With the headlines gone and the arrests made, Armenians in Burbank and Glendale are now struggling with the perceptions of their cultural identity after a massive crackdown on the organized crime ring Armenian Power.
The cultural perceptions — egged on by media bias, according to some, cultural fractions within their own community that hinder progress, according to others — have prompted many to dig deeper to address societal issues that many say are the root of the problem.
The sting last week, which resulted in the arrest of 70 people in Los Angeles County, was aimed at crippling Armenian Power. Nearly 100 people throughout Southern California have been accused of extortion, kidnapping and fraud totaling at least $20 million.
For Ara Arzumanian, who has worked in the field of youth development for the last 10 years, Armenian youth choosing a life of crime isn’t any different from teen suicide or depression, where multiple risk factors like socioeconomic status and drug and alcohol abuse are at play.
“The core issue of all these problems is that we as an Armenian community and broader community, we as human beings, have abandoned our teenagers,” he said. “If these kids are lost, it’s because we have lost them; if they fail, it’s because we’ve failed them. We are not involved in their lives.”
Arzumanian — a director for the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Generation Next program, which works to mentor at-risk youth — said turning the tide is also about prevention.
“We need to get massively involved in kids’ lives so we don’t have this problem,” he said.
A street gang with roots in East Hollywood from the late 1980s, Armenian Power was created in response to other ethnic gangs in the area, according to the federal indictment. But while most gangs concentrated on turf wars and rivals, Armenian Power ran a tight ship of members who participated in fraud, extortion and white-collar crime, and didn’t discriminate against ethnic lines when choosing victims.
The Rev. Vazken Movsesian, who’s part of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, has focused part of his ministry on gang intervention.
“It was a way of answering to being bullied around, basically filling a void that Armenian organizations and churches couldn’t fill for them,” he said of how Armenian Power came to be. “In my humble opinion, this is where the church and the organizations should have been and they weren’t.”
The tendency of the larger Armenian community to ignore youth violence and drug abuse has provided opportunities for the gang to persist, Movsesian added.
“We’re building spires to heaven, and we’re not looking at what’s on the street,” he said. “This is the new genocide; 1915 is finished. There’s a genocide happening right here in Glendale. We’re losing our identity, who we are as people, our dignity.
“We’re known as the hustlers of the health-care system, we’re known as the thieves and the thugs — I just can’t fight that anymore.”
Internal rifts within the Armenian community exacerbate the issue. Armenians in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, who had established communities and identities in those countries following the Armenian Genocide, immigrated again to Los Angeles County following civil war and unrest in their new homelands. At the same time, Armenian immigrants began to arrive following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Many say the ethnic group has struggled with these inter-cultural divisions and separations that pin one against the other, hindering unity.
Burbank resident Harut Akopyan, who said he felt the divisions when his family first emigrated from Armenia in 1988, contended that much of the crime emerging out of the community could be attributed to recent immigrants from places where “corruption is rule of law.”
Stella Gukasyan, whose family also emigrated from Armenia, said self-isolation is a large part of the problem.
“We can do better at being neighbors to our non-Armenian Angeleno neighbors, classmates, co-workers and community members,” she said.
Mhair Zeitounian, a USC communications student with roots in Glendale, agreed. As president of the school’s Armenian Student Assn., Zeitounian said he has made it a point to interact with other groups and co-host cultural events on campus.
If Armenians just stick to themselves, the chances of the rest of the community having a more accurate view of their community are slim, he added.
Software engineer Justin Saunders said his Armenian neighbor, who was arrested as part of the federal indictment last week, claimed to not speak English and would come and go at all hours of the night.
Looking back, Saunders said he wondered what would have happened if a typical noise issue with his neighbor, where he sometimes banged on the ceiling or yelled out his window to quell the volume, could have escalated into something serious.
“I kind of feel that if this guy was really a criminal, I got off lightly,” he said. “What if he had a temper?”