By Aram Arkun
BOSTON – A billboard denying the Armenian Genocide in the North End of Boston on the night of April 5 was quickly removed by the morning of April 7 as a result of widespread outrage
reflected in the media. Both non-Armenians and Armenians reacted quickly and decisively.
The billboard has a picture of three hands in the colors of national flags. The Armenian and Russian ones have crossed fingers, symbolizing lying, while the Turkish one has two fingers extended in the symbol for peace. The billboard writes “Truth = Peace,” and gives the website address FactCheckArmenia.com. This website argues that the Armenians were not subject to a genocide, and “counters Armenian misinformation.”
A Turkish group from Istanbul called Turkic Platform sponsored the ad through the billboard media company Clear Channel Outdoor. According to the Turkish organization’s website, “Turkic Platform is a non-profit, individual initiative established to bring all the Turks and Turkish movements living and operating in different parts of the world together…its mission…is to preserve and protect Turkish national identity and culture while introducing it to the world and cherishing it.” Apparently this mission includes repeated attempts to deny the reality of the Armenian Genocide.
Last year, on the centennial of the start of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkic Platform paid Outfront Media for a similar billboard, which was taken down after great criticism. The billboard was part of a campaign in the US which also included ads in newspapers like the Boston Globe and billboards in various cities. During the same period, it organized a performance of dancers waving Turkish flags in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on April 24 and in Times Square, New York on April 21.
The placement of the billboard ad this year was particularly egregious, and no doubt deliberate. It was situated across from the Armenian Heritage Park on the Greenway, which honors the victims of the Armenian Genocide. The effect of the location was exacerbated by the timing: it was right after the visit of Armenian President Serge Sargisian to the park on March 29, and before the April 10 reconfiguring of the Armenian Heritage Park sculpture dedicated to the Armenian Genocide victims, and the close of the third annual Walk Against Genocide sponsored by the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur at the park the same afternoon. Furthermore, the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Boston will take place there on April 24.
James Kalustian, president of the board of directors of the park’s Armenian Heritage Foundation, declared in an interview that with April 24, the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, “coming up, they were trying to discredit the Genocide – but as they say in Armenian, amen chariken parik me ga [there is some good in every misfortune]. We got publicity, and the publicity was all positive.”
The pressure quickly led to Clear Channel replacing the Turkish ad with an innocuous parenting one. According to reports in the media, Clear Channel official Jason King stated that “the ad was placed there in error and has been removed.” The Mirror-Spectator, as well as other Boston-area media, attempted contacting Clear Channel and Jason King by telephone and email for further clarification but received no response.
The Mirror called the Turkish Cultural Center of Boston to ask for a Turkish perspective on the billboard incident. A spokesman said that as a nonprofit cultural organization, the Center did not want to comment on political matters and suggested contacting the Consulate-General of Turkey in Boston for comments. The Mirror’s message with the latter remains answered.
Kalustian said, “The most encouraging thing is that it is quite clear that we had broad-based support among non-Armenians. We were able to get an online petition going from some people in the North End – non-Armenians. There was a lot of chatroom and social media statements by non-Armenian individuals, including a number of Jewish people.”
Somerville, Massachusetts resident Elizabeth Weinbloom was one of the most active protesters. She tweeted about the ad on April 6, and her words incited many to contact the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, the Department of Transportation, and Clear Channel. She made a powerful parallel when she declared in one tweet, “We’d never allow a Holocaust denial sign at the Holocaust memorial. Or anywhere at all.” After the billboard ad was pulled down, she declared in a newspaper interview, “I guess I’ve never had the privilege to experience social media being so incredibly effective at correcting an injustice.”
Furthermore, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which includes 42 member organizations in the area, issued a statement which read: “The JCRC of Greater Boston is appalled by the billboard recently posted in Boston’s North End that denies the existence of the Armenian Genocide. This is a disturbing affront to the Armenian community and to all decent people in Boston. As one neighborhood resident rightly says in today’s Boston Globe, this billboard, placed across from the Armenian Heritage Park, is ‘like putting a Holocaust denial ad right above a Holocaust memorial.’ We are pleased that Clear Channel Outdoors, owners of the billboard, has indicated that the message was put up in error and has removed it.”
Robert O. Trestan, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, according to Eric Levenson’s April 7 article in Boston.com: “This billboard denying the Armenian Genocide is no different and just as offensive as one denying the Holocaust.”
Naturally, there was a lot of Armenian activity too. The Armenian student associations of the greater Boston area organized phone campaigns, and through the social media many Armenians became aware and contacted Clear Channel. The Boston Globe, regional newspapers, and several local television stations, including CBS, covered the issue.
Kalustian related why he thought the reaction succeeded so well and quickly: “We have built such good relations with people. We had built such credibility with the work we had done in the past with the programming such as for the 100th anniversary [of the Genocide], so awareness is growing among these groups.” In fact, other communities facing similar issues in the US are now approaching Kalustian for advice.
Prizewinning Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian declared at an event at the Old State House honoring Moses Gulesian on April 7 that this success was due to “all of those people who we have touched and told our story for fifty years, and told them who we were, and told them the pride we felt … Our story has finally been heard and reckoned with.”
A number of local politicians commented recently. State Representative Jonathan Hecht of Watertown told the Mirror, “I think that there is greater awareness, but I think also that this was so outrageous, the placement of it, that anybody who gave it a moment’s thought, knew that it was absolutely beyond the pale. I think everyone, particularly people in public life and members of the community, has to speak out in these sorts of circumstances, and the fact that so many people did explains why it came down so fast.”
Rep. David Muradian of Worcester, after expressing disappointment with Clear Channel’s impetus to collect money without consideration of the ad message, said, “It is great to see our community come together. While I am a very big champion of first amendment rights, there is human decency, and there is a line that should never be crossed.”
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian concluded, “When that billboard was first put up, I was filled with a mixture of outrage and hurt. It made me feel sad to think that denial still goes on in a public place, and a place not just public but a personal place for Armenians…but then I was heartened because in a matter of hours that billboard was taken down. It was not just because of the actions of the many Armenians who called and advocated but it was because of the actions of our friends, the Jewish community, the immigrant community and so many other groups, who came to our side and stood strong with us, without a moment of hesitation. That made me feel proud because that made me realize that we are an incredible country. We have made our mark in this incredible country and many others truly appreciate and love who we are, and will stand with us in difficult times.”