Armenian Genocide anniversary time to reflect on community’s moral responsibility

From April 16 until April 24, UC Berkeley students and staff will notice a louder buzz of activities from the Armenian Students Association. This week marks the annual commemoration of the more than a million lives lost in the Armenian Genocide. Remembrances will conclude with a candlelight vigil April 24 at Memorial Glade. I hope that all students who have an interest in preserving human rights, locally, nationally and abroad, will attend them.

The oppression of one group does not survive through history as an isolated incident. Extremely violent episodes that go on to remain unacknowledged by our communities further normalize violence in our societies. In order to prevent recurrence of crimes against humanity, one step, among many, that scholars advocate is worldwide acknowledgement of moral responsibility as well as political, economic, and legal accountability for the violent acts. This acknowledgement begins in our small Berkeley community; it begins with us educating ourselves and being willing to lend a voice and be allies.

I hope to see faces outside of the Armenian community holding candles at the vigil, at the United Hands event, at the Bambir concert, at the film screenings. These events are the representation of our hope for a better day for not only our own people as Armenians, but a better day for everyone who continues to be oppressed, abused, attacked, silenced, violated and discriminated against around the world. This includes Palestinians; this includes the LGBTQ community; this includes Blacks; this includes Syrians; this includes Uighurs; this includes anyone and everyone who has been subject to prejudice and violation of their personhood whether as an individual, as a group or as a nation.

We should all stand not only for the recognition of mass atrocities against our own people, but for the recognition of everyone’s right to be on this Earth, free and equal to everyone else. Some may disagree with this “let’s all be allies” rhetoric, and I will not claim to unilaterally and monolithically speak on behalf of any group because most times I probably struggle to coherently convey just my own thoughts, but I will say that I have openly acknowledged my ignorance about certain issues, allowed myself to be educated and proactively reached out to different communities and asked how I may be of assistance.

One of my first interactions as a law student at UC Berkeley was at a UC Berkeley School of Law orientation social mixer where someone, after I accidentally picked up their cup and apologetically immediately put it back down to decipher which one of the red cups sitting on the table of our law school library was mine, slapped me with: “Ugh, just keep it. We all know how dirty your kind are, who knows what I might catch.” Too stunned to speak, I kept silent, not wanting to create an uncomfortable dynamic in a group of people I had just met.

But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t stick with me. I’d be lying if I said that following that event, I didn’t spend hours thinking of all the witty comebacks I could have said, envisioning scenarios where I would get a second chance to respond with something pithy and smart and eloquent. Something that would convey that my people were clean until they had horse shoes nailed to their feet as they were marched across the deserts of Syria from the Der ez-Zor concentration camps, that my people were clean until Ottoman soldiers placed bets on the gender of pregnant women’s fetuses and cut them open to see who was right, that the sands which filled their lungs and their sores only soiled their bodies and not their spirits.

Recognizing that ze was Turkish and I was Armenian and that this was an extension of the violence that eviscerated my ancestors into embers, it was hard not to let my mood sour everytime I saw zir bouncing down the halls. I harbour no inherent ill-will against Turks, so this outwardly negative interaction was a first for me. Later I learned that when ze had interviewed someone to be zir’s housemate ze had explicitly asked them if they were Armenian or not.

The fact that ze has offended a countless number of other people for being Palestinian or has callously claimed to know the experience of African-American youth simply because ze worked with a few is only proof that social ignorance about issues fails multiple communities as a whole. It is not exclusively zir’s individual failing that ze manages to offend most oppressed groups ze comes in contact with. Every time leaders of our communities deny disenfranchised minorities their voice, we should all bind together to stop that victimization.

I hope that the Berkeley community sees this as an opportunity to educate itself and forge bonds with its allies. The Armenian struggle has cross pollination with the reparations discussion that Ta-Nehisi Coates has reignited and with the discussions surrounding the plight of refugees around the world to find a safe haven from the violence wreaked on their homes and with many other issues my and your communities face. The Genocide and its recognition remain relevant, and Armenian communities across the world, including the one on the UC Berkeley campus, will continue to fight for its acknowledgement. I only hope that you, our classmates, will stand by us.

Mari Sahakyan is a chair of the Armenian Law Students Association.

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