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Hanging on to history: two young Armenian-Americans at the Armenian Genocide Memorial on the Capitol steps. Photo by: John Whipple

Let Us Not Forget
On the 89th anniversary of the first genocide of the 20th century, Armenian-Americans are still seeking recognition

Erik Trojian is matter-of-fact about why his family came to the United States. “I’m here because my grandfather escaped and was able to evade capture,” he said. “I had a lot of my family killed.”

Paul DerOhannesian, a prominent Capital Region lawyer, has similar stories. He once asked his grandmother why they had no big family gatherings. The answer was that most of the family is dead.

If they sound like children of Holocaust survivors, it’s more than coincidence. Trojian and DerOhannesian are both Armenian-Americans, and during World War I their families faced what has been called the first genocide of the 20th century, at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The United Nations defines genocide as the “intent to destroy” a people, “in whole or in part,” including creating deadly conditions without outright killing.

On April 24, 1915, after more than a decade of increasing hostilities and massacres, the ruling party of the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks, started a campaign of forced deportations and mass executions that eventually claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians and drove many of the survivors into a worldwide diaspora. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion, and Armenians say they were targeted because of their religion.

Although there is a massive amount of documentary evidence of the atrocities—they were well covered by the U.S. media at time and decried by the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and a German medic smuggled out pictures, among other things—neither Turkey nor the United States has acknowledged the genocide. Turkey, in fact, actively denies it.

The connection to the Holocaust is not just circumstantial. Adolf Hitler, before his invasion of Poland in 1939, reportedly concluded remarks to his military leaders by saying “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”

Members of the Capital District Armenian Genocide Committee are quick to point out Hitler’s quote as a reason why the genocide should not be forgotten. Rafi Topalian, owner of Top Custom Jewelers in Watervliet, echoes Elie Wiesel, the well-known Holocaust survivor and writer: “Once you deny a genocide, you’re committing another genocide.”

On Monday (April 26), the committee held its third annual Armenian Genocide Memorial on the Capitol steps in Albany. Two dozen people, mostly from the local Armenian community, gathered to hear a phalanx of politicians pledge their support for the formal acknowledgement of the genocide. Speakers included Rep. John Sweeney (R-Clifton Park), Assemblymen Jack McEneny (D-Albany) and Ron Canestrari (D-Cohoes), and Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian, an Armenian himself.

Marianne Tashjian, one of the event’s organizers, said the rainy weather made the turnout smaller than expected. A busload of 45 people, including many of Monday’s attendees, had ridden down to New York City the day before for a large event in Times Square, braving pouring rain. “It’s a little sacrifice to make compared to what our families went through,” said Tashjian.

The Capital Region, especially Troy, is one of about a dozen population centers for Armenians on the East Coast. In the 2000 Census, 2,310 people in the Capital Region indicated that their ancestry was Armenian. Members of the community put the number at more like 4,000.

New York, along with 32 other states, has acknowledged the genocide. This year, resolutions sponsored by Canestrari and State Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) recognized the observance on Monday, and a proclamation from Gov. Pataki declared April 24 Armenian Remembrance Day.

In Congress, however, repeated resolutions to acknowledge the genocide have failed to pass. A high-profile attempt in 2000 was widely acknowledged to have been set aside because of pressure from Turkey, which threatened trade sanctions and withdrawal of military cooperation.

Though the genocide is nearly 90 years in the past, the active movement for recognition feels young to Topalian. “For many years, Armenians throughout the world were in shock,” he said. “They didn’t know what hit them. It’s only in the past few decades that we started to talk about it, to lobby. . . . We’re thankful that we’ve reached this point, though it’s taken 90 years.”

But there’s also a sense of urgency, as fewer and fewer survivors are around to tell their stories firsthand. “Now is a critical time for us,” said Trojian, who noted that it probably will take wider knowledge about the genocide to push the issue at the federal level. “It’s tough to ask America as a society to help us in having Turkey recognize this if they don’t know what it is,” he said. “It’s like hit or miss. You speak to some people and they’ve never even heard of the country. Others know it very well. There’s a small part of the school curriculum in New York that is supposed to cover the Armenian genocide, but often it’s not taught, or it doesn’t sink in because it was so brief.”

Many members of the committee are heavily involved in various cultural organizations, including the Armenian Men’s Choral Ensemble and the teenage dance group Sipan, which will perform at the Egg at Empire State Plaza on Sunday. Armenian language classes are held for both children and adults, often through the churches.

At Monday’s rally, Tutunjian, Troy’s first Armenian mayor and clearly well-known to the crowd, got the largest applause of the event when he closed his speech by reiterating, in Armenian, that the community will never forget. By saying it in Armenian, said Toplian, he showed that he was not forgetting.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Here’s Your Outcry
City Hall protest aims to keep the questions raised by David Scaringe’s death from getting lost amid other Albany Police Department turmoil

After Donald Kinsella, the special prosecutor assigned to investigate the New Year’s Eve shooting death of David R.A. Scaringe, said in a television interview that he hadn’t really heard from the public on the issue, phone calls began to flood Loralynne Krobetzky’s house. “They were saying ‘Oh my God, did you hear this?’” she recalled. In response, she and other friends of Scaringe organized a rally outside Albany City Hall last Wednesday (April 21) to show the city that they remain outraged over the tragedy.

Over 100 people, friends and family as well as concerned residents who hadn’t known Scaringe, gathered to demand action from the Common Council, bearing signs that read “Here is your public outcry,” “Justice for Dave, Safety for Albany,” and “It could have been you.”

A grand jury is currently hearing testimony on the shooting, but Krobetzky said that the issue is too important to wait until the grand jury finishes its investigation. “They need to act now,” she said. “This needs to not happen again.” She said she wanted the council to do a thorough investigation, with complete openness in the process, using all powers available to them. Mayor Jerry Jennings pulled the Citizens Police Review Board off the case on April 12, something he can do when an incident is before a grand jury or the subject of a lawsuit against the city. This means it’s up to the Common Council, said protestors.

“Either the officers were within the policy and the policy needs to be changed or they were not within the policy and they need to be prosecuted,” Krobetsky said. “There’s been no disciplinary measures at all. What sort of message does that send?” Officers Joseph Gerace and William Bonanni have been on administrative leave with pay since the shooting.

“I don’t know what more movement they expect,” said Jim Miller, spokesman for the Albany Police Department. “There’s been a special prosecutor appointed to this, the process seems to be going along at a smooth pace. . . . As far as our policies, we’re not going to make any kind of snap judgments for nonlegitimate reasons. We’ll await the outcome of the grand jury and the Common Council, [and then] if we feel the need to adjust our pursuit policy, or any other kind of policy, we will.”

Richard Conti (Ward 6), president pro tempore of the Common Council, said the council was going to wait until the grand jury investigation was finished. “There are so many layers right now, that it’s difficult to sort everything out,” he said, “which is not to say these issues won’t be discussed, the issue is just when will that happen.” He added that he thought that people continuing to raise concerns is helpful, however, because it “raises sensitivity on how these policies and procedures are implemented in densely populated neighborhoods.” Conti lives around the corner from the spot on Lark Street where Scaringe was shot, and says he sympathizes with other residents’ concerns about safety there.

For their part, some members of the police department have felt that officers Gerace and Bonanni were abandoned by their leadership when the department claimed that several commanders had tried to stop the chase, but hadn’t gotten through on their radios. One letter signed “The Honorable Men and Women of the Albany Police Department,” which was circulated to the Common Council, called the investigation into radio traffic a “red herring” while the “lives and careers of good, values centered courageous officers like Officer Bill Bonnanni (sic) and Joe Gerace . . . are in the balance.” Another letter, posted on union boards in the station houses, said, “We fully support [Joe and Bill] and know that in the end they will get through this.”

The rally was scheduled for Wednesday because the city of Albany’s Web site listed it as a date for a Common Council meeting. The public-meeting calendar on the Web site has not been updated since last year, but does not identify that the dates are for 2003.

Although Krobetzky was pleased with the event’s turnout, she said that more people, especially friends of Scaringe’s, would have turned out if they had not been afraid of being arrested.

“I’d think they’d be more afraid of getting shot,” noted Carl, another rally attendee.

Krobetzky agreed. “If I’m not safe on Lark Street on New Year’s Eve, what makes me safe at the Tulip Festival?” she asked. “I feel like I’m living in the Old West.”

Krobetzky said she didn’t expect to hold another rally, but would encourage people to speak at the public comment period at the next council meeting. “We invite everyone to come back,” she said.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

WMDs in Our Backyard
Illness related to local depleted-uranium processing, and its use in Afghanistan and Iraq, disconcerting to New York activists and senators alike

Depleted uranium is radioactive, toxic and indestructible. It’s also regarded as one of the most effective anti-tank weapons because it pierces armor. DU has attracted international attention lately because it’s being used in Afghanistan and Iraq, exposing civilians and soldiers alike to its radioactivity. But try telling National Lead’s neighbors that the risks associated with depleted uranium are found only overseas.

Depleted-uranium projectiles were made at the former National Lead site in Colonie until the plant closed in the early ’80s, and some of the plant’s neighbors and employees say that is the cause of their rare and many illnesses [“One Half-life to Live,” Feb. 5]. Now local activists are working to connect the issues of NL’s DU emissions and illnesses to the deployment of DU munitions in Afghanistan and Iraq and their subsequent contamination.

The Depleted Uranium Weapons Network of the Hudson Mohawk Region and a coalition of peace-oriented groups met recently with aides for New York state’s two U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, to ask them to work on eliminating the risks of DU exposure. Their staffers agreed to bone up on the issue, and the group hopes to talk with them again soon.

The activists want the senators to introduce a companion bill to one in the House of Representatives that requires DU cleanup, research and medical care. They also charge that the Pentagon is not complying with its own regulations regarding informing troops about DU risks and testing opportunities. They want adequate testing of troops before and after deployment (which Clinton was assured would be done prior to the invasion of Iraq; she has since forcefully requested that the Department of Defense fulfill its promise, so far to no avail) and to make sure the troops are properly trained and equipped to deal with DU. Locally, the group wants adequate health studies to be done of NL employees and its neighbors, past and present.

Tons of DU was used in the Persian Gulf War and in the Balkans during the 1990s, and now it’s seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The DU weapons network wants to raise awareness about the health effects of DU for soldiers and civilians. “There’s so much evidence from the first Persian Gulf War,” said Tom Ellis, who’s been active on the NL issue for years, adding that many of the tens of thousands of veterans from that war who have applied for disability were exposed to depleted uranium. The cover-up about the illnesses those soldiers developed, known as Gulf War Syndrome, and the repetition now of many of the same claims, is particularly outrageous to Ellis.

One of NL’s neighbors, Ron Russo, pointed out that DU is a nuclear by-product, so it is cheap. But Russo said cost ought not be a factor, because DU is “ruining communities here before they’re ruining communities overseas.” Russo is terminally ill, which he believes is a result of living near the NL plant as a child.

Network member Sheree Craigue called DU a “toxic boomerang,” and said its actual cost would be higher “if they factored in the cleanup costs and the medical costs” after its use. It’s that boomerang effect that ultimately might help stop the use of DU; unlike cluster bombs, DU exposure comes home to roost.

This month, several members of the 442nd Military Police Company of the New York National Guard who served in Iraq have tested positive for inhaled DU in independent testing done at the behest of the New York Daily News after soldiers reported symptoms and difficulty getting Army hospitals to test them.

Research indicates that when a shell with DU hits a target, miniscule radioactive particles are released into the air, attach to dust particles and are inhaled by people. The Pentagon initially said that because DU is a heavy metal, it would fall quickly, making inhalation unlikely. But researchers like Leonard Dietz have seen evidence of large dispersions of DU from the original source, because as particulate matter DU can be reintroduced into the air by any disturbance, like a sandstorm.

Stories of exposure in the recent wars have gotten a lot of attention and given anti-DU activists hope that the public is becoming more aware about DU. Locally, the DU weapons network is hoping to reach out to soldiers returning home, and as well as the public. Russo noted that some people living near NL don’t know about DU, but he’s organizing events to help inform them and raise money to help fund testing for NL’s neighbors. The next is a benefit concert at the end of May.

The DU Weapons Network is now working to urge the state Department of Transportation to label DU as radioactive material when it is in transit, because the permit allowing it not to be marked is up for renewal at the end of June.

“The bottom line is to work on banning this,” said network member Carole Ferraro. She said they also hope to “address the fact that this is an illegal weapon that’s as illegal as land mines and cluster bombs—it’s just that this country won’t acknowledge that.”

—Ashley Hahn

Freedom of choice: Valerie Scott in a voting booth at 20 Rensselaer St. in District 2. Photo by: Teri Currie


County Races Run

After redistricting, lawsuits, court orders and ballot scandals, the long-delayed Albany County legislative elections finally happened on Tuesday (April 27).

County Democrats picked up a few seats, but just how many depends on how some are counted, since two registered Democrats won on smaller party lines, against Democratic Party-endorsed candidates. And it could be said that the small parties came out winners on Election Day: Three candidates won without being endorsed by either of the two major parties. The Green party also reported respectable showings in its three races, garnering 25 percent of the vote in two.

In District 2, representing much of Albany’s South End, five candidates faced off: Marilyn Hammond, who beat incumbent Lucille McKnight in the primary for the Democratic line; McKnight on the Working Families line; Green candidate Steven Segore; Independence and Conservative candidate Stephen Stofelano; and Norman Zidback on the Preferential Ballot line. McKnight won by 63 votes over Stofelano.

In District 18, Shawn Morse, president of the Cohoes firefighters union, won on the Independence, WF, and Conservative lines, beating out the appointed Democratic candidate and a Republican. “It sends a message that it doesn’t matter what political line you represent, the people are going to vote for the person who is going to do the best for them,” Morse said. It’s particularly notable, he added, because Democrats have been dominant in Cohoes for more than a century. He said people really responded to his simple campaign promises to work hard and keep his word, and that residents appreciated his earnest effort to actually listen to their concerns.

In Colonie’s District 27, registered Democrat Michael Aidala won on the Independence line against Richard Stack, Conservative Party chairman, who was endorsed by the Republican and Conservative parties. There was no Democratic Party candidate.

The counts at press time remained unofficial, and absentee and paper ballots have yet to be counted, which could change the outcome of some narrow wins. Currently, two races remain too close to call, with just two votes separating the candidates. Republican William Hoblock leads Democrat Richard Gross in District 26 in Colonie and Republican Lee Carman appears to have squeaked past incumbent Democrat Gene Messercola in District 29.

During the primaries, races in the first four districts were marked by heated competition and allegations of absentee ballot fraud. Because of the earlier troubles, the general election’s absentee ballots for all 39 districts were impounded.

In the controversial District 3 race, incumbent Democrat Wanda Willingham won a do-over primary by a mere 12 votes over Jestin Williams, whose campaign was accused of the absentee ballot improprieties [“Redistricted, Reprimaried, Retried,” Newsfront, April 15]. Williams’ supporters staged a write-in campaign for the general election, and those votes have yet to be counted. Meanwhile, a lawsuit over the absentee ballot tactics is pending in federal court.

—Ashley Hahn

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