Say My Name, Rohingya

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by Karen Topakian

When leaders refuse to say the name of those oppressed, we all suffer.

The most recent case took place in Myanmar when the Pope chose to not “say my name” Rohingya.

Instead, he said, “The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”

And

“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building.”

He came close to calling the Rohingya by name. But close ain’t good enough when it comes to genocide. Plain and simple, Myanmar did commit genocide – the extermination of a people and their culture – against the Rohingya people.

When we don’t name genocide, we cast doubt on it or deny its existence. By doing so, we render the victims and the survivors invisible at worst and liars at best. We make it easy to look away, aside, past it.

The effects of unnamed genocide last for many generations. My own people, Armenians, still struggle under the Turkish government’s refusal to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the genocide in 1915.

When we don’t name genocide, we enable other leaders, other despots, other tyrants to commit the same crimes against their people without risking retribution, sanctions, punishment. In the process, we bruise, stain, tarnish our own humanity.

We fight to be recognized. Heard. Believed. It happened. Say my name.

 

 

Her Death Incites Me

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by Karen Topakian

Yesterday, I attended the memorial of one more lesbian friend who moved mountains. Debra Chasnoff. I didn’t know her well or for very long. But I did know she put her curiosity and interests into her films, whether she tackled – nuclear weapons, promoting respect and equity in the classroom or LGBTQ issues. She went behind the camera to learn, explore, reveal and investigate. Debra even earned an Oscar for doing so. She showed the lives of lesbians, in a way others had forgotten, overlooked or shunned by opening up our loves, stresses and challenges for others to enter, learn and, hopefully, respect.

She didn’t shy away from the tough subjects or the sharp rebukes. She faced fear, however it arrived. And most recently it arrived as breast cancer, a deadly fear for many women. She embraced the disease by filming it. In a twist, she became the subject of her film.

She followed into the next world in the footsteps of another fallen giant – Barbara Brenner, world leader as a policy advocate and activist for women living with breast cancer. She wrote the heck out of her ALS diagnosis, treatments, and struggles in blog called Healthy Barbs. A sharp commentator, always on the side of the patient, the consumer, the survivor.

When I think of these two women’s lives and careers dedicated to social justice, I must add two other friends who, too passed away well before their time but still accomplished so much – Eileen Hansen and Carla Johnson.

Eileen’s birthdate of May 1st signifies how she spent her life – devoted to people left out and left behind. Working literally tirelessly for peace and justice at home and abroad from her years as a policy advocate for people globally living with HIV/AIDs to running local political campaigns for progressive candidates whose vision would address issues of inequity and injustice

And finally to Carla Johnson, an advocate for designing San Francisco buildings, events, websites and services for people with disabilities. A true believer in going above and beyond, Carla again worked tirelessly to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

I marvel at my friends’ accomplishments and will re-dedicate myself to reach higher. Face my fears. Give more. Fight back, nonviolently, of course. And never waver in the quest for freedom and justice for all.

EQUAL

 

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by Karen Topakian

Retired General John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff, longs for the days when we treated women, religion, “life” or Gold Star families as sacred.

Don’t treat women as sacred.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan once said, “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”

Don’t revere us.

Why can’t you get it through your thick skulls we are equals. E-Q-U-A-L

Mr. Kelly, born in 1950, must be remembering back to those halcyon days of alleged sacredness when women, 50+% of the U.S. population, didn’t have:

  • The right to equal pay
  • Access to birth control
  • The right to not be discriminated against in all aspects of education programs that receive federal support
  • The right to terminate a pregnancy
  • The right to serve on a jury
  • The right to unemployment benefits during the last three months of pregnancy
  • The right to seek civil rights remedies for gender-related crimes and to sue our attackers in federal court
  • And the list goes on.

Seeing us as sacred and revered prohibits us from living full intentional lives. Lives of purpose. Lives of value outside of the home and hearth. Lives of our own making.

After you cry, what will you do?

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by Karen Topakian

I cried today when I read this story about a woman named Phoolvati who lived in Bihar, India and lost her daughter and husband in the raging monsoon floods.

She thought her family would survive when she packed them in a small boat, her daughter clutching a metal box protecting their worldly possessions. The boat couldn’t fit all three so she stayed behind unsure if she would make it. Instead, the waters swallowed up her family. They were found later, her daughter’s arms wrapped around her father’s neck. Together they perished.

In one moment Phoolvati lost everything.

A few months ago she thought they would have saved enough money from their earnings rice farming on someone else’s land to buy their daughter a bicycle. A few month’s ago they felt hope.

Now she’s lost everything in a cruel heartless way. Because storms and natural disasters have no heart, no soul, no conscience. They only have wind and water and the power to destroy. Those same forces also have the power to give life.

We humans also have the power to do both.

I fear this government can only do one – destroy. Our elected leaders think they are creating by loosening up environmental regulations, dismantling executive orders and removing our country from voluntary treaties that they see as ties to bind us. Instead, they are destroying our lives, eco-systems and habitats in this country and around the world.

No. Donald Trump did not cause this monsoon and Cat4 hurricanes. His thinking and behavior along with others who deny the existence of climate change and who feel they/we bear no responsibility for changing our behaviors, systems and practices to mitigate it, turn it around, slow it down, stop it did. They/we are complicit.

We caused that woman to lose everything. Just as we caused the impacts of Irma and Harvey by NOT destroying the fossil-fuel economy that contributes to the increased carbon in our atmosphere and the increase in global temperature levels and the added moisture and heat in the air and the increased ferocity of natural disasters.

Phoolvati’s family fell victim to our unwillingness to take the steps needed to address climate change head on. She pays the price for our global leaders’ refusal to make the heard choices that will stop pipelines, stop drilling, stop fracking. Stop burning fossil fuels. Her daughter and husband died at the end of the pipeline we built.

Yes. India bears responsibility for its environmental practices, behaviors, policies, regulations….though not all of it.

After I finished crying this morning. I thought about what more we could all do to turn this around. Many of us do many things – we divest from fossil fuels, put solar panels on our roofs, drive less. That’s not enough. Not even close. We have to take our activism up a few notches. We have to get out of our comfort zones and push ourselves and our communities and our leaders to meet this challenge head on.

I fear for the future of this planet. Trust me, I feared for it under every previous president. Nobody gets a pass in my book. Some performed better than others. Nobody gets high marks. Nobody will unless we make them.

Read this article for yourself and see if you don’t also cry. When you wipe away the tears, tell me what you’ll do next. Take another sip of coffee or get up and act?

Starting tomorrow I can hit the streets of civil disobedience, to stop the pipes, ports and permits, will you join me?

Ode to the Sun

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by Karen Topakian

Wisps of fog dance across the eclipse, creating more mystery and excitement. The sun and moon, eventually shrouded by the fog, become invisible to my protected eyes.

I wait expectantly for the darkness to abate, for the brilliantly glowing chubby crescent sun to reappear. The receding fog reveals a small bite snatched from the sun’s bottom left edge. The moon hasn’t finished its journey.

Seeing the sun always delights, never disappoints me. It warms my face and arms as the moon reveals more of the sun’s glow.

This orb has guided us as a people for millennia. Let’s leave the sun to itself, to shine, to warm, to heat, to inspire. For us to worship, adore, enjoy, revere.

Sun, wind, water, air enable us to exist as a species. Enable our planet to harbor life. This little fireball 92+ million miles away could provide the world’s energy, if we just let it.

The moon makes its exit stage left, returning the sun to wholeness. The sun shows no sign that the moon removed it from our view only for a moment. Fully circular, the sun stands alone without knowledge of the moon. It remains intact, without affect. Unscathed, unmarred, unmoved and unchanged.

The departed moon reminds me that occasionally we cross the sun’s path. Some create bigger shadows than others. Some try to eclipse its brilliance. None have. None can. None will.

Our sun. Our glory. Our joy.

Questioning My Commitment

downloadby Karen Topakian

After listening to white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, screaming these anti-Semitic and racist Nazi slogans, “Blood and Soil” and “You will not replace us,” I began to question my commitment to nonviolence.

Because part of me wants to hit a Nazi, throw a brick at a Klansman, whack a fascist in the shins.

How can I adhere to my deeply held belief in nonviolence against such evil? Can I abandon my principles, just for a moment, to beat the crap out of a Nazi? Aren’t those the people we all hold up as the poster children for evil? The worst scourge of the planet. Why not get in a few licks? Assuming of course, I had the physical power to beat the crap out of anyone.

For several moments, ok hours, maybe days, I toyed with the notion of going off the nonviolence wagon to teach these folks a lesson.

Then I pondered, what lesson was I teaching and would it have any lasting value?

Fascism and White Supremacy will not end because I’ve pummeled a true believer. Support for them may even grow, if the public sees them as the victim or worse, the government may make the call for “law and order” to limit all protests.

Intellectually, I know their racist ideology won’t ever die because people can cling to ideologies long beyond their expiration date. Just ask the people who still believe Obama was born in Kenya.

Resorting to violence would only address my immediate anger and wouldn’t provide a long-term solution to White Supremacy.

How strong are my commitments if I’m willing to abandon them in difficult moments?

As I struggled with my dilemma, I turned to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings whose words first resonated with me when I heard them in my early 1960s sunday school class.

For half my life, I’ve tried to live by his six principles of nonviolence.

  1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
  2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
  3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
  4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
  5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
  6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

I continued to question myself:

  • Can I win friendship and understanding against people wielding a lit torch and a gun?
  • Can I see them as victims and not evil people as they smash heads, drive cars into crowds and threaten to kill us?
  • Will my physical and emotional suffering educate and transform them or merely convince them to hit harder, strike deeper, shoot?
  • Can I honestly choose love when I feel their hate?
  • When, oh when, will that arc of justice bend far enough to reach us?

Why do I question them today when I’ve spent more than three decades participating in nonviolent direct actions? What’s different?

Then I realized most of my experiences with nonviolent action didn’t involve confronting someone who opposed my beliefs. In those 30+ years, I only engaged with law enforcement when I lay down in the road, occupied an office or disturbed the peace. People who advocate for war and the use of nuclear weapons don’t stand on the street corner carrying signs and brick bats, they occupy the halls of Congress and board rooms.

I acknowledge the privilege of rarely engaging my opponents face to face but that time will end now.

This time I will encounter the people everyone loves to hate – the Klan and Nazis. And I will need to live these principles and risk potential suffering and violence. Can I?

I looked to Dr. King who faced these same adversaries on his streets, in his home and in his life. He said, “In spite of the darkness of this hour … we must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.”

If he could say this after those four young girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, how could I give up and give in?

Instead, I will use this moment to test my belief in the power of nonviolence to overcome evil, bigotry and hatred and to test my ability to remain committed.

 

 

 

Nagasaki Day

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by Karen Topakian

Today, on the 72nd Anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, I walked to the gates at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with a heavy heart.

Heavy because as Americans we find ourselves farther away from nuclear abolition then we have been in decades. Because on Tuesday, our president unleashed a harsh, aggressive, bullying statement putting the planet at risk – he threatened to rain nuclear war on North Korea.

Other presidents have threatened other nations with nuclear war, but none have done so with such fervor and with such a slim connection to reality and to the devastating effects nuclear war would have on all life forms.

My heart grew heavier as I approached the gates. For decades, I have come to the Lab either on either August 6th, Hiroshima Day or on the 9th, Nagasaki Day, to oppose the Lab’s testing and designs of nuclear weapons. On every other occasion, I’ve risked arrest by lying down in the road, blocking the gate. Stopping business as usual for these architects of death and destruction.

Today I couldn’t risk arrest because as part of a sentencing agreement I had promised a judge in Washington, DC that I would not get arrested for 6 months for any reason anywhere in the country. As part of my practice of, and commitment to, nonviolence, I needed to keep my promise.

On other days, when I’ve lain down on the hard road under the blazing sun, to create a die-in, a simulation of what life would be like if a nuclear weapon landed in our community, our state, our country, I’ve thought about those who have come before me. Those who risked arrest by committing acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to abolish slavery, oppose war, demand women’s right to vote and defend the rights of LGBTQ people and people of color. Today was different.

Today, I with others was responsible for my fellow activists. I had agreed to serve as a legal observer – to watch the police as they arrested people, count those taken into custody and ensure the police released everyone.

My heart grew lighter as I watched 47 brave men and women put their lives and their freedom on the line for what they believed and into the hands of law enforcement. I watched 47 brave women and men make August 9, 2017, a day when people said No to the Lab and Yes to a world without nuclear weapons.

These acts, these moments, these people lifted my heart and gave me hope.

 

Art and Nature

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by Karen Topakian

Before I walked into Mariposa Studio, I knew I would buy her book. Why not? Beverly Tharp was the professional photographer I had hired to produce my headshots, a friend and an artist. What I didn’t know was what else I would see…

Paintings of animal bones depicted as graceful ballerinas, strong swimmers and majestic flyers.

Poems about confronting a mountain lion and the sights and sounds of Clown Alley.

All because Beverly shared the space with studio owners, painter Anna dal Pino and poet John LeFan.

And of course, I saw Beverly’s sharp, radiant images of fleshy lotus leaves, rotund water droplets and graceful damsel and dragonflies.

Before we left, I bought two copies of Beverly’s book “In Love With Lotus” along with one of Anna and John’s, “Apparitions.”

If you want to see the show for yourself, go to Mariposa Studio for dates and times.

 

 

The Loss of More Than a Friend

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by Karen Topakian

On July 7th, I learned I lost a friend, Mike Veiluva.

Sadly, I’ve lost other friends on other days.

But this man was more than a friend. He had been my lawyer.

While I was the executive director of the Agape Foundation, Mike provided us with pro bono legal advice. Never more than a phone call or an email away, he reviewed all contracts, responded to letters from lawyers questioning our tax-exempt status for supporting grassroots social change organizations and represented us in negotiations with the never-ending parade of new landlords.

As importantly, he visited me and others in jail when we repeatedly committed acts of civil disobedience against war and the spread of nuclear weapons, then effectively defended us in court, again, pro bono.

And on many a hot August day, he patiently held my backpack on the anniversary of Hiroshima day, while I commemorated the deadly occasion by lying down in the street in front of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to protest the design and testing of nuclear weapons. Then he cheerfully waited at the gate for the police to release us.

For decades, Mike advocated tirelessly, using every legal avenue available to fight for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Ironically, five days after he died, and the day I learned of his death, the United Nations negotiated a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.

Sadly, Mike Veiluva has left us. And took with him, his steel-trap mind, quick wit and a very generous heart.

 

 

 

Taken for a Ride

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by Karen Topakian

“We (slight pause) are a nation divided.” declares an authoritative male voice, while the television screen fills with black and white images of swarms of people confronting each other in the street.

“That’s what they tell us, right?” the voice continues as sirens punctuate the muffled sounds coming from a large agitated crowd.

“This chasm between us.” (Black and white images of a large demonstration. A power fist rises from the crowd.)

I watch this ad feeling hopeful as I see everyday people marching for peace and justice. It’s obviously an ad, but for what?

“But what they don’t tell you.” (The image turns to color, a street protest with a sign saying Free Hugs.)

This swell of humanity striving for a better world fills me with inspiration. It emboldens me to work harder to create a more just and equitable world. What’s it advertising or is it a PSA for the ACLU, Amnesty International…?

“What doesn’t make the news is this.” (An African-American male approaches an African American police officer then hugging him.)

“We carry each other forward.” (Two young baseball players carry a third off the field. Soldiers carry one of their own off the battlefield)

No matter who we are or what we believe.” (A first responder heroically rescues someone high above dangerous flooded waters. A rainbow peace flag held aloft in a throng of protesters.)

“Or where we come from.” (A black and white image of immigrants standing on the shore looking out at the sea.)

“We’ve had the privilege of carrying a century of humanity.” (A sea of men and women fill an enormous urban intersection.)

I stop wondering for a moment about the product, because I’m swept up in pride at the American tradition of unity, generosity and helping those in need. Now I’m hopeful that we Americans, can come together, rise above our differences to make this country and world a better place.

“Lovers.” (A black and white image of a block long convertible with a Marilyn Monroe-type women standing next to it.)

“Fighters.” (Mohammed Ali polishes the hood of a big car.)

“Leaders.” (President Eisenhower stands tall in a convertible processing down a parade route. Probably at his inauguration.)

“But maybe what we carry isn’t people. It’s an idea.”

OMG, they’re advertising a car! Not just any car but a Cadillac.

CADILLAC!!!!

The gas guzzling behemoth that contributes to global climate change with its low gas mileage (22 city/31 highway).

Cadillac, whose parent company General Motors, historically achieved greatness when the EPA named it one of the top 100 corporate polluters.

Cad-il-lac! A status symbol. A car for the elite, not for the masses.

A Caddy – unaffordable by most, envied by many.

I spent 34 precious seconds feeling good about the world, about our country. The longest I’ve felt since the Women’s March. Now I only feel anger. Anger at these advertisers’ emotional manipulation for a product that contributes to global climate change. Anger at this ad built on the backs of heroes and change agents.

Talk about feeling ripped off. Robbed. Cheated. Used. Duped.

Maybe I feel worse because I identify with these images, with these movements or because they’re usurping these social change movements, for which they’ve never played a part and even thwarted, to sell something that contributes to our planetary demise. I feel duped by allowing myself to feel manipulated by their images and rhetoric that feel sacred to me.

A labor organizer colleague disagreed with me about this ad, which aired during the Academy Awards, because he said their UAW workers receive a good wage, which, of course, is important. Had the ad come from the UAW, I would have hailed it, because they’ve fought the good fight for workers. Had the ad featured electric cars, which I see as working towards a solution, I too would have lauded it. Just not a Cadillac.

Of course, they’re not the first company to play on our emotions. That’s advertising’s design. It manipulates us. Opens our heart to see the product or service for the first time or in a new light and then, hopefully tells our brain to purchase it.

Studies show the average number of advertisement and brand exposures we experience per day per person reaches 5,000+.

In addition to using emotional and nostalgic images, advertisers and politicians more frequently employ popular music to promote their wares and themselves. For example, Microsoft paid Rolling Stones to play “Start Me Up” to launch Windows 95. Candy giant Mars licensed “Satisfaction” to sell Snickers bars. BMW played Steppenwolf’s classic hit “Born to Be Wild.” Most recently, Sleep Number mattresses used the Kink’s iconic song, “All Day and All of the Night.”

As much as I dislike hearing the songs I love used for commercial purposes, these artists made a financial agreement with these companies knowing how they would use their art.

The Cadillac ad strikes me differently. Because it relies on our emotional connection to striving for a better world to sell us a product for which it bears no connection or relationship. Pure and simple pandering. Well done. But pandering nonetheless.

When it comes to ads like this, I must protest.