By Anoush Ter Taulian
At Occupy Wall Street (OWS), I was wearing a T-shirt I had made that reads “Eastern Turkey Is Occupied Western Armenia” when a man came up to me and asked, “Does your T-shirt have to do with Thanksgiving?” So I decided to camp out at OWS and set up an Armenian information table. I made a flyer and sign that said U.S. war machine-corporations, like Goodrich, Chevron, Raytheon, Exxon, United Technologies, and Northrop Grumman, spend over $7 billion dollars in sales to Turkey and millions of dollars lobbying U.S. Congressmen notto pass the Armenian Genocide recognition bill.
An Armenian priest kindly helped me print out the flyers. When I asked if we could get Armenian and Greeks and others to hold a prayer group at OWS, as the Muslims did, he said, “I don’t have time. I am alone having to visit hospitals and homes.” When I called one of my Armenian friends and asked her to come and help with the table, she said, “Won’t they resent us for being there?” I also talked to one of the New York Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) leaders about helping and she said, “Won’t they be offended if we come?” Sadly, these Armenians were out of touch with some of the ideals and purposes behind Occupy Wall Street—one of which is to give people a chance to speak out against corporate injustice.
While many individual Armenians had already spoken out at OWS, there was no presence of Armenian organizations or groups to help educate the American public about Armenian issues. I had called the ANCA to get a list of corporations, like Coca Cola, Pfizer, Frito Lay, and Motorola that support Turkish denialist policies, but they had no New York representative to help pass out information or get Armenian petitions signed. Even though there are daily demonstrations at OWS by groups representing teachers, doctors and nurses, unions, and environmentalists, some Armenians were apparently too conservative to associate with OWS. Perhaps they feared getting caught up in a mass arrest, or didn’t value this grassroots revolution.
After spending nine years in the war zone in Artsakh, I contacted many in the media when I returned to the U.S., but it was very hard to get press coverage of Armenian issues. I now see OWS as the perfect PR opportunity. My Armenian table and signs were photographed by hundreds of people and shared by many on Facebook and Twitter. I was interviewed by television and radio reporters from around the world. I also got to talk to a lot of people who wanted more information about the genocide. A 14-year-old Armenian boy came by and said his grandmother had taken him to church a few times, but since they were speaking Armenian he didn’t understand anything. He didn’t know much about the genocide, but asked a lot of questions. A young Irish man came up to the table and explained the genocide to his friend, who had never heard of it. Every day over a thousand people visit OWS, and many have no idea where Armenia is.
In my flyers and speeches, I also mentioned that Armenians are indigenous to their land, and corporations have hurt the rights of indigenous peoples globally. Mining and oil companies have put profits before people, and have poisoned the land and made people sick. There were many other indigenous peoples speaking out at OWS. The American Indian Movement had a table about the genocide of their people and the theft of their lands and rights. I met an Inuit woman whose tribe had only 3,000 people left. I set up the Armenian table next to the Arawak Puerto Ricans who helped guard and store my Armenian materials. I made them a T-shirt that read, “Taino Genocide 1492.”
There was a Turkish man camping out at the park who carried around signs like “Hang Turkish Dictators” and “Burn the Turkish Flag.” He was angry he had been denied his pension and had been persecuted for protesting in Turkey. When I asked him if he acknowledged the Armenian Genocide he said yes, but would not add that to his list of Turkish injustices. A Turkish woman ran by the Armenian table spewing vulgarities, but generally people were supportive.
OWS was very well organized. There was a library, media support, a first-aid tent with acupuncturists and reiki, nutritious food, a comfort station with free clothing, clean-up crews, an open mic stage, empathy tables, security, general assembly meetings, and a think tank with daily discussions like “What is the difference between a corporation and a human being?” People pedaled bicycles to charge up batteries, and mediators were on call. It was inspirational to see so many young people debating on how to improve America and their lives. Of course, there were many problems in such a free space. There were some thieves and drug addicts, just like in corporate America. There were sanitation and space problems. The fast-paced growth of the site was a real challenge.
I was asleep on Nov. 15 at 12:50 a.m. when Zuccotti Park was surrounded by a thousand policemen. I gathered some things and the books I had brought—on the Armenian Genocide, the self-defense of Artsakh, and destruction of the cemetery in Julfa—and fled. It was a pandemonium invasion. People didn’t have enough time to pack their belongings and the police destroyed many valuables. Journalists were prevented from getting in the inner areas where some protesters were being tear-gassed and beaten. Six journalists and 220 demonstrators were arrested. Instead of talking to the organizing groups on how to deal with the problems, over $7 million was spent on police overtime.
For a few weeks in New York City, on sacred stolen Lanape land, now shackled by real-estate developers and high prices, the people empowered themselves to remember how things could be if there was decision-making without high-priced profit, corrupt politicians, oppressive laws, and greedy corporations. OWS continues in our minds and hearts. I hope there will be Armenian tables at all future Occupy sites.
If you want to connect, e-mail me at [email protected]