Today marks Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, when the worldwide diaspora commemorates the systematic slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. The civilized world recognizes those massacres for what they are: genocide, an event that inspired lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the term.
In Southern California, rallies in honor of the dead will happen in Glendale and other cities with large Armenian communities; in Orange County, commemorations will be more muted and relegated mostly to OC’s few Armenian churches. There will be moments of silence, speeches and demands that the American government officially recognized the Armenian genocide as a genocide, a plea ignored by presidents going back to the Ford administration. But there will be also denouncements of the Republic of Turkey, which has waged a long campaign against such a label, arguing Armenians died because, well, people die during wartime—and Turks died, too!
The Armenian genocide denial industry has a strong presence in Orange County, where Turkish president Recep Erdogan is currently waging a proxy war against charter schools run by people with connections to his friend-turned-foe, Fetullah Gülen. It also created one unlikely crusader for social justice: me. There’s a direct line from efforts by the Turkish government and nationalists to deny the Armenian genocide to me becoming an editor and reporter committed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and to always fight the haters.
And I have Confirmation classes to thank for my wokeness.
During my senior year at Anaheim High School, in 1997, my sister and I took Confirmation classes in the basement of St. Boniface Church. There were about 30 of us—mostly Latino, but also whites and Asians. I’m long removed from Catholicism because of that whole nasty pedophile priest scandal, but I have warm memories of those classes. We had kind teachers, adults who volunteered their time without pay to spread the Gospel to us teens. We played the parts of shepherds and angels during Nativity plays. We went on retreats to convents in Los Angeles (maybe the one Katy Perry is trying to buy?), one of which ended with us singing en masse the corny “Our God is an Awesome God” to our proud parents. We saw an anti-abortion film that started with a bloody one and ended with quick cuts zooming onto a dismembered fetus—um, yeah…
There was one instructor in particular everyone liked—let’s call him George. He was a funny Chicano who’d randomly honk like a goose to make us laugh. One day, George taught us about the moral imperative of telling the truth at all times, no matter what, and especially when it came to social justice—not just because Christ said the Truth will set us free, but because salvation through good works is the Catholic way.
George then brought up the Armenian genocide, and asked if any of us had heard about it. No one raised their hands. “That’s because that’s how the Turkish government wants it,” he replied. He told us about the killings of innocents, and how the world didn’t act to save Armenians at their time of need. He told us about how the genocide inspired Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jews. And then he brought up the Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument at Bicknell Park in Montebello, a 75-foot-tall interconnected set of arches I immediately recognized because most of my dad’s side of the family lives in Montebello or in East Los Angeles.
Then came the stunner to me: the Turkish government tried long and hard to block the monument when it debuted in 1968, going so far as to contacting the State Department to make sure that a plaque made no mention of Turkey or genocide. George decried these efforts, imploring us to not only call out injustice for the rest of our lives but to defend the weak. In other words, to tell the Truth.
And now, the obligatory System of a Down video—filmed in Armenia, no less:
I didn’t care much for politics back then—hell, I didn’t even walk out during the Proposition 187 protests of 1994. But learning about the Armenian genocide—and its denial—disgusted me. I couldn’t believe a government would spend so much time and effort to deny its role in something the rest of the world knew. Such obstinance planted a spark in me to fight for the oppressed and against oppressors that eventually led to me becoming a reporter. And that job has led to me constantly fighting local Turkish nationalists who deny the Armenian genocide in downright nasty terms, and has led to me losing Turkish friends—it happens.
It’s sad that few people besides Armenians care about the Armenian genocide—that means the Turkish government’s campaign has been largely successful. So, on this Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, I remember. And I thank the Turkish government’s eternal evilness on the matter for making me care about injustice.