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Barsoumian: Armenian American Voices in ‘Occupy’ Movement

BOSTON, Mass. (A.W.)—Spread over 80 countries and 1,000 cities, the global Occupy movement is growing fast, with protesters camping out in financial districts and public areas, demanding an end to “corporate greed.” In the U.S., they come from various walks of life, sharing similar—and often interrelated—grievances, from exorbitantly high-priced educational opportunities, to a lack of health insurance, to the flood of home foreclosures, and anger over bank bailouts. Many Armenian Americans share the same frustrations as their fellow citizens and, like them, have taken to the streets, lending their voices to the occupying masses.

Occupy Boston (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

Action Through Poetry

Sevan “Apollo” Aydinian, also known as Apollo Poetry, is an Armenian American poet who is a spokesman for Occupy Phoenix. He hopes the Occupy movement will result in “a complete restructuring of the political and monetary system,” he told the Armenian Weekly. Once the public understands the relationship between the two systems, once “they see that they are being used as slaves,” they will join the “revolution,” he said.

Occupy Phoenix began on Oct. 15 when protesters gathered in the city’s Cesar Chavez Plaza at noon. Less than 48 hours later, many were already arrested, charged with trespassing or loitering, and then released. As in many other cities, however, the protesters kept coming back.

Aydinian has been careful in discussing the movement in on-air interviews with leading channels. The media often tries to misrepresent the protesters, he said. In a recent interview, he went to great lengths to explain the lack of vertical hierarchy in the movement to an interviewer bent on pinpointing “the leaders.” There are facilitators and organizers, maintained Aydinian, and anyone can assume either position. But Occupy Wall Street, or any of its side-shoots, has no leaders—not in the conventional sense, anyway.

The poet stressed the diversity of views present on the ground. You can’t box the protesters in a single category. “There are people from all parts of the political spectrum. That’s the main reason [Occupy Wall Street] grew to over 1,600 cities in a couple of weeks. It includes everybody. This is truly the people’s movement,” he said.

The “We are the 99 percent” slogan has caught on. It refers to the increasingly better-known and disturbing statistic that the top 1 percent of Americans controls between 40-50 percent of the country’s wealth. And that wealth, say Occupiers, has been used to undermine the democratic process and the wellbeing of the other 99 percent.

Blogger with Eye for Signs

Hrag Vartanian, the editor of the New York-based art blogazine Hyperallergic, has paid close attention to the signs used by the protesters. He has recorded his observations in half-a-dozen posts. Impressed by the establishment of a library and an art station at Zuccotti Park, “Art and protest should never be separated,” he wrote in one. New signs hover over protesters’ heads every day, their anger and frustration vented through a handful of words thickly traced on cardboard squares. “Some of the signs point to the lack of healthcare in the lives of millions. Others are about the crippling debt college students leave college with. And there are some who are angry that corporations are being treated as individuals by our broken legal system,” Vartanian told the Armenian Weekly. Sometimes the signs are especially artistic, or witty. “I will believe corporations are people when one of them gets executed,” read one sign.

Social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, have been instrumental in organizing the movement. But even with all the new technology, good-old-fashioned newspapers—you know, paper and ink—are still appreciated. The proof is the Occupied Wall Street Journal, which printed its first 50,000 copies on Oct. 1.

Vartanian finds the movement inspirational. “It’s great to see people standing up for what most people believe in, like justice and equal treatment under the law,” he said.

Canada-based Adbusters Magazine—which advocates for environmental and social responsibility, and political and corporate accountability—called for the “occupation” of Wall Street on July 13. The magazine urged their 90,000 online followers to embrace the new revolutionary tactics seen around the globe—a “fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain,” in reference to the recent protests that unfolded in Cairo and Madrid.

Like many, Vartanian hopes Occupy Wall Street will bring about larger participation in the democratic process, and an end to “the incestuous world of D.C. politics and corporate interests.” This movement does not focus on one or two key issues, he said. “It’s about people’s anger towards injustice and being denied the opportunity to succeed.” He pointed out the professional and ethnic diversity of the Occupiers: “At first, reporters tried to dismiss the protesters as white middle-class college kids, but it’s far from the truth. The diversity of faces and background is mind blowing.”

Vartanian has seen an increased interest in the movement, evident in the growing number of visitors to Zuccotti Park. “When they step foot in that small block in lower Manhattan, they realize it’s not some hippy dippy thing, and they become aware that the mainstream media isn’t telling the public the whole story of what’s going on,” he said. “In my circles, Occupy Wall Street has become part of the daily conversation.”

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Teacher Calls on Armenian Community to Join

Simon Beugekian, a creative writing teacher in Boston, says the Occupy movement there represents a truly grassroots mobilization. Beugekian, who has spent time at Dewey Square—chosen for its immediacy to the city’s Financial District—says the Occupiers are demanding fair treatment by their government.

Represented on the small plot of grass, facing Boston’s Federal Reserve building, are students, workers, war veterans, and retirees. Their professions are as diverse as their backgrounds. There’s the younger generation, in college or fresh-out, with youthful zeal and vigor.

“Every single one of us recent graduates feels the crushing weight of student debt,” said Beugekian, who feels lucky to have come out of college with only $20,000 in loans. “A friend of mine, who graduated from Northeastern University with me…had to take close to $100,000 of student debts to graduate college. Due to that, he is unable to move out of his parents’ house, or even to save real money,” he said, adding, “When you’re paying more than $500 a month to a bank, and you will do so for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to see your financial situation improve.”

Beugekian, a former assistant editor at the Armenian Weekly, wishes to see the Armenian community’s involvement in the Occupy movements. They should support it, he said, “as a matter of principle.” Support can encompass various actions, from donating food and basic supplies, to showing up to the marches, to vocal endorsements. “If the Occupy movement is going to make any real change in the political arena, it will be thanks to resilient pressure and determination.”

Activist Jaded by Voting

New York City-based activist and novelist Nancy Kricorian identifies with the Occupy Wall Street agenda of prioritizing the needs of the common folk over those of corporations. “Voting no longer represents democracy,” she told the Weekly, since elected officials and corporations are in bed together. She hopes “the wealthy realize that their well-being is dependent on the health and happiness of the 99 percent.”

Kricorian is frustrated with war-related expenditures, which have come at the expense of fulfilling domestic needs. “Our country has been bankrupted by colonial wars and occupations while local needs, such as education, healthcare, and physical infrastructure, have been starved of needed resources,” she said.

“The anti-war movement, of which I have been a part since early 2003, was practically eviscerated by the hope of ‘Yes We Can,’ but now people have realized that [President Barack] Obama can’t and won’t unless the people push him harder than the wealthy one percent have been doing,” she said. That feeling—that they were let down by President Obama—is prevalent among Occupiers.

Kricorian has been frequenting Zuccotti Park since the Occupiers set up camp. She was there when Marxist academic Slavoj Zizek addressed the General Assembly, and even brought along her teenage daughter to one of the marches. Kricorian, who has authored Zabelle and Dreams of Bread and Fire, both of which deal with the Armenian Genocide, sees hope in the movement because it aims to hold the responsible parties—banks, multi-national corporations, and the government—accountable for the “mess” the country is currently in. As a national staff member of CODEPINK Women for Peace, Kricorian has helped at the organization’s table in the park, where members hand out “Make Out, Not War” stickers. One of her favorite features of the movement is the People’s Mic, where the words of the speaker are repeated by the crowd. It always starts with one person yelling out, “Mic check!” which is then echoed by those within an earshot.

Hopes for ‘Pragmatic’ Solutions

New York-based novelist Arthur Nersesian believes government leaders intentionally overlooked Wall Street crimes. This is not a partisan issue, he told the Weekly. “Wall Street orchestrated the collapse in cahoots with Rating Services and government regulators. Instead of appointing a special prosecutor, the crooks were rewarded.”

For Nersesian, one of the saddest aspects of Occupy Wall Street is that those camped out at Zuccotti Park—“those kids”—were not the main victims. “Mainly hardworking Americans, probably conservatives—those were the ones who lost their homes, savings, and jobs. The fact that these kids are responding is ironic,” he said.

The novelist supports the Occupy movement because “it is simply the only action I’ve seen to respond to this heist.”

Nersesian, who is currently working on his 11th novel, has visited the Occupy Wall Street protesters sporadically. He believes his country was “mugged” by the wealthy few, and is angry they faced no repercussions. “It would’ve been as if Bin Laden flew the planes into the towers and we did nothing,” he said.

And the Occupy Wall Street movement is “as if a group of private soldiers flew to Afghanistan to try to take on Bin Laden because the military didn’t do its job.”

Although he is mostly supportive of “the liberal agenda,” Nersessian wishes the movement had a more “pragmatic” focus, “like a special prosecutor to indict the primary culprits of the Wall Street heist, or rallying behind some legislation, or, for that matter, opposing the Koch Brother’s private gang, the Tea Party.” Yet, he worries that “mainstream America’s disdain for hippie protests” may hurt the movement in the long run. He believes that was the case in the late 1960’s, when Richard Nixon was elected president.

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Although police response has been heavy-handed at times, and has included mass arrests and the use of pepper-spray, stun grenades, and tear gas, the movement has also enjoyed the support of many of the largest unions in the U.S., as well as high-profile individuals. Author and activist Cornel West joined Occupy Boston days after the tents were set up, and about a week before joining protesters on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, which led to his arrest. Hundreds of U.S. writers signed a declaration supporting Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement around the world. They include authors Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, and Salman Rushdie, along with Kricorian, as well as Armenian American writers Nancy Agabian and Bianca Bagatounian.

Those who identify themselves as part of the 99 percent resent the established political and economic machine. The popular slogan, “They Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out!” sums up their deep frustration. Author Daniel Handler (penname, Lemony Snicket) had this to say after observing protesters at Zuccotti Park: “Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.”

4 Comments on Barsoumian: Armenian American Voices in ‘Occupy’ Movement

  1. Great Coverage Nanore on the Armenian side of the occupation. Keep it up..

  2. The new world order, world banking cartels, the global elite…and Obama we voted for is their man, along with dick cheney and rodham clinton !!  how many people have they killed since the 1st gulf war of 91 ? these are the devils children folks ! period !! have a plan and huddle together, buckle up and hang on tight… kisher paree

  3. Bravo Haroutig. You seem to be an America-Hay with a brain that functions. I am also glad that some of our “anti-corruption” crusaders here have finally begun addressing the biggest generator of corruption and evil in the world – Washington. Consequently, I am also happy that our embattled president Serj Sargsyan will finally get some well deserved rest…

  4. I believe activist Anoush Ter-Taulian is one of those staying in the park in New York, and is promoting Armenian issues along with American ones.

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