By Melanie Nakashian
As outrage over images of police killings of black men in the US flooded social media, a group of local and diasporan Armenians gathered at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
The event was essentially a conversation about why people felt a responsibility to speak up – not just as Armenians, but as human beings.
The call for the July 14 event was announced by the The Hye-Phen Magazine and Collective in response to the release of multiple videos depicting the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on July 5 and 6 respectively. Soon after their release, another video surfaced of the July 4 murder of Delrawn Small. All were unjustifiably killed at the hands of policemen, none of whom have been arrested. In fact, the only people to be detained were those who filmed the shootings, posted the film online, or were present at the shooting of their loved one.
Though these incidents are not at all isolated or unusual but rather symptoms of systemic racism in the US, the clear imagery released one after the other renewed and widened this sense of urgency that has sparked a surge of protest and organizing.
BLM first emerged as the hashtag #blacklivesmatter in response to the 2013 acquittal of the man who shot dead unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Some of the movement’s activists have outlined policy goals including the independent investigation of police misconduct and the creation of standards for reporting police use of deadly force.
So, why hold such an event in Armenia – and at the Genocide Memorial, of all places?
The event description read: “As a people that has experienced genocide, we recognize the pain and trauma of denialism, state terror, dehumanization, normalization and justification of systematic killings of Black people by state agents and representatives.” It also stated a commitment to fight against “oppressive genocidal systems” by confronting state violence, racism and white supremacy in Armenia and people’s respective communities.
A small group of nearly 20 people – locals, expatriates and repatriates – attended the meet-up. The vast majority of participants were women. Each person had the opportunity to share their opinion on the significance of standing with BLM.
One young woman from Yerevan explained that she believes the world must stand together against discrimination of any kind. “As a lineal descendant of Genocide survivors, this gathering was very important for me because if people in different countries had stood next to Armenians in 1915, we might have had another history.”
Another local recounted her experience of colorism while growing up in Armenia, when her childhood peers called her ‘Blacky’ for having a darker complexion. Another mentioned her brief time living in the US when her landlord refused to rent his house to black people – his house that was adorned with a mural portraying black people as animals.
Both locals and US citizens alike expressed that while they may not be well-versed in the struggle of BLM, they want to learn more about systemic racism and understand how to best support the movement, and this is one reason they came to the event.
Milena Abrahamyan, an Armenia-born New Yorker currently living in Tbilisi, attended because she is concerned about violence, “especially by forces in uniform.” She believes that “it is crucial for us in Armenia and the diaspora to have this conversation about the racism we have been fed by the former Soviet system, by mass media and by our own internalized anti-blackness.”
Some Armenian-Americans spoke of how they felt it is essential to confront anti-blackness within their own communities in the US. Others spoke of how they grew up in diverse communities, in an entirely black community or have black family members – so to support BLM is, as one person put it, “a no-brainer.”
Maral Firkatian Wozniak from West Hartford, Connecticut spoke about how she cannot remain silent on the issue because “If we are silent, we are complicit, the way so much of the world was complicit in the Armenian Genocide,” she said. “The one thing I can do to support BLM, as an American living in Armenia, is to share my knowledge with my peers who do not understand the importance of the movement, but want to.”
As explained by one young woman from New Jersey, “Racism, in all its forms, is not an issue reserved for black people in America… If you’re a human in the world, you should be concerned. Having open conversations like this one of the most effective ways to combat racism from its root.”
Nare Kupelian from Los Angeles felt that the conversation that took place was “of absolute importance” and “long overdue in both Armenia and among diaspora communities,” pointing out that despite its mostly homogenous population, “Armenia has experienced ‘othering’ consistently throughout its history.”
Kupelian also spoke to the significance of holding this gathering at the Genocide Memorial, which she sees as “testament to human struggle” for all marginalized people worldwide. “At one point in our history,” she said, “we were deemed problematic, and subject to dispersion and disposal. Today, a black person in America is subjected to systematic repression and is deemed to be ‘killable’ based on a biased set of standards. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to our ancestors to stand in solidarity with those whose history is following a similar trajectory.”
Hye-Phen has published pieces addressing anti-Blackness in the Los Angeles Armenian community and suggesting how Armenians can stand with Black Lives Matter. A recent Armenian Weekly piece about Sterling and Castile pointed out Armenians’ obligation to “be at the forefront of the efforts to prevent future killings of innocent people.”
The group will likely continue meeting in Yerevan to have deeper discussions on the issues and to draw parallels around the world and in the local context.
(Melanie Nakashian currently lives in Yerevan. She is from New York and has been involved with various international political, media and environmental organizations)