Philadelphia Armenian community steadfast in face of anti-Armenian campaign

Billboard sponsored by MUSIAD USA on I-95 in Philadelphia

Editor’s Note: On February 24, 2021, the Armenian National Committee of PA notified the Weekly that it successfully worked with the City of Philadelphia to determine that there was no foul play with respect to the Armenian flag. The flag blew away due to bad weather; other flags along the Parkway were damaged. ANC-PA is working with the City on replacing the flag and making sure that there is continued video surveillance of the flag’s location.

Editor’s Note, February 18, 2021: A representative from Lamar Advertising notified the author of this op-ed via email that the billboard has since been removed and MUSIAD USA campaign has been cancelled.

The Philadelphia Armenian community was shocked in recent days by a billboard which appeared along I-95’s approach to the city. The aggressively-worded sign was placed by Lamar Advertising through the sponsorship of MUSIAD USA, an organization of Turkish businessmen and industrialists. The billboard prompted a flood of outrage from the Armenian community; Lamar received over a thousand calls and emails within two days demanding its removal. While the billboard is being described by its creators as having a peaceful message for Turks, Azerbaijanis and Armenians to live in harmony, many on social media have noted the aggressive wording and design of the so-called “peaceful” message. “The statement belies reality and completely ignores the ongoing atrocities being committed against the Armenian people,” writes the Armenian Assembly of America, citing the maltreatment of Armenian POWs and the orchestrated denial campaign of the Armenian Genocide.

One question from Philadelphia’s Armenians has been why would something apparently directed at the citizens of Armenia be posted in their city? It immediately brought to mind the July 2020 report of a hate crime allegedly committed by Turkish-speaking men against an Armenian woman and her young son in Philadelphia. The alleged incident was part of a widespread pattern of violence and threats targeted against Diasporan Armenians protesting Azerbaijan’s unprovoked attacks on the Armenian region of Tavush last summer. Then, after the end of the Artsakh War in November 2020, the Armenian flag displayed along Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway disappeared from its mast; now, its replacement has apparently been stolen as well, discovered missing just a day after the billboard’s premiere. In a statement, the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of Pennsylvania said city officials “are committed to identifying the root cause and ensuring a meaningful resolution.” The local ANC says the area is now under video surveillance.

Armenian flag missing at Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia (Photo: @aniphilly)

The timing of a Turkish-sponsored billboard, just months after the war during which Turkey played a major operational role and in which its drones killed numerous Armenian soldiers, looks to have anything but peaceful motives. For Philadelphia Armenians, it appears to be a cynical threat with the intention of intimidating them.

An article published Tuesday on the website confirms this perception. The Azerbaijani-language article features a MUSIAD representative and his insights on the decision to place the bizarre billboard. The unnamed representative says the organization’s motivation for investing in this type of public advertisement was directed at Philadelphia’s local Armenian community, noting that it has been vocal in speaking out against the joint Azerbaijani-Turkish assault on Artsakh. Indeed, a number of protest actions calling for peace and justice were held around the city both during and after the war, including one in October which received a great deal of local media attention after a car protest spontaneously shut down highways including I-95, where the billboard is now situated. The article accuses local Armenians of continuing to do “ugly things” and spreading “baseless and false information.” The unnamed MUSIAD representative goes one step further by claiming their action has the goal of  “preventing the civilian population from being harmed” by the Philadelphia Armenian community’s “aggressive behavior.” Thus it is insinuated that the hostile, anti-Armenian tone of the billboard is meant to intimidate the community from its First Amendment right to protest in order to silence its members. 

Further confirming their organized targeting, MUSIAD requests help from the Azerbaijani Diaspora to prevent community members from speaking out and characterizes Philadelphia Armenians as displaying “savage behavior.” While defenders of the billboard continue to point to its “peaceful message,” the new article removes any doubt as to the true intention behind the placement, which unfortunately has nothing to do with peace. It seems this veneer of “harmony” was by design to allow it to pass Lamar’s compliance review, which seems to have lacked the proper context and due diligence to recognize the threat inherent in the messaging they were co-opted to broadcast. As a result, anti-Armenian forces like MUSIAD feel emboldened and justified in their aggressive behavior. While the matter is still outstanding, the cohesive advocacy of Philly’s Armenians has turned this negative sign into another opportunity to educate their fellow American citizens about the recent tragedy in Artsakh. There’s little doubt this affair will soon be settled in a positive manner. 

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Paul Vartan Sookiasian is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has worked in Armenia as the English language editor at CivilNet and as a project associate for USAID programs. More recently he served as one of the organizers of the World Congress on Information Technology 2019 Yerevan. He is also a historian who researches and brings to light the long and rich history of Philadelphia's Armenian community.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this article. Lamar and the city of Philadelphia by allowing this sort of display are indirectly engaging in aggression against Armenians by encouraging Armenophobia.

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