A student takes notes about the life of Women's Suffrage Movement leader Alice Paul.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in momen’s of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s words never rang as true as they did this week. As millions of people continued to pour into the nation’s capital on the day dedicated to his memory, America’s first black president prepared to make history by taking the oath of office.
On the eve of that inauguration, while the world anxiously waited to see Dr. Kings dream move closer to a reality, hundreds, young and old, gathered in Pasadena, California for a “moment of noise” to honor the countless individuals who throughout history, in times of “challenge and controversy,” dared to do more than just dream of a better world.
The event, titled “the Opposite of Silence,” was organized by the United Human Rights Council (UHRC) at Pasadena’s Armenian Center, a building itself erected to honor the legacy of a people who stood for justice in the face of oppression. Marking the second anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink, the “Opposite of Silence” sought to highlight the lessons that emerged from that fateful day two years ago when a gunman attempted to silence truth by killing its advocate at the doorstep of his Istanbul office.
Before dying, Dink spoke out in opposition to the silence of indifference plaguing the world. With pen and paper he waged a struggle for peace, and worked to bring understanding between Armenia’s and Turks, whose mutual history has been stained by the genocide. By chance, the anniversary this year fell on Martin Luther King Day, allowing the organizers to draw a link between the two men and many other ordinary men and women who rose to the challenges of their day to try and bend the arch of history toward a better future.
“Tonight we remember more than just one individual, and more than just one cause,” exclaimed Saro Paparian in his opening remarks to the crowd gathered on Monday. “We have gathered to discover something that only you yourselves may truly be able to define. The Opposite of Silence.”
In defining what those words meant to him, Paparian, who serves as the chairman of the UHRC, pointed across the room to portraits of men and women who, through their vision and dedication, became history’s architects for change. Invoking the memory of men like Malcolm X and women like Alice Paul, he said "it’s hard to find a single word or phrase that brings justice to the meaning behind the opposite of silence.”
“To oppose silence is to stand as others sit, to speak up while others whimper or say nothing at all, to remember when others merely forget,” he said, speaking of the need to bring down barriers that suggest inherent inequality between people of color or differing sexual orientation. “Tonight we commence in the opposite of silence, through action rather than just words, just as Hrant Dink had opposed silence; as Martin Luther King Jr. had opposed silence.”
Paparian’s words were a poignant reminder to the audience that the indifference to injustice that allows the Armenian Genocide to still go unpunished, is the same as that which stood against women’s suffrage, legislated the segregation of African Americans, and banned gay marriage.
“This was a wake-up call for my generation,” said Sanan Shirinian, a member of the UHRC. “Hopefully we can spark something in our own community and among our youth so they too may come to the level of awareness that inspired hundreds of thousands of young Americans in the 1950s and 60s to demand their civil rights.”
The wake-up call Shirinian spoke of was characteristic of the entire evening. While posters around the room presented the stories and struggles of people like Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Hrant Dink, Alice Paul, and Martin Luther King, a short film at the opening of the event weaved a thread of clips featuring ordinary people speaking up, organizing, and fighting for an end to the Vietnam war, the injustices of inequality, and the mayhem of genocide.
“The video was extremely moving,” according to UCLA student Arek Santikian, who described the footage of Dr. King’s speeches and Hrant Dink’s interviews in the video as “truly motivating.”
“I think they wanted us to feel inspired. To not waste time sulking in the sorrow of injustice, but instead to get motivated and carry on their work," he said.
As community performers like R-Mean used poetry and music to amplify the message of the night, volunteers from the Armenian National Committee’s Western Region helped people fill postcards to be sent to President Obama as part of the ANCA-Save Darfur Coalition’s effort to urge the new president to stop the genocide raging in Darfur.
Others were busy raising awareness of the millions of children throughout the world forced to become soldiers in wars they cannot understand. Working with the UCSB chapter of Human Rights watch, Shant Karnikian and Amy Kaladzhyan sat at the entrance of the hall promoting the “Red Hands Campaign,” collecting red handprints to present to the United Nations as a form of petition for stricter enforcement of its virtually disregarded ban on child soldiers.
Meanwhile, members from the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) brought hundreds of canned and non-perishable foods to the event to be donated to community food banks in the area as part of the ANCA’s “Cans for the Cause Campaign.” Organized in response to President Obama’s call for a national day of service on Martin Luther King Day, the campaign had collected more than 10,000 cans nationwide by the end of that night.
"The Armenian Cause is interpreted by some as being something strictly Armenian and genocide related but when you take a good look at the principle behind it, you can’t help but understand that it is actually a cause for human dignity, justice, and the rights of all," explained Berj Parseghian, a member of the AYF’s central executive. "This is why we collected cans tonight and its why we remember the sacrifices of men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X."
"When people unite, despite their nationality, gender, or sexual orientation, around a common purpose, a sense of empowerment fills the air. After that you can do anything, even move mountains," he said. "The rights of our people will be achieved when we fight for them with the right purpose in mind–not genocide recognition, but rather equality for all."
"When that happens we will have an endless number of allies helping our cause, from civil rights organizers and gay rights activists to anti-war veterans and environmentalists,” Parseghian added.
With that in mind, members from the AYF and UHRC had spent the weeks leading up to the event shoring up community awareness of the effort, reaching out to various human rights organizations, as well as visiting college campuses to invite teachers and their students to attend.
Karry Maines, a student from Pasadena Community College, heard of the event in her Political Science class. She spent the evening walking around the hall with her notebook jotting down information about the civil rights movement. Maines was one among many students who came to the event to learn about the man whose struggle for free speech in Turkey seemed so similar to the tireless campaign for free speech begun by Mario Savio at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.
Jasvir Kour, a sociology student from the same school, pointed to the images of Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X, noting how their deaths made her sad. “But this doesn’t discourage me from believing in what I believe in,” she said. “No matter what you do or believe in, people who hate will always be against you, so you have to take a stand for what you believe is right and make it happen.”
For Raquel Dink, those words were embodied in her husband. At His funeral in Istanbul three years ago, she spoke to hundreds of thousands of people of the birth of the new era in Turkey his dedication to the truth had spawned. Her eulogy, read aloud by Sanan Shirinian toward the end of the event, demanded that his death not be in vain.
“A person does not become great naturally,” she read from the eulogy as candles were passed and lit throughout the room. “He became great because he thought great things and pronounced great words. You too all thought great things by coming here.”
“Two years ago today, shock waves went around the world as the one million, five hundred thousandth and first victim of the Armenian Genocide was brutally, cold-bloodedly, and calculatedly assassinated in Istanbul,” Vache Thomassian, the chairman of the AYF had stressed in his remarks before the reading of the eulogy. He described Dink as a man “who believed in the rights of all people,” who despite daily threats on his life continued to talk about the Armenia Genocide and promote democracy within Turkey.”
“There comes a point in the life of every individual, a crossroads, where they must make a decision on how they will live their life,” he said. “We need to take a look at our past, look around this room, you will see a history of steadfast resolution, a history of individuals who were willing to die on their feet rather than live on their knees, a history of people coming together, recognizing social wrongs and working to correct them.”
The history of the Armenian people, Thomassian explained, is full of stories of “charismatic and vigorous individuals who laid their lives on the line in order to attract the attention of a world too busy to care to issues that begged for change.”
“These self sacrificing souls knew the risks involved with their actions, but they also knew the greater risk of taking no action at all,” he said. “Those who will be our next generations will look back to us and they will ask: what did they do when the world wasn’t listening?”
“We must be able to say we did everything in our power, we organized ourselves, we educated ourselves, we worked together, we stood against political madness and we fought the righteous fight,” Thomassian stressed. “This is what we must say and this is what we must do to ensure a better tomorrow.”
Rather than bowing heads to pay respect to the fallen heroes of history, he invited the people gathered to join him in taking a moment to “think about something so wrong that it makes you want to scream out loud.”
“Now what are you going to do about it?” Thomassian asked.
“Leaving a boiling hell to run to a heaven is not for me. I wanted to turn this hell into heaven,” Hrant Dink once said.
Editor’s Note: The United Human Rights Council is a subcommittee of the Armenian Youth Federation. To find out how you can get involved, visit ayfwest.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.