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.

Why I Won’t Be Risking Arrest

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by Karen Topakian

Comrades, I’d like to apologize in advance for not committing acts of nonviolent direct action with you for the next six terrible months. The sentencing agreement to which I agreed prohibits me from getting arrested anywhere for anything until September 2nd. Here’s what happened the last time I made this agreement.

—–

“I’m not part of the demonstration,” I declared emphatically to the San Francisco police officer as he pulled me by the arm across O’Farrell Street.

“You are now,” he said, pushing me through a row of police officers barricading 1,000 people protesting Henry Kissinger’s presence at a luncheon at the Hilton Hotel in Union Square on May 16, 1984.

The group targeted Kissinger for his role in promoting the Reagan Administration’s policy in Central America, which killed thousands of campesinos in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

“She’s not part of the demonstration,” stated one of the protestors. The police refused to believe us and wouldn’t let me leave.

For once, I wasn’t demonstrating. Though my heart was with the folks publicly opposing Reagan and Kissinger’s deadly policies, I couldn’t get arrested.

At that time, I had to live by the probation terms dictated by the Rhode Island Superior Court, which prohibited me from “violating the criminal law of any state for six months” or face prison at the Adult Correctional Institution in my hometown, Cranston, RI.

These terms stemmed from a 1983 conviction for disorderly conduct at Electric Boat in North Kingstown, RI, which builds nuclear powered and armed submarines.

When my fellow activists and I stood on trial for committing our nonviolent direct action, we had argued a necessity defense, which “permits a person to act in a criminal manner when an emergency situation, not of the person’s own creation, compels the person to act in a criminal manner to avoid greater harm from occurring.”

We based our defense on the necessity to stop the submarine production because the use of nuclear weapons would cause irreparable harm to life on this planet. Not surprisingly, we lost our case.

The judge sentenced us to either prison or probation. I chose probation because I didn’t want to delay my start at graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I was currently enrolled.

On that day, I was on route to renew my passport at the Federal Building not to a protest. The police probably didn’t believe me because my clothes indicated otherwise. Instead of wearing more “lady-like” clothes – a skirt or dress – to the passport office, I donned “art student” fare – ratty jeans and a denim jacket.

The protestor who defended me to the police introduced himself as Jeff Yippie, whom I later learned was a local activist and co-founder of Bound Together bookstore, an anarchist bookstore on Haight Street.

This gregarious good-natured character, took me under his wing as the SF police rounded us up, drove us to the SF Police Department at 850 Bryant Street and left us to languish in the basement cells.

The police hadn’t arrested us. They were merely holding us for what seemed like hours. Without access to a phone, I couldn’t call my partner to tell her where I was or what had happened. I feared she thought I might have been “disappeared,” an exceedingly rare occurrence in the US but a frequent one committed by Central and South American governments toward dissidents.

Though I knew no one in this group, I wasn’t new to protests, jails or police. These activists exhibited the universal incarceration behavior – friendly and supportive. Since we weren’t arrested, the police hadn’t confiscated our belongings and, therefore, we could share food and resources. When the SF Police didn’t separate us by gender, I could stay close to my new friend, Jeff.

As we waited, I shared my predicament with him. He suggested I refuse to give my name or produce any identification. By withholding it, my information wouldn’t appear in any public records and wouldn’t make its way to RI. Having refused to give my name in the past, I was quite familiar with the practice and process. It could mean that I would spend more time locked up in San Francisco for non-cooperation but it would not pull me back to RI.

Taking his advice, I decided to not cooperate, fortunately I didn’t need to employ this practice because after sitting for many hours on a jail floor, the police just unlocked the cell doors and released us, without requiring us to give our names, produce IDs or promise to stop protesting. Instead, we walked outside into darkness. I emerged unscathed.

Though that took place 33 years ago, once again I find myself in the same court ordered situation, stemming from hanging the RESIST banner in Washington D.C. For six months, I cannot get arrested or I will face a judge in D.C. who can sentence me to prison, to pay a fine or both.

“That is like activist lent for you!” remarked Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

In order to comply with this order, I’m considering staying indoors for six months because avoiding arrest in San Francisco during the Trump reign may prove impossible.

 

All Rise

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by Karen Topakian

Before the judge could hear our case on Wednesday March 1st for hanging the RESIST banner from a construction crane behind the White House, I needed to pass a drug test, which normally takes two hours to receive the results.

First stop, the Drug Testing and Compliance Unit, where a pleasant women stood in the restroom with me, instructing me to “Wash my hands with warm water and soap, start the stream, stop it and then add my specimen to the cup.” After struggling with my pantyhose, I eventually succeeded and attached a label bearing my name to the small amber-colored plastic cup.

At 8:45 a.m. my specimen went off to the lab. Next stop, D.C. Superior Court.

The seven of us that had participated in the action and our two attorneys occupied two rows of dark wooden benches in the back of the dark wood paneled courtroom.

A voice from the front of the courtroom called out “All Rise,” as the judge, an older white bespectacled male, entered the courtroom. We complied then took our seats. Anxious to hear our case numbers called, I watched the proceedings before me.

“Why did you do it?” asked the judge to a young rail thin African-American male after the Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) read the facts of the case.

“I don’t know. I don’t remember,” responded the young male wearing a hoodie and knitted ski hat.

“You don’t remember? You just pleaded guilty to breaking a passenger car window and you don’t remember?” asked the judge as he leaned forward from the bench. “How do you know you did it?”

“A neighbor saw me and called the police,” explained the young male in a soft voice.

“So there was a witness. But you don’t know why? Were you drunk?” asked the judge, a former public defender, with genuine concern.

The young male nodded slowly.

“I wonder what else you don’t remember?”

The young male shrugged.

“How old are you?” inquired the judge, whose red bow tie proudly stood out from the neck of his robe.

“Twenty-one. I’ll be twenty-two in August.”

“Is this the first time you’ve been in trouble?’ asked the judge looking directly at the defendant.

The AUSA responded in the affirmative.

Your Honor, he’s entering a treatment program,” offered his attorney, a white woman wearing the standard female lawyer uniform, a black pantsuit.

“That’s good,” responded the judge.

The young male looked back silently.

“You can get into a lot of trouble, if you don’t remember. Bad things can happen to you,” explained the judge as he stroked his white beard. “If you keep drinking like this alcohol will ruin your body, your liver, eventually you might need a liver transplant.”

The young male stood motionless.

“I’m going to sentence you to a program that should help you. But you have to follow the program. I’m giving you a chance today, but I won’t give you a second one if you come back to my court without completing the program. I don’t want to give you jail time you but I will. You can either walk out the front door – pointing to the door out of the court room – or this door, the back door,” pointing to the door behind him, which leads to lock up and jail.

After the young male and his attorney thanked the judge, he signed the paperwork and returned to a seat in the courtroom.

The wall clock ticked onward. Only 45 minutes since our drug test.

The clerk called the next case. A white male defendant in a suit approached with his African-American attorney. They took the standard assigned spot of lawyer at the podium, client to the left, facing the judge.

The AUSA indicated they were waiting for a specific prosecutor to arrive. The judge granted them a few minutes to wait. In short order, the prosecutor arrived wheeling the standard issue, prosecutor’s black briefcase. He quickly took his place on the right hand side.

Opposing counsel requested permission to approach the bench. As they approached, the judge turned on a white noise machine, which blocked their conversation from the public’s ears.

The attorney returned to his client and whispered into his right ear. He stopped to announce that his client had just arrived that morning from Jordan. Then continued whispering.

Again, he requested they approach the bench this time with his client. The judge agreed and again turned on the white noise machine.

Back and forth they went from their spots at the podium to the bench. Always with the white noise machine muffling their conversations. I speculated that they needed the secrecy because the defendant might be a spy.

The client’s attorney invited a white woman in the courtroom to join them, which she did.

Eventually, all parties reached some agreement because the defendant signed the paperwork.

Next case. An African-American woman in her early 50s approached. An African-American male with a bulging brief case and a heavy step represented her. She was charged with stealing from the Kennedy Center gift shop,

“I brought back the jewelry,” exclaimed the defendant.

“Yes, she did,” affirmed her lawyer.

“Where is it?’ inquired the judge, pleasantly surprised.

“I have it right here,” said her lawyer, producing a few small jewelry boxes.

“And the receipt?” asked the judge.

Her lawyer held up a receipt. (I speculated that the woman had purchased the jewelry with a bad check, and then was arrested when she tried to return the merchandise for cash.)

The judge smiled.

“What about the other pieces?” asked the judge.

“I gave it to my daughter and she…”

“It’s not necessary to bring that up now,” interrupted her lawyer.

“Is there someone here from the Kennedy Center to accept the jewelry?” asked the judge to the AUSA.

“Your Honor, we contacted them,” responded the AUSA.

“Are they here?”

“No, Your Honor.”

“Someone has to accept the merchandise,” announced the judge.

For the next few minutes, the judge and the AUSA muddled unsuccessfully through various ways to return the jewelry. Then he asked her lawyer.

“Can you take it back?”

Before the lawyer answered, the judge added, “Accompanied by a police officer.”

The two attorneys agreed to the plan and to a way for her to pay restitution for the unreturned pieces while on government assistance.

The defendant signed the paperwork and left.

The clock moved slowly through the morning.

The clerk called more cases. Everyone who arrived by the front door, left by the front door. The judge hadn’t sentenced anyone to jail. For every client who pled guilty, the judge explained the legal ramifications of their plea: they had waived their right to a trial; to question witnesses; to take the witness stand themselves, if they so chose, and if they didn’t, the judge couldn’t hold it against them for not doing so; if convicted, they could appeal the judge’s decision if they felt he or she had made a mistake; and finally non-citizens could face deportation by entering a guilty plea. He inquired if they understood their plea; if they had been coerced or threatened into making the plea; whether they were pleased with their counsel. His words never sounded rehearsed or stale but fresh and new.

One of the clerks whispered to our lawyer that our test results still hadn’t appeared.

The clerk called the next case.

Two women approached, an attorney and a probation officer. The attorney told the judge her client was on her way.

While they waited, the judge asked the probation officer to address the court.

“Your Honor, the defendant missed appointments on February 3, 7, 9, 14, 21 23. All required for her to remain on probation.”

The judge looked dismayed.

Her lawyer explained. “My client is a new mother living on welfare in a Maryland homeless shelter. It’s hard for her keep these appointments.”

“When she gets here, let’s see if we can find some programs and services that will meet her needs where she lives,” announced the judge.

Both women agreed and waited for the client to arrive.

Next case.

A middle-aged African American male, and his lawyer, appeared; the AUSA read the charges, the facts of the case and the sentencing terms.

“What do you think about these terms?” asked the judge directly to the defendant.

“I think it’s a golden opportunity for someone my age.”

The judge smiled. “Yes, it is. Many people who finish this job readiness, retraining and placement program find good jobs.”

The defendant nodded in agreement.

“You have to stay clean. Not only during the training but also in the program. You can’t slip up once. Can you do that?”

The defendant nodded again as he tucked his shirt into the back of his sweat pants.

“I know it’s hard. Every time, think golden opportunity,” stated the judge pointing to his head. “Then don’t do the drugs. I know it’s not that easy or that simple but you just said those words.”

The defendant continued nodding.

“I think you get it. That’s good.”

The defendant and his lawyer thanked the judge, signed the paperwork and left.

The judge looked up at us and smiled as he said, “I don’t know what you took because your tests are taking so long.”

We laughed quietly while also wondering about the delay in testing six urine samples. One of my colleagues had taken his test upon arrest; the rest of us had refused since it was voluntary. Now we were trying to catch up.

The next case brought four people to the defendant’s side, a male defendant wearing a tracksuit, his attorney and two other individuals. The attorney introduced her interpreters – a tall woman with light hair, stood slightly to her right and behind her and a dark-haired male with a ponytail, wearing a suit, stood in front of her facing her client.

The judge asked the defendant a few questions, which the female interpreter translated into sign language facing the man with the ponytail, who also used sign language to speak to the defendant. When the defendant used sign language to answer, the male interpreter, used sign language for the female interpreter who spoke it aloud in English. Occasionally, the lawyer raised comments and provided answers.

I watched with fascination as the judge’s questions and answers flowed between all parties seamlessly to provide this defendant with the resources he needed to receive justice.

Eventually, they reached a conclusion. The defendant signed the paperwork and everyone departed.

In a short while, a tall Polynesian woman entered the courtroom, pushing a stroller and carrying a very cute baby girl.

The clerk called her case and she approached with her lawyer and the probation officer. Before the judge spoke, the defendant accepted an offer to hold her baby by the lawyer representing the deaf client.

The judge directed them to work out a plan that she could meet to help her access services in her current location.

As the clock moved closer to noon, a clerk approached our attorney with her thumbs up. The drug tests arrived and all negative.

When the clerk called our names and numbers aloud, we were the last defendants in the courtroom. One by one, we took our places behind our attorneys, ready to listen and respond when addressed by the judge. Remembering to heed our attorney’s advice about speaking to the judge: stop, listen make eye contact with the judge then speak and NEVER interrupt the judge.

Though I had just observed many people appear before the judge, I focused my attention as if I were hearing these words for the first time.

The judge greeted us each by name. With the judge’s instructions, the AUSA read the facts of the case. Our lawyers entered guilty pleas to a misdemeanor, unlawful entry. Once again the judge told us collectively, about the rights we were waiving by our plea. Individually, we each agreed and consented. The judge then explained the terms of our deferred sentencing agreement and asked us by name if we accepted them – 48 hours of community service completed at a charitable organization, no arrests for anything anywhere for six months (between March 1 and Sept 1) and a clean drug test, which we had just passed. If we successfully completed them by September 1st, the court would withdraw our guilty plea, and we will request that the government dismiss the charges according to our plea agreement. If we didn’t, we would need to reappear and we might have to leave by the back door, into jail.

We signed our paperwork. Ready to resist another day, but not get arrested again till September 2, 2017.

Though our action resonated around the world, our sentencing requirements seemed simple and easy to accomplish compared to the life-changing efforts the other defendants that morning faced to put their lives on a steady, stable path.

I hope our universal message of resistance to this administration’s myriad promises and policies will stop the plans to slash and burn the social safety net programs for which many of these people’s success depends.

 

Preparing Myself

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by Karen Topakian

When people ask what I do to prepare before I commit an act of nonviolent direct action, here is what I answer.

Before and during an action, I marshal my strength while controlling my mind and emotions, which requires concentration and focus. (If I meditated or practiced yoga more frequently, or ever, controlling would come more easily to me. But I don’t.)

First, I re-ask myself these questions, which I ponder before deciding to participate in the action.

  • Why does this action needed taking?
  • Will my participation matter?
  • Am I ready for the consequences?

I find my strength in these answers.

For example, I need to take this action because I must oppose the government’s plan to test and develop nuclear weapons or I need to take this action to stop funding for the North Dakota Access Pipeline.

My actions will matter to the Native American women and men in North Dakota who risk their lives to protect their water and sacred land.

My actions may give hope to universal feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.

The personal consequences I will endure pale in comparison to the violent, illegal or egregious acts proposed by this government or corporation.

Second, I focus on calming my mind by envisioning myself in beautiful places where I have found joy and happiness. Sometimes I think about the very small, quiet peaceful island on a lake in Maine where Peg and I visit annually with family and friends. We read, swim and relax.

Or I think about the blissful Finca Luna Nueva Eco-Lodge in Costa Rica – full of luscious fruits, tropical birds and indigenous critters all living in a vibrant, thriving eco-system.

These aren’t the only happy times and places I’ve visited but they instantly provide me with joy.

Once I’ve attained a calmer mind, I conjure up images and experiences to inspire me to play my small role in whatever my action entails: opposing war, protecting our planet or resisting the rise of fascism.

I may have seen inspiring images in movies, read about them or experienced them for myself. Sometimes I think about young black women and men trained in nonviolence sitting at lunch counters requesting service while police brutally beat them with night sticks or the women and men who defied the Nazi’s by risking their lives protecting and hiding Jewish people. I think about the courage it took for my two Armenian grandfathers while under the age of 20 to flee Turkey when it started to conscript Christians.

Round and round I move, between my reasons, my joyful happy places and inspiring people and events. Circling through them in a calm quiet manner controls the inevitable fear and anxiety – two feelings that never leave. And I don’t want them to go. They keep me focused, alert and engaged.

Finally, I try to banish all hatred and anger in my heart. I struggle to find ways to act with love in my heart towards everyone I encounter by upholding their humanity – including those who oppose me, arrest me and incarcerate me. This truly becomes the hardest part but serves as the guiding force behind my practice of nonviolence.

 

 

The Bully Pulpit

by Karen Topakian

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When Meryl Streep accepted a lifetime achievement award last month at the Golden Globes, she turned her moment in the spotlight into a bully pulpit. By following Marlon Brando’s famous 1973 effort to shine a light on the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans, she championed a cause for which she felt strongly – our incoming president’s prejudiced policies and practices particularly towards people with disabilities and immigrants.

As an award-winning actress, she had nothing to lose. Her fans would still adore her and her political allies would support her. She wouldn’t suffer job loss or ostracism. Whether she “did the math” or not, she knew she had created a win-win situation.

Her critics however, felt the Golden Globes was neither the time nor the place for airing political statements.

In the coming weeks and months we may see other people follow Meryl’s lead. The same criticism may follow.

Many people, including you, may want to speak out and speak up but may lack the protection of international fame and achievement. Should you do it anyway? Should you grab the mic or should you remain silent and avoid risking potential ostracism and peer rebuke?

If you have the stage and want to take a stand, prepare yourself by asking these questions.

  1. Why were you invited to speak?

Were you invited to speak about some aspect of the current administration? If so, then assume carte blanche to trumpet your thoughts, ideas and concerns.

Were you invited to introduce someone else or were you invited for a totally unrelated reason, for example, to address ways to introduce Do It Yourself (DIY) projects into afterschool programs? If so, then seizing the bully pulpit may prove tangential and off-putting to your audience.

  1. Why are you making this speech or presentation? What’s your goal? What do you hope to accomplish?

If you’re speaking about climate change’s effects on coastal land development, go ahead and rip into the Trump administration’s disregard for science and plans to shred the Paris Accords. As an expert, you know what such folly will reek. Don’t hold back. Your audience wants to hear the truth about property loss and destruction from sea level rising and you’re the one to deliver.

If you’re invited to talk about the latest trends in online fundraising messaging but burn with desire to address Trump’s latest attack on immigrants, give examples of the new trends by assigning them to a fictional immigrant rights or civil liberties protection organization.

If you’re invited to speak about the arts’ impact on early childhood learning, include the role that government funding can and should play in providing access to the arts for all ages. Address the new administration’s plans to defund arts programs and its impact on children’s growth and development

Even if you’re not an expert in the administration’s policies, you have a right to speak out, as did Meryl and others at the Grammys. Mike Farrell, the actor on M*A*S*H and a champion of abolishing the death penalty, once told me he may be an actor but he’s also a citizen who has a right to speak his mind. I would urge anyone in the limelight to not shy away from speaking truth to power whenever and wherever possible.

To quote the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (wo)men to do nothing.”

  1. Who is in your audience? Will they applaud or boo?

If you’re speaking to the converted – civil rights attorneys, environmentalists, immigrant rights advocates,… – they will applaud. (It’s the rare Trump supporter that does this kind of work.) Use your time to provide new information and insights into the effect the administration has and will have on your clients and the planet.

If you don’t know your audience members’ political persuasions, you will need to decide whether you want to risk potentially alienating them, ostracizing your co-workers or limiting your professional career. You may lose clients. You may open yourself up to a world of hurt or you may gain new clients and new opportunities. Ask yourself if this is the right moment to share your beliefs even if you weren’t asked expressly to do so.

If you don’t care about alienating your audience or the people who invited you – then let her rip. Unleash it all in a cogent, intelligent, organized manner. And remember to use humor.

Also please avoid demonizing your audience or people who may agree with the current administration, for example don’t say people who think like that are assholes or bigots.

  1. Should you let the folks who invited you know that you will or may reference the incoming administration in your remarks?

You may want to inform the folks who invited about your intention to include your opinions, thoughts and facts about the incoming administration’s policies into your presentation as it relates to your topic. If they caution you against doing so, then you must decide for yourself if it’s worth raising it or not. If there’s a Q&A section to your presentation, consider prepping a colleague to inquire about the policies and use that as an entry into the topic.

Use your own judgment, professional reputation and political climate to determine your course of action. Just remember, the audience members will see you as a leader and an expert and as such, you have a responsibility to act like one.

Obviously, we do not live in Meryl Streep’s stratosphere, but we do have the right to speak our minds. Weigh the risks and benefits before you grab the mic.

 

D.C. Lockup

by Karen Topakian

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“Why are you all dressed alike?” asked a woman seated on the floor in the Washington DC lockup. Four of us shuffled past her, hampered by our ankle chains.

She was right. We were all dressed alike – wearing dark one-piece zip up fleece body suits – onesies. We stood out amidst a sea of women wearing jeans, baggy shorts, jackets and hoodies. But we didn’t have a choice. The police had taken away our clothes after arresting us for climbing up a construction crane a few blocks behind the White House to unfurl a banner that said RESIST.

The 12 women occupying the cell eyed us with quiet curiosity as we – two white women (Zeph and Karen), one African American woman (Pearl) and one Latina (Nancy) – searched for a place to sit on the dark linoleum floor or lean against the white cinder block walls. The bright lights didn’t provide a dark corner to hide in this 12’ by 15’ cell.

At 7:30 a.m., we all focused on one thing – Superior Court arraignment at 1 p.m. We all wore a DC Police issued plastic wristband identifying us by photo, name, birth date, gender and race. When we arrived at lockup, the DC Police handed us over to the U.S. Marshals who used a black sharpie to write a number on our bracelet corresponding to the order we arrived. I was #76. And they would refer to me as such all day.

A steady conversation hum filled the room. Two women who thought they lived in the same neighborhood, tried to figure out friends in common. Others explained in expletive-ridden detail how they innocently ended up in lockup. Four women slumped over four metal stools fixed to the floor in front of dark screen window where defendants could speak to lawyers or other court officials. The rest stayed quiet or dozed. Exhausted hungry and thirsty, we kept to ourselves.

Finally, one of us responded to the query, “Did you see that RESIST banner hanging above the White House? That was us.”

In a flash, a woman wearing dreadlocks and long baggy gym shorts, #23, jumped to her feet and high-fived us. Another young woman, in torn jeans and a red hoodie, #57, strutted around the packed cell exclaiming, “I need a selfie. I’m famous. I’m in-car-cer-ated with the crane people.” A young woman sporting a turquoise and cream streaked Afro wig, long pointy fingernails and over the knee boots stopped her conversation and exclaimed with a big bright smile, “That was you. I saw that.”

She was Sunshine. And this wasn’t her first time in jail. She too had been arrested for civil disobedience. When she lived in Los Angles, she joined a march to protest a Missouri Grand Jury’s failure to indict the police officer that shot Mike Brown. In response, Sunshine had occupied Rte. 110 and shut it down.

When she lived in Texas, she rushed to the jail where Sandra Bland died to see for herself what had happened. According to the police, Sandra had hanged herself using a standard issue trash bag in her cell. Sunshine rooted through the jail’s dumpster to find an identical bag. When she tied it to a fence to see if it could hold her 125 pounds, it broke. “There’s no way that bag held her,” declared Sunshine. “They fuckin’ murdered her.”

In July, she attended the Democratic Convention because Sunshine loved her Bernie. “I don’t like many white men but I love my Bernie.”

When Trump’s name came up, she stated unequivocally how much she hated him and Hillary Clinton. But never Bernie. She felt Hillary and her people had robbed him of his opportunity to lead and could never forgive her.

Sunshine sat on the floor next to her wife, often holding her hand. They had met five years earlier at a lesbian poetry reading, which Sunshine had helped produce. Now they lived in DC with their pit bull dog. Sunshine worked as a cosmetologist doing hair and make-up while her wife cooked at a senior center.

“Let me fix it,” cooed Sunshine to her wife who squirmed as she re-braided her hair. “I’m a professional and she never lets me touch her hair.”

“I bet I could use help with my hair,” I said, tugging on a hank of grey hair matted down by the ski hat and hardhat I had worn on the crane. “And certainly make up.”

Sunshine stared at me, nodded in agreement and said, “I am all about contours and shading.”

Suddenly the door opened, a hush fell over the cell. A male US Marshal half entered and yelled, “Number 36.”

“She’s not here,” responded my cellmates in unison.

Before the marshal left, a woman seated by the door, #43, called out, “I need something to eat, I’m starving. I’m pregnant and my baby’s eating the walls of my stomach.”

“I told you we don’t have any food,” responded the marshal exasperated.

The woman dropped her head.

“What time is it?” yelled several other women.

Before closing the door, he shouted, “8:45.”

After spending the night in lockup, these women anxiously awaited Superior Court arraignments beginning in four hours. Without a clock, everyone depended on a visitor to share a simple piece of information, the time.

Number 43, thin and on edge, told us her father had entered her home, where he didn’t live, pistol whipped her and threatened her. Then called the police on her.

Sunshine jumped in. “You need a restraining order against him.”

“How the fuck do I do that?” asked #43.

“I’ll tell you how,” responded Sunshine who walked the woman through the process step by step telling her where to go and what documentation she needed. “Then when your father comes back, you call the police because he’s violating the order. They will arrest him.”

“She knows her shit,” called out one of the other women.

Sunshine’s wife smiled proudly. “She filed a restraining order against our landlord. Now he can’t come near his own property.”

Number 43 appeared happy for the help but too distracted to absorb it all.

“I need a restraining order against my husband’s fuckin’ ex-wife,” announced an older woman with short close-cropped hair, #50. “She and I got into it when she came by for money. She’s an addict. I’m clean. I won’t give her any fuckin’ money.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“The cops shot my brother on Christmas day and I’m the one in here,” announced #23 as she attempted to pace but couldn’t get past women sprawled out on the floor. “I didn’t even know they had a bench warrant for me.”

“My brother was wrapping up his kids Christmas presents. He wasn’t threatening no fucking cop. They said he had a fucking knife. Why’d they have to fuckin’ shoot him?” she searched our faces for an answer, then stood quietly.

No one spoke for a few minutes.

“How many tasers did you have in your car?” asked #57 to # 38, the only white woman of the 12 in lockup.

“Two. But they were both broken,” answered #38 as she ran her hand through her blonde hair.

“Then they were toys,” announced #23.

“When they asked to look in your car, you should have said no,” declared Sunshine. “Remember next time.”

Sunshine’s wife smiled in agreement.

As the morning wore on, the cell door opened again. This time a female marshal entered and called, “Number 36?”

Again the women yelled back, “She’s not here.”

Before the marshal closed the door, the pregnant woman, # 43, asked for water.

“Drink out of the sink,” instructed the marshal, pointing to the partitioned off bathroom, which included a metal toilet and sink.

“That water’s like Flint,” declared Sunshine. “Don’t drink it.”

“What time is it?” shouted another prisoner.

“11:07.”

A collective sigh followed.

Exhausted, I lay down on the dusty floor to rest my eyes and my brain. The last 24 hours’ events bubbled up inside me, from the many hours chained and safety harnessed to the crane ladder, to conducting media interviews, to tweeting and posting on Facebook, to the arrests at 10 p.m., to a night on the DC jail cell floor and now to this lockup.

I thought back to our first ride in the police van, where we sat shoulder-to-shoulder, thigh-to-thigh on a long metal bench, our hands cuffed behind us. The men sat on one side of the van and the women in identical formation on the other side, separated by a metal partition. The officer instructed us to hold on to the blue fabric ribbon attached to the seat behind us as he lowered a big heavy metal bar across our chest to hold us into place on the ride to the police station. As our driver drove fast, cut corners and slammed the breaks, I instantly thought about Freddie Gray, the man who died in Baltimore police custody of injuries to his spinal cord after riding unsecured in a police van. A subsequent police officer confirmed my thoughts about Freddie Gray when he referred to the heavy metal bar as a “Baltimore seat belt.”

Some law enforcement members applauded our actions or even suggested we scale the Capitol building next. But one incident stood out in my mind, which had only occurred a few hours earlier. A gruff female staff person at lockup ordered me to face the wall and stand with my legs apart and my arms out stretched. As she patted down my arms, she leaned in to whisper in my left ear, “I’m only going to say this once, Congratulations.” Then she stepped back and barked aloud, “Now spread your legs.”

Despite thoughts and emotions swirling through me, sleep finally overtook me until I heard someone call out my name. “Karen, is that you? It’s Tom,” announced a voice from behind the mesh screen. There sat Tom Wetterer, Greenpeace’s General Counsel.

A woman seated on the stool in front of him moved so I could sit across from him.

He and I both put our hands up to the screen though they couldn’t touch. I fought back the tears as he asked about our well-being and shared the news about our story. The press remained interested in our plight, had filmed us leaving the jail for Superior Court and was waiting for our arraignment. Supporters and staff also waited for our release. My three fellow activists and I crowded into the space to listen to Tom describe the charges, explain the process and answer our questions.

Before he left, I asked him the most important question to which he responded, “12:50.”

Turning my head to face my fellow prisoners, I repeated the time. Whoops of joy followed. We could almost taste 1 p.m.

After Tom left, Sunshine offered her advice, “Don’t worry, they’ll let you go. I’ve never seen DC keep anyone.”

One p.m. came and went but no one came for us. Later we found out that the court arraigns the men first and on this day lockup held 80 men. Eventually, a marshal opened the door and yelled out a number of someone actually in the cell. Slowly, the cell emptied. With each departure, everyone said good luck and no one talked smack once they left.

When they called for Sunshine and her wife, the cell turned cold and gloomy.

Eventually, all who remained were #57, #23 and the four of us. With extra room in the cell, my fellow activist Nancy led us in a few yoga poses and Pearl commanded us to do three sets of 10 squats. We felt our energy return, briefly, then succumbed to lying on the floor and dozing.

The marshal opened the door to hold a headcount. We rattled off our numbers, which he checked off on a small yellow Post-it, then asked, “Number 36?”

“She’s not here,” we groaned.

After the marshals called #57 and #23 to court, female marshals returned, called us by number into the hallway and attached belly chains and handcuffs. Before she directed us back into our cell, I spotted the time on her watch 5:50.

And so we waited again for our turn to walk into Superior court for our arraignment

At 6:45, when they called us, we shuffled in wearing ankle chains, belly chain and handcuffs to proclaim our innocence. After pleading not guilty, they removed our chains and we emerged from the courthouse by 7:30 p.m.