Update: After VICE News published this story, GEICO Skytypers posted an apology on its website, explaining how it failed to vet properly the messages it typed last week in the sky above New York City — and promising to fix its message-vetting process.
On Wednesday afternoon, many New Yorkers were surprised to see pro-Turkey and Armenian genocide denial propaganda written in the sky over the Hudson River. The skywriting featured messages such as "101 years of Geno-lie," "Gr8 ally = Turkey," "BFF = Russia + Armenia," and "FactCheckArmenia.com." The aerial stunt was part of a campaign by the website Fact Check Armenia, which denies that the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire took place, contrary to the consensus of historians.
The organization also captured headlines this week for a full-page ad placed in the Wall Street Journal, also pointing to the website. Two weeks ago, a billboard featuring a version of the same ad near Boston's Armenian Heritage Park was removed by Clear Channel after outrage from Armenians in the city.
Wednesday's messages in New York City's skies were produced by a unique form of skywriting called "sky typing" in which five planes fly in close formation to write massive letters at high altitude to produce messages over five miles long in the air, making them visible in a 15-mile (24 km) radius. New Yorkers from Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan could all see the messages, as documented in numerous photographs on Twitter.
The company responsible for writing the messages is the GEICO Skytypers, an air show team that performs up and down the east coast and is sponsored by GEICO, an insurance company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company for Warren Buffett, the world's third-richest man.
The team also does paid sky typing advertising. The company's advertising clients include dozens of household names such as Coca-Cola, Disneyland, IKEA, and GEICO itself, the second-biggest auto insurer in the US. According to the company, the advertising package seen over the Hudson River normally costs between $12,000 and $15,000.
"I felt appalled and disgusted to see the skywriting," said Nancy Kricorian, an Armenian-American novelist and activist who lives in Manhattan. "My grandmother was one of the few surviving members of her family — they were deported from Mersin in 1915. My grandmother and her brother were among 8,000 orphaned Armenian children at a camp in the Syrian desert."
April 24 is the international date for remembrance of the victims of the Armenian genocide, which began in 1915. Every year at this time, the Turkish government and its supporters put out propaganda denying the Armenian genocide.
"Last year during the Armenian Genocide Centennial, Fact Check Armenia was desperate to counter the cavalcade of international legislative bodies, political figures, and celebrities who were speaking out about happened to the Armenians starting in 1915," Kricorian said. "I was surprised to see that they are still peddling this tired and unconvincing strategy of calling Armenians liars."
Newspaper articles of the time, decades of historical scholarship, and official records all confirm that approximately 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer who in the 1940s coined the term "genocide" and prompted the UN adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide, in fact pointed to the systematic extermination of Armenians as one of the foundational examples of what he meant by the word "genocide." The International Association of Genocide Scholars, the Institute on Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, and the Institute for the Study of Genocide in New York all affirm the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide.
But the Turkish government denies that the genocide took place, and has attempted to fund scholarship to disrupt the historical consensus.
"Turkish denial of the genocide was a founding principle of the Turkish Republic," said Louis Fishman, a professor of history at Brooklyn College who focuses on the late Ottoman Empire. "Stunts like we saw Wednesday in New York only throw salt on the wounds of Armenians whose families died in the genocide. As long as there is no recognition these wounds will remain open."
While the skywriting may have outraged Armenians, it appears to have baffled most New Yorkers. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, onlookers tried to make sense of the Turkish phrase "Ne mutlu Türküm diyene" — a nationalist slogan that translates to "How happy is the one who says I am a Turk" — and to understand whether a message saying Armenia and Russia are "BFFs" was supposed to be pro- or anti-Russian.
"I think it most likely confused people more than anything else," Fishman said.
At the time of publication, Fact Check Armenia had not responded to calls and emails requesting comment. GEICO Skytypers appeared not to be aware of the controversial waters the company was wading into. GEICO did not respond to several requests for comment, but Larry Arken, the flight lead for Skytypers, told VICE News that he vets the messages — and felt these were acceptable.
"I sifted through it to make sure I wasn't saying anything I felt was anti-American or made to be totally offensive," he said. "If I'm promoting a website, get mad at the website, don't get mad at me."
One message in the sky read "Stop PKK:PYD:ASALA:Daesh," attempting to draw equivalence between Turkish Kurdish guerrillas, a Syrian Kurdish political party, a defunct Armenian terrorist organization, and the Islamic State group.
"Daesh is ISIS. So that message said stop ISIS. I think we can probably agree that ISIS has to go away," Arken replied when asked if he knew what all of those groups are. "PKK is North Korea, as I understand it. If it was a message that was pro-ISIS I certainly would have said no."
Arken apparently mistook the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, for the DPRK or Democratic People's Republic of Korea — and was also unaware of what the PYD and ASALA are. Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a Syrian Kurdish political party; ASALA, or Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, was a Middle East-based group that killed dozens of Turkish diplomats and civilians in the 1970s and 80s.
A US Congressional resolution to officially recognize the Armenian genocide in 2007 was scuttled by concerns over harming relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally from which the US regularly stages military operations, including air strikes against the Islamic State. On the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide last year, President Obama drew criticism for avoiding the word "genocide" instead opting for terms like "massacre" and "horrific violence."
GEICO Skytypers' Arken said he did not feel comfortable choosing one side or another in a difference of opinion and that he tries to stay neutral and out of politics. He has declined anti-Trump, pro-Trump, anti-Clinton, and pro-Clinton messages throughout this election cycle, he said.
"Where do you draw the line when somebody says something happened and somebody else says it did not?" he said, with regard to the Armenian genocide.
Still, GEICO Skytypers would not promote a Holocaust denial website in the sky.
"I can't say that I would allow that," Arken said. "I'm Jewish. My grandfather was put in front of a Nazi firing squad. Fortunately he didn't get shot. So would we sit here and deny that there was genocide back there? Probably not."
For many of the 150,000 Armenians who live in the Tri-State area around New York, that difference in the perception of their people's suffering is painful.
"Free speech means people don't get harmed, or jailed, or put on trial for what they say — as they do in Turkey," said Peter Balakian, an Armenian-American poet who just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. "But free speech does not mean that anybody is guaranteed a forum to present unethical, immoral, or hate-oriented speech."
"Could you imagine GEICO or Nabisco or General Motors sponsoring people who promote messages for Holocaust deniers or white supremacists? This is no different."