Following the suicide of a 15-year-old boy, police in the Armenian capital Yerevan are cracking down on adolescent fans of emo music, a derivative of punk rock that is known for angst-ridden lyrics. Armenian officials contend that emo aficionados undermine social stability. But some psychologists and rights activists caution that hauling tattooed teenagers off to police stations for questioning is a strategy destined to backfire.
Emo -- a term derived from the word “emotional” -- music traces its origins back to the punk-rock movement of the late 1970s and early 80s and the indie rock groups that followed it. Often tagged as a close relative of grunge music, it is long on expressing primal emotions, particularly about depression and loneliness, but without the sugar-coating of a pop ballad.
In the West, emo music has entered the mainstream, but in Armenia it remains on the fringe.
Emo culture first caught the attention of Armenian police with the October 19 suicide of one alleged emo fan, 15-year-old Gurgen Harutiunian, a resident of the city of Hrazdan, about 20 kilometers outside Yerevan. Harutiunian was found hanging from a bathroom pipe by the belt of his judo uniform.
Police told EurasiaNet.org that they are reviewing “suspicious” emails Harutiunian had received before his death; some neighbors have linked the emails to the boy’s decision to take his life.
Emo culture, with its emphasis on depression, has been linked to several suicides in the United Kingdom. In the weeks since Harutiunian’s death, Armenian police appear to have reached a similar conclusion.
Yerevan public school students told EurasiaNet.org that police routinely visit their schools now to check the bags of those students who are wearing half-torn jeans, black gloves or other clothes in pink and black, and who have body piercings – a look considered typically emo.
“We were told that they found a razor blade in a book belonging to one of the girls, and we were told that if we find out that there is an emo in the neighbourhood, we must tell our teachers,” said one 8th-grade student at Yerevan’s Pushkin Secondary School.
Parks, thought to be popular gathering spots for emo aficionados, are also under close surveillance. On November 18, five girls and two boys were detained in a Yerevan park called Children’s Railway and taken to the central police station on suspicion of being emos. The park’s fountains and tunnels are covered with emo symbols – bells, swords – and words ending in “emo.”
One of the girls, 17-year-old Isabella, claimed that police dragged her by her hair to the central police station, where she and the others were questioned for four hours about why they were wearing torn jeans and had body piercings. “We heard that people in non-traditional clothes, those who like rock music, are now being closely watched, and, so, does that mean that any minute we might be detained?” Isabella asked.
No law prohibits people from being emos, but police have left little doubt that their tolerance for emo fans is in short supply. In a December 6 interview with the newspaper Hraparak, Armenian Chief of Police Alik Sargsian commented that “emos are dangerous” and can “distort our gene pool.”
“I do not like emos, in fact. I absolutely don’t like them. I do not understand or accept them,” said Sargsian.
Some researchers agree that the police have reason to be concerned; emos “have to be fought against,” said Alexander Amarian, director of the Center for Rehabilitation and Assistance to Victims of Destructive Cults.
One emo adherent interviewed by EurasiaNet.org, however, contends that the police have no understanding of the emo subculture. Armenian emos, said 16-year-old Marine, are simply “different and not dangerous.”
“Whatever is said about suicides is not true,” she said. “No one is forcing us; the thing is that our members are emotional and there have been cases when they attempted suicide. However, it’s not like it is a mass phenomenon.”
In 2010, 13 of 38 teenage suicide attempts in Armenia proved fatal, according to Col. Nelly Durian, the deputy head of the police’s department of juvenile affairs investigations. Only two of the cases, though, are believed to have any association with emos. For the past five years, the number of such attempts has been increasing on average by five cases per year, Durian added.
Sensitivity about population numbers – and perceived threats to those numbers – runs deep in Armenia, but one human rights activist argues that the police crackdown on emos is “an expression of fascism.” The school and park inspections are “just an excuse to threaten and silence somewhat active, non-party-affiliated, free youngsters,” charged Mikayel Danielian, president of the Armenian Helsinki Association.
In response, Armenian police spokesperson Armen Malkhasian rebutted that “the problem [of emo membership] exists and these are merely preventive measures.”
Some psychologists, though, believe that the police are going about their anti-emo campaign in public schools the wrong way.
“It’s something psychologists have to be seriously involved in,” commented Arshak Gasparian, a psychologist at Yerevan’s Avg psychological center. Police are not known to work with psychologists in their monitoring of schools. “Unfortunately, despite the fact that there are psychologist positions in our schools, the people holding those positions are specialized in fields other than psychology.”
Emo adherent Marine contends that if suicide is the real concern, authorities should focus on the Armenian army, which has experienced 15 non-combat deaths – including two suicides, officially -- since July alone. “[S]uicide is quite common in the army; many people become victims of that every year,” said Marine. “Let them focus intensively on the army rather than on us.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.