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Devaney fastens on to genocide debate

Seeks to turn up the pressure on national ADL

The Armenian community has looked mostly favorably on the involvement of Marilyn Petitto Devaney in the genocide debate. The Armenian community has looked mostly favorably on the involvement of Marilyn Petitto Devaney in the genocide debate. (LISA POOLE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE)

The controversy surrounding the Anti-Defamation League's stance on the Armenian genocide and the effort in some communities to drop their affiliation with the league's No Place for Hate program has many proponents but one curious leader: embattled governor's councilor and Watertown Town Councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney.

Devaney, who is scheduled to go on trial in December in connection with an alleged assault on a store clerk involving a curling iron, successfully brought forward a resolution last month calling for the Watertown Town Council to sever ties with the No Place for Hate program. The move was to protest the ADL's refusal to acknowledge that the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 was genocide.

Since then, Devaney has spoken before human rights groups in several communities, including Needham, Bedford, and Belmont, to urge they join Watertown's fight.

As a governor's councilor, said Devaney, a Democrat, she has twice approached the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which cosponsors No Place for Hate with the ADL, to ask its executive director, Geoff Beckwith, to withdraw participation.

The municipal association's board voted last Tuesday to issue a statement calling on the ADL to fully recognize the genocide and to support the resolution before Congress. The board agreed to continue to assess the association's relationship with the program, based on future actions of the ADL and, in particular, the results of a Nov. 1 meeting of the ADL national board, said Beckwith.

And on Sept. 27, Devaney plans to host a public forum at Watertown Middle School. She has invited representatives from the nearly 60 Massachusetts communities still involved in the program to hear why Watertown severed ties with the league. She said she hopes the meeting will prompt other communities to withdraw in solidarity and persuade the league to support the resolution now before Congress to formally recognize the genocide. "I lit one little candle. Think of how bright we would be if we had 59 candles," she said.

So far the involvement of several local politicians, including Devaney, has been viewed by the Armenian community as mostly positive. Some say they welcome the attention that Devaney and others have helped bring to the genocide cause, particularly when it wasn't clear if they would get much political mileage out of it.

Alin Gregorian, editor of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, an English-language Armenian newspaper, credits a July 6 letter to a Watertown newspaper by Newton resident David Boyajian for being the initial "catalyst" of the movement. "Marilyn Devaney sort of picked up the gauntlet he had thrown down," said Gregorian. "I think certainly [she] spoke up before all the chips had fallen."

Gregorian added Devaney was warmly received last week at the paper's 75th anniversary dinner in Newton.

But not everyone sees Devaney's front-and-center role as purely altruistic.

"Politicians came late to the table and now they're grandstanding," said John DiMascio, a freelance columnist active in the Watertown political scene. DiMascio has been sharply critical of state Representative Rachel Kaprielian, a Watertown Democrat, who has spoken out on the issue and co-organized a State House rally late last month.

Though he wouldn't comment specifically on Devaney or her efforts, DiMascio said he feels it's time to let Armenian lobbying groups determine the next steps and lead the way. "This isn't something any individual politician should be trying to spearhead," he said.

Activist Sevag Arzoumanian said Devaney's outspoken presence at local human rights meetings was seen by some as "intimidating" or "political opportunism." Arzoumanian runs the No Place for Denial.com blog, which chronicles the controversy, and sits on the executive committee of the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts.

Devaney bristled at suggestions she is trying to deflect attention from her legal troubles or to bolster her reelection bid to the Watertown Town Council in November. She said she got onboard this summer after learning of the league's view on the genocide from Boyajian's letter and Armenian-American constituents.

"It has nothing to do with anything," Devaney said of the timing of her involvement. "This is not political; this is humanitarian."

Devaney faces felony assault and battery charges in connection with an alleged April 13 altercation involving a Waltham beauty supply store clerk. Devaney is accused of hitting the clerk with a shopping bag containing a curling iron after being told the store would not accept her personal check without a driver's license. Devaney has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Her trial is slated to begin Dec. 13.

Needham's Board of Selectmen already has an idea of how it will decide the issue and is not looking for guidance about this issue from Devaney or other political leaders, said Selectman Jack Cogswell. The board - which has the final say in whether the town stays in the No Place For Hate program or not - will likely vote on the matter in the next few weeks, he said. Earlier this month, the town's human rights committee sent a letter to the ADL's national office and is now waiting for a response before taking action.

Cogswell said the board does feel a sense of urgency to act soon, and indicated that selectmen may pull out of the program no matter what happens between the human rights committee and the ADL. "I'm not sure the board is really ready to wait" for the committee to complete its process, he said.

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