Carson Mayor Jim Dear, who favored erecting a statue in the city of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Turkish Republic, bowed to public pressure and voted against the tribute to the leader connected to the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Dear received a $3,000 campaign contribution from the Turkish Coalition of California. (File photo by Robert Casillas/Daily Breeze)
Hundreds of protesters crowded Carson City Hall late Tuesday, calling Mayor Jim Dear’s plan to install a Civic Center monument to a man they hold responsible for the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians an affront to human rights.
Dear hatched the proposal with members of the Turkish community, who had already commissioned designs for the statue of the first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The mayor wanted to add the piece to the city’s International Sculpture Garden.
Dear, who accepted a $3,000 campaign contribution from the Turkish community last month, said he intended the garden on the grounds of Carson City Hall to be an artistic nod to world peace and democracy. City officials have sought sculpture donations of world leaders, and the Los Angeles Turkish American Association was excited to participate.
But before the City Council could give the project its blessing Tuesday night, furious protesters said it would be akin to erecting a statue of Adolf Hitler.
Glendale Mayor Zareh Sinanyan told council members he was shocked they would even consider such an offensive idea.
“Approximately half of Glendale residents are Armenian-American and survivors of the Armenian genocide,” Sinanyan said. “My namesake was born 80 kilometers outside of Constantinople and subjected to the horrible genocide of 1915 but managed to survive. That’s the only reason I’m here tonight.
“Don’t accept this gift.”
Extra Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies attended the meeting to maintain peace between the two groups, which alternately erupted in angry outbursts throughout the discussion. Dear and Councilman Albert Robles, who had supported the plans, backpedaled during the meeting and the idea ultimately was scrapped on a unanimous vote.
“I think the International Sculpture Garden, which was your idea Mayor Dear, is a great idea,” Robles said. “But the purpose of the garden was to bring positive and noteworthy coverage to the city of Carson. Not the type of coverage we’re receiving today, which is controversial and not positive.”
Representatives of the Turkish community argued passionately in favor of the monument, which was to consist of a series of nine plaques on pedestals lauding Ataturk, a man they likened to George Washington, as the founder of modern Turkey. It was to be the second installment in the International Sculpture Garden. Dear proposed the garden in 2010, and it currently has one statue — donated by the Republic of the Philippines — of Dr. Jose P. Rizal, a Filipino national hero.
Jack Hadjinian, the mayor of Montebello, told the council that Ataturk was responsible for killing several of his family members.
“How could you entertain the idea of erecting a monument of a man responsible for the decimation of my family?” Hadjinian asked. “It’s an insult to propose this in the city of Carson. I’m the great-grandchild of a genocide victim and the grandson of a genocide survivor.”
The government of Turkey denies that the systematic extermination of Armenians took place beginning in 1915, though leading historians call it one of the world’s first modern genocides.
At points during Tuesday’s meeting, Dear stopped to lecture the rowdy audience.
“If you have to heckle the speaker because you can’t resist it, then go outside and look at the monitor and heckle the monitor,” Dear told vocal audience members. “You will be ejected from this room if you argue with me.”
Raife Gulru Gezer, the consul general of Turkey in Los Angeles, pleaded with council members to accept the statue of Ataturk, whom she called “a great man, the father of modern Turkey.” She quoted Presidents Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy praising the leader.
A representative of the Los Angeles Turkish American Association, which helped fund the statue, told council members that Ataturk changed the course of the country from one of oppression to a democratic republic.
Under the Ottoman Empire “I could have been in hijab with no power, the fourth wife of a man, but the republic’s reforms gave me a life where I could be successful,” said the woman, who did not spell her name. “Should we hold (Ataturk) responsible for everything that went wrong in the world? He was on the cover of Time magazine three or four times.
“When you start with the ashes of an empire, you don’t become great in one day. The reforms he made set the foundation for a great society that I grew up in and that I’m totally indebted with, and that’s why I’m working on this project day and night and putting my money where my mouth is.”
Dear, who accepted the campaign donation from the Turkish Coalition of California political action committee, ultimately bowed to the pressure and joined his colleagues in rejecting the statue.
But the mayor, who will be leaving office soon to become city clerk, the position he captured in Tuesday’s election, said he would instead try to win support for a statue showing Armenian and Turkish figures shaking or holding hands.
“My dream is that future generations will be able to put their differences behind them,” Dear said, arguing for such a monument. “We have people in ISIS chopping off people’s heads. That’s the way of an uncivilized Middle Ages mentality. We have to move forward in life and teach our children that they have to get along.”