Armenians protest in front of Turkish Embassy on centenary of Ottoman genocide.
WASHINGTON — While tensions were heating up in Baltimore last weekend over the death of Freddie Gray, a noisy protest of a very different kind erupted in the nation’s capital. On Friday, about 500 Armenian-Americans gathered along Massachusetts Avenue on Washington’s Embassy Row to mark the 100th anniversary of what they call the genocide of more than a million of their ancestors at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
To make their point, they massed in front of the Turkish Embassy, shouting slogans and waving signs reading “Turkey: Stop Denying Armenian Genocide!” and “1.5 Million Armenians Slaughtered.” Many protestors wore black T-shirts with the repeating mantra “Genocide Denied is Genocide Repeated.”
The Armenian protesters, nearly all of them Orthodox Christians, shouted at passing vehicles from behind police barricades, as did an equal number of Muslim Turks on the opposite side of the street. Each side tried to scream louder than the other — with a few angry Turks occasionally flashing obscene gestures across Massachusetts Avenue.
Through it all, D.C. cops on horseback kept order and made sure protesters as well as reporters — including this one — stayed out of the street.
At the core of this emotionally charged issue is the historical accuracy of atrocities committed at the outset of World War I.
“The Armenian genocide is not an allegation or a personal opinion,” declared Hrachia Tashchian, deputy chief of mission at the Armenian Embassy in Washington. “It is a widely documented fact supported by a vast amount of historical evidence.
“The genocide of 1915 had a number of grave consequences for the Armenian people, including dispossession of the homeland and destruction of Armenian heritage,” he added. Acknowledging it, said the diplomat, “will contribute to the elimination of those consequences the Armenian people have been suffering for the last century.”
The Turkish government admits the killings happened but calls them an ugly consequence of war in the declining days of the Ottoman Empire — not a concerted, premeditated attempt to wipe out an entire people.
Armenians, however, don’t buy that the forced expulsion and widespread killing of their forefathers was just a chaotic blip in history. In fact, they chose April 24 to stage worldwide protests because April 24, 1915, was the day Muslim Turks began rounding up Armenian doctors, lawyers, intellectuals and others they saw as a threat to the empire.
“The recognition of the Armenian genocide is not a subject for political bargaining or political manipulation. It is a matter of historical justice,” said Tashchian, noting that 43 U.S. states, 21 foreign countries and several international bodies including the European Parliament in Brussels have done so. Only seven states — Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming — have so far not symbolically recognized the mass atrocities that Armenians say amounted to genocide.
For years, Armenian-Americans have been trying to get Congress to officially recognize the genocide, and they’ve won the backing of powerful supporters like Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). But they’ve failed to convince the White House to wade into a diplomatically sensitive dispute that could jeopardize relations with Turkey, a key security and economic ally.
Given that half of America’s Armenian population lives in California, it’s little surprise that the latest genocide resolution in Congress emerged from lawmakers in that state. On March 18, the House introduced the nonbinding Armenian Genocide Truth and Justice Resolution, which urges President Obama to “work toward equitable, constructive and durable Armenian-Turkish relations based on the Republic of Turkey’s full acknowledgement of the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide.” The bipartisan H.R. 154 was spearheaded by Reps. Robert Dold (R-Ill.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), David Valadao (R-Calif.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), along with 40 other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
At a Capitol Hill press conference to mark the bill’s introduction, Schiff talked about its importance to future generations.
“One hundred years ago, 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children were deliberately murdered in the first genocide of the 20th century. These facts are indisputable,” Schiff said. “And on this important anniversary and while there are still survivors among us, we in Congress and the president have an opportunity and an obligation to send a strong message that we will never forget those who were lost, and we will call this crime against humanity what it was, genocide.”
Yet the cash-strapped Armenian government in Yerevan has little to do with this effort. Rather, the Washington-based Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has taken the lead.
Aram Hamparian, ANCA’s executive director, said his organization has just over 50 chapters and survives on donations from the 100,000 or so Americans of Armenian descent who are politically active.
“The vast majority of stuff we do is done by volunteers on a grassroots level, but we do have three people in our D.C. office who are registered lobbyists, including me,” Hamparian told us. “The only reason we’re relevant at all in this city is that there are tens of thousands of Armenians who vote and who care about these issues.”
When asked about money, Hamparian said ANCA’s budget is “considerably less than $1 million a year,” of which only a few hundred thousand goes to actual lobbying.
In March, the organization convinced officials in Los Angeles not to renew the city’s $850,000 lobbying contract with Gephardt Government Affairs, which is headed by former House Democratic Majority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. The contract was for advocacy work it was conducting on behalf of Los Angeles World Airports.
That’s because Gephardt is a registered foreign agent for Turkey “and Ankara’s point man” in obstructing U.S. condemnation of the Armenian genocide, says ANCA, which notes that his firm signed a lobby contract with the Turkish government that will pay $1.7 million between March and December 2015.
On Feb. 24, ANCA’s Bay Area chapter wrote to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf demanding that the city’s port end its $160,000 contract with Gephardt for much the same reason.
“Dick Gephardt’s unethical work in denying the Armenian genocide makes his firm persona non grata here in the state of California,” said Nora Hovsepian, chair of ANCA’s Western Region.
California alone is home to an estimated 1 million Americans of Armenian ethnicity. Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, has 95,000 Armenians, with other large communities in Fresno and throughout the Golden State.
In early March, the Los Angeles suburb of Carson was the focus of a heated protest after Mayor Jim Dear asked to erect a monument honoring Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey — and a man the Armenians consider the architect of their downfall.
At a hearing to discuss his proposal, more than 400 Armenians opposed to the Atatürk statue crowded City Hall, including Glendale Mayor Zareh Sinanyan and other mayors of Armenian heritage. When the Turkish consul-general of Los Angeles, Raife Gülru Gezer, got up to defend the idea, opponents turned their backs on her. Dear ultimately backed down, and the city council voted unanimously to reject the measure.
Yet at the national level, a long line of U.S. presidents — from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama — have been reluctant to side with Armenia and antagonize Turkey, which in past years has threatened to pull its ambassador from Washington if a genocide resolution were to pass Congress.
Serdar Kiliç, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, says the “so-called genocide” is a myth peddled by “single-agenda lobbies” seeking to perpetuate Turkey’s negative image in the media.
“They are asking one of the parties to accept that they have committed genocide, but this was a war. An equal number of Turks suffered,” Kiliç said recently. “This is an issue to be decided by historians, not the U.S. Congress.”
(All photos by Larry Luxner unless otherwise noted)
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat and former editor of CubaNews. Born and raised in Miami and based in Bethesda, Md., since 1995, Larry has reported from every country in the Western Hemisphere. His specialty is Latin America and the Middle East, and he’s written more than 2,000 articles for publications ranging from National Journal to Saudi Aramco World. Larry also runs an Internet-based stock photo agency at www.luxner.com.