a Turk." Having Peter Cowe speak in Armenian was a cutesy touch. But what was the point? Based on what standing was he asked to speak? A professor of Armenian studies? C’mon. Not that what he said wasn’t good–and true–and appropriate–but it just wasn’t his place and time. California Lieutenant Governor candidate and emcee Jackie Speier did a good job of keeping the program moving and her California Senate and Assembly colleagues shortwinded. Adam Schiff’s presentation was also appropriate and informative. However–these guys–as I’ve suggested before–should be invited to speak at the Turkish consulate. More on this below.
Interestingly–some people have decided to show up at the Montebello monument–on the 24th–formal program or not. One friend drove by on that afternoon–and thought 500 people were there. I called another who actually was there at that moment and was told more like 200. Regardless–it demonstrates where the community’s soul is on this issue. Sadly–just before receiving these reports–I learned of a number of cars–yerakooyn draped–making nuisances of themselves on the highways leading to the Montebello monument. They got nailed by police waiting for them as they exited.
The really interesting stuff–the glimmers of hope–came on the 24th. George Bush was in Irvine speaking to a chamber of commerce. The AYF called a protest to demand that he properly recognize the Genocide. Outside the Hyatt where he spoke–we outnumbered all the other demonstrators combined–be they anti-war–generally anti-Bush–or on either side of the immigration issue. In fact–our picketers were able to lead everyone else in a chant of "George–do your job." The media there seemed focused on the immigration issue to the exclusion of others. Eventually–a few reporters spoke to our representatives–though how much was actually aired–be it TV or radio–I don’t know. Interesting is that Telemundo–the Spanish TV station–interviewed one of us–in English. Later–a radio program–broadcast to several Spanish-speaking countries–interviewed one of us–in Spanish. How’s that for a vote in support of multilingualism? For a protest organized on very short notice that involved the possibility (and for me the actuality) of traveling through traffic hell for most of participants–the turnout of 100 or so was excellent–particularly since they all went to the Turkish consulate demonstration later in the day. The AYF did a good job on this one. The value of keeping our elected’s on notice that their actions are being watched and evaluated cannot be overstated.
From Irvine–it was off to Hollywood for the sixth "March in Little Armenia" organized by United Young Armenia’s. Arriving late–I was unable to participate in the march–but did catch most of the program at the end. What first struck me were the hundreds of people leaving the area. Strange. Factoring this in–it seemed to me that participation was up this year–to something approaching 8000. This was confirmed when I queried city officials. Most importantly–this year’s program was far more substantive than the past–though it was still a bit inaudible at the rear end of the crowd. Harut Sassounian and Ragip Zarakolu spoke well and meaningfully and the program overall was not too lengthy. Unfortunately–I heard the same-old–tired chants as the last few marchers entered Hobart where the stage and gathering were. After the program–those on the stage seemed to hold court. A stream of people approached–discussed issues with–and took pictures of them. They seemed thirsty for contact with our active–visible leadership.
Increased numbers at the rally were not the only highlight. The organizers announced the AYF’s demonstration at the Turkish consulate. The event was shown on Armenian TV–regardless of factional affiliation. Hopefully these speak to a lessening of tensions and will lead to more integration of our April 24th efforts. And–while still somewhat trapped in the spirit of self-affirmation–the choice of speakers and content indicates progress towards politicization of this event. By this I mean making it more of an activist–really Hai Tad pursuing event–rather than a partisan tool or convenient–close-to-home means of assuaging Armenian guilt. The one criticism that I have is the decision to give Frank Quintero the podium. In the absence of most other elected officials (except Greg Krikorian)–this smacks of internal-Armenian political gamesmanship. Most of the community is supporting Paul Krekorian–Quintero’s opponent–in their 43rd Assembly District race for the Democratic nomination. While the vast majority of those in attendance do not even live in the district–video of this will likely be used by the campaign–in-district–to his benefit and Krekorian’s detriment.
Finally–and appropriately–the culmination of the day was the AYF demonstration at the Turkish consulate–now in a new location–6300 Wilshire Boulevard. Let’s see how long it’ll take to wear out their welcome. It is a much bigger office building situated at the corner of Crescent Heights–a much busier intersection than the old location. It gives us much more visibility. Perhaps only by coincidence–but the office of "The Young Turks" radio program (see last week’s article) is located at 6230. I wonder?
This was the best turnout of my 17 years in the LA area–almost 3000 people. This number was deemed a bit high by City officials–and the Los Angeles Times reported 2500. I think it was a pleasant surprise to the organizers–one of whom had glumly predicted decreased participation relative to last year. The new location and unexpected numbers probably made managing the event more challenging–but it went well. Life-size wood cutouts of Kemal Ataturk–Ronald Reagan–and Ambassador John Evans with their Genocide affirming quotes graced this gathering–a novel and good idea. The slogans chanted–while more numerous than in Hollywood–were still mostly retreads. A few new–good ones are needed in that stable. While the police behaved well through most of the now-shortened (two–instead of three–hours) protest–after it was over–they behaved in their typically thug-y way when they "received the order" to have us disperse. Plus–one of them was foolish enough to stop and cite a "flag-car" for who knows what–literally in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard–in the left turn lane–during rush hour. I suppose we should thank him for gnarling traffic and drawing more attention to our demonstration from the circling news helicopters above. It also seemed to me that the age distribution had shifted–the average age was lower–which bodes well for the future.
The biggest failing of this demonstration is its ending. It doesn’t leave one with a sense of accomplishment. That was compounded this year by the greater participation and noisier intersection–a bullhorn is just not sufficient to the task of offering inspiring closing words. Here–I return to the notion of elected officials’ participation. It would make the protest much more meaningful for them to speak in this venue. Imagine a Congressman–or even a Senator–telling Turkey off right in front of their diplomatic faces! But–we gotta ask first.
Simultaneously–removal of the elected’s from the Montebello event would render it a more solemn–quiet–and contemplative gathering. People could show up–lay their flower–and proceed to the Turkish consulate. Buses could be recruited to assist this process and parking problems at the monument would dissipate. Those going to the Hollywood rally could thus be integrated with our significant monument and most significant political action–the Turkish consulate demonstration.
Some glimmers of hope are these increased numbers. To what are they attributable? One interpretation I heard was Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul’s visit (see my "Thank You Vecdi" article). The protest held when he spoke to the LA World Affairs Council may have primed people for this week’s actions. I think the perceptible progress INSIDE Turkey towards Genocide recognition may also be exciting–energizing–and re-politicizing our community. In the same vein–Turkish official and quasi-official reaction to this progress may also be triggering Armenia’s’ ire. It’s even possible that something like "The Young Turks" radio program galls people to action.
Some non-Armenian owned shops in Glendale actually closed on the 24th. Conversely–many Armenian owned ones remained open on the 24th. It really is time for a "list of shame" website naming these outfits alongside purveyors of Turkish products. What’s worse–I learned of an Armenian wholesaler who not only remained open–but also disallowed Armenian employees to take the day off!
Countless other events were organized. Besides those held in our Armenian schools–it would be interesting to know how many people showed up at each one–and even more so–how many unduplicated individuals attended–I am far from the only person to attend multiple activities. That number–and its distribution–would inform and guide future action.
Meanwhile–let’s keep hammering away at the Turkish wall of denial. The hairline cracks are becoming visible. More importantly–let’s do it more regularly. Anyone up for picketing that vile radio program next month?