The masked figure in black walked the perimeters of the two private Armenian schools, clutching Turkish flags. In the early-morning hours Tuesday, school officials and police said, he zip-tied more than a dozen flags on the schools’ gates and fled.
Authorities are investigating the incidents, which have sparked concern and outrage among L.A.’s Armenians. Many have described the display of the flags as an act of hate, intended to intimidate the community and discredit the Armenian genocide. Los Angeles police were reviewing surveillance footage and planned to boost patrols near the schools.
“It came as a complete shock and surprise in the sense we weren't expecting it,” said Arpi Avanesian, principal of AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School in Canoga Park, where Turkish flags were found. “I don’t know what this person was thinking about. Why today? What set them off to do this? What doesn't shock me is they did it.”
Flags were also found hanging at Holy Martyrs Ferrahian High School, an Armenian school in Encino founded nearly 60 years ago by members of a generation of Armenian genocide survivors, said Nora Hovsepian, chair of the Armenian National Committee of America Western Region.
“This is a direct affront to them and to their descendants,” Hovsepian said.
As many as 1.5 million Armenians were rounded up and killed by the Ottoman Turkish government beginning in 1915 in what is widely regarded as an orchestrated effort by the Turkish government. Historians have considered what happened a model for other genocides that followed. Turkey denies that the deaths constitute an act of genocide.
The incident in Encino was logged as a hate crime and the one in Canoga Park was recorded as a hate incident, said Officer Jeffrey Lee, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. He did not know why there was a discrepancy.
Police described the suspect as a man who stands 5 feet, 8 inches to 5 feet, 11 inches tall. He wore a black mask, black hooded sweatshirt, black pants and black shoes.
Some elected officials told reporters at a news conference Tuesday evening that they were urging authorities to find and prosecute the suspect.
“It is the equivalent of putting a Nazi swastika on the side of a Jewish school,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes one of the schools. “This is a terrible affront. It is the equivalent of a positive statement about the Armenian genocide. Putting out Turkish flags is that that kind of statement.”
The flags on both campuses were taken down before students arrived.
Avanesian said the school’s P.E. coach and chef, who arrive at the campus first, saw the flags hung outside the main gate when they pulled in. They took photographs and removed the flags. Later that morning, staff walked the perimeter of the six-acre school, finding more flags posted, she said. Video surveillance footage shows one or two men dressed in all black hanging the flags on the school gate early Tuesday, she said.
“We want to all get along,” Avanesian said. “We want people to understand the crimes of the past and we can all have a bright and happy future. Our hope is one day Turkey will understand what their government did over 100 years ago.”
A number of countries have issued statements over the years condemning Turkey’s actions as genocide. But the United States has not.
U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, who represents the San Fernando Valley, condemned the vandalism in a statement Tuesday.
“It is particularly cruel to those whose family members died in the Armenian genocide,” the Democrat said. “I call on law enforcement to make arresting the vandals a high priority.”
By the end of the school day, Ferrahian students had responded: Armenian flags waved all over campus, hanging from stair railings and gates.