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?

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.

 

How I Became an Activist

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by Karen Topakian

Responding to the in-coming administration’s grand entrance, friends and colleagues have asked me how to become an activist, probably because I’ve been one for decades. First, as a community organizer then as a Greenpeace campaigner and as a frequent participant in nonviolent direct action. To answer, I thought back to my own humble beginnings.

Here’s my story:

In 1977, my late friend Mary Levesque, a public interest lawyer representing low-income clients, asked me to testify before the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) against a proposed electricity rate hike. Her organization, which advocated for the then radical idea of lowering residential rates during off-peak hours, needed a consumer to testify favoring their position. I fit the bill.

At the time, I lived in a communal household with several other adults and assumed responsibility for collecting the money and paying the household bills. Therefore, I knew our electricity costs first hand. Despite being college graduates, my roommates and I worked at non-professional jobs as waitresses, fishermen and in other low-wage employment. Rarely was anyone home during the day using electricity, so decreasing our costs after 6 p.m. would provide us with considerable savings. Plus the recent 1973 Oil Crisis, which quadrupled oil prices, put us all a bit on edge.

If I could convince the Commission to change their rate structure, our household costs would decrease and so would countless others who struggled financially.

Having never testified publicly, I became anxious and excited at the prospect. I didn’t know the PUC from the IRS. Mary provided me with the facts but urged me to write my own testimony using my own words and experience.

I can still recall that warm spring hearing night. Rushing home from my waitress shift, hurriedly replacing my stained clothes with a clean blouse and skirt, before heading out to testify.

The Commissioners sat behind a long table at the front of a large meeting room. I signed up to speak then quickly found an empty seat in the audience. As I quietly practiced my statement to myself, I could feel my temperature rising causing my blouse to stick to the back of my chair and my hands beginning to shake. After hearing the clerk call my name, I pulled back my shoulders, set my expression to serious and walked down the center aisle. I felt all eyes on me, as I struggled to keep my anxiety at bay. When I approached the podium, I spied Mary standing in the corner, nodding and smiling. Her reassurance calmed my nerves. Given only a few minutes to speak, I began in a clear, loud voice looking directly at the panelists who wore government-issued blank expressions. Using my nascent acting skills, I slowed down my speech and emphasized the important words. When I finished, a flurry of applause erupted from the audience.

Back down the center aisle I beamed, practically skipping with excitement like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.” I felt an adrenaline jolt akin only to my brief acting experiences. But better. Much better. Instead of entertaining an audience, I had spoken up for my rights and for others. And I wanted to do it again.

Even though the Commission rejected our proposal, the experience whetted my appetite to use my voice again.

Feeling empowered by this experience, I sought a job as a community organizer in Providence at People Acting through Community Involvement (PACE). For two years, I organized low and working class neighborhood members, often training them to testify at public hearings about crime and public safety by using their own experiences.

And thus began my life as an activist.

A Post-Election Letter to Staff

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Dear Staff,

Though the presidential election took place only last month, it feels like a lifetime. As we struggle to accept the news and wrestle with the impacts of a Trump presidency, I’ve drafted some initial thoughts about how our organization will respond during these uncertain times. I want to hear yours as well, because we’re all in this together.

First, we will look to our mission and values for guidance. These principles will allow us to continue meeting the community’s needs. Needs that will increase if the President-elect fulfills his campaign promises. We will assure our clients and supporters that we will stay focused while remaining ever vigilant to the potential threats of: deportations, a registry of people of the Muslim faith, the gutting of environmental protections, among other campaign promises.

Second, staying focused on our work and our mission will require great discipline. The President-elect’s daily tweets can and will distract us. Therefore, the Communications Department will now assume responsibility for monitoring his Twitter whirlwind. If Trump tweets about rounding up immigrants, we will respond. However, if he tweets about SNL and Broadway plays, we will ignore them. If the Comms determines a tweet deserves a response, it will provide one. Otherwise, we will ignore the distraction. As usual, the Program Department will respond to policy proposals affecting our mission. Please give our colleagues some extra love for taking on this onerous task.

Third, we will need to work closely with our allies to combat the worst this administration has to offer. Therefore, we will seek mutual support in our hours of need.

Fourth, we will keep our messaging short and pithy. In the past, we’ve often over-explained our programs. The President-elect successfully connected with voters with his short, sharp messages. Though we loathe the paucity of facts and the outright lies, we should examine his form. I don’t advocate dumbing down our messages, just making them concise.

Finally, we need to stay in shape for the next four years. We need to nurture each other and ourselves. Let’s keep our minds alert and our bodies active: by holding walking meetings, working at a standing desk, resting, staying hydrated and clear minded. Let’s commit to eating lunch together weekly while talking about non-work topics.

Remember, this ain’t no 5k race or even a marathon. It’s an ultra-marathon combined with an Ironman triathlon. Let’s make sure we’re physically and mentally ready to face the struggles ahead. We can assume this will be a time of unprecedented assault on our values, therefore, we must remain vigilant to protect our rights, our planet and our democracy.

 

 

I’m Not There Yet

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by Karen Topakian

In the week since the US Presidential election, I received several FB messages from friends and read many blog posts urging me to reach across the aisle to understand why people voted for the President-elect. I’ve been asked to put my feelings of despair and anger aside and listen with an open heart and mind to supporters of the President-elect who proposes racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and homophobic policies. I’m not there yet.

I’m not ready to reach out to ask why they voted for a person endorsed by the Klan.

I’m not ready to sit across the table from someone who thinks discussions about sexually assaulting women are common among men and only “talk.”

I’m not ready to inquire without judgment about how someone could support a candidate who relentlessly and without foundation questioned the birthright of the president because he is Black.

I’m not ready to offer an olive branch to someone who chose a candidate who threatens unconstitutionally to ban people of a particular religion from entry into the United States.

I’m not ready to hold hands with someone who elected a candidate who wants to punish/jail women who seek abortions.

I’m not ready to break bread with someone who voted for a candidate that proposes limits on a free press.

I’m not ready to sing Kumbaya with someone who undermined our electoral process by charging that the election was rigged, until he won.

I’m not ready to listen to someone tell me that they too found these statements troubling and disturbing but voted for him anyway because he’s a good businessman or because he promised their job back or because they hate Washington.

My Christian upbringing, upon which I rarely rely, urges me to do just this – turn the other cheek as Jesus did. But I ain’t no Jesus.

The Bible also tells me not to judge or I will be judged. But I’ve already been judged as “less than” by his voters who don’t value and respect women’s lives or choices.

My deep belief in the power of nonviolence suggests I practice compassion with my adversaries. I’m not there yet. I don’t feel compassion for people who prefer a bigot. For people who chose a demagogue.

The possibility that all of his supporters don’t feel this way doesn’t trump my fear of loss that everything I work so hard to create – a just, equitable and peaceful planet – can and will be undone by a few strokes of his pen or by votes in a one party Congress or by the soon-to-be conservative Supreme Court.

I’m not looking for revenge; I don’t wish his voters and supporters ill will. I just don’t want to talk to them. And I don’t want to understand their decision. I don’t want to feel their pain. Not yet. Because mine is too deep.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

by Karen Topakian

 

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go to Livermore, California in August. It’s crazy hot.  And it’s scary dry.

But I don’t go to Livermore for the weather.

I go because nuclear weapons are created, developed and tested at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  I go in August to commemorate the dropping of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945.

I go to risk arrest because I cannot stay home and let the anniversary of this event go unmarked. Go unnoticed.

Though Robert Oppenheimer and his gang developed and tested the atomic bombs dropped in Japan in New Mexico, Livermore Lab continues the legacy.

Plus Livermore flourishes in my backyard. My ‘hood. Staying away feels like I’m permitting them to conduct business as usual in my backyard.

And so I go to Livermore. To step in. To say no. To use my body against the further creation, production and testing of nuclear weapons.

The Lab and I have a long history. I’ve made this journey on this day and others, for more than 25 years, Sometimes wearing my Greenpeace campaigner hat, sometimes wearing my Western States Legal Foundation board member hat or my Agape Foundation executive director hat. This time, wearing my concerned citizen hat. Always with other nonviolent activists and people of faith, young and old, organized by Western States Legal Foundation, Tri-Valley CARES and other local anti-nuke organizations.

Under the baking mid-morning sun, I risk arrest lying on a hot black tar road at the entrance to the Lab’s West Gate. My body and my fellow protestors’ occupy the pavement.

The sun bears down on my back. On my arms. On my legs. I can feel sweat forming on my face. I don’t wipe the beads away. The smell of hot road fills my nostrils. Flies land on my hands. I don’t swat them away. I don’t move. I’m lying there, feigning death. In a mock die-in. To replicate the lives of those who fell on the streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on two August mornings when the US chose to unleash the unthinkable.

Fellow protestors outline our bodies in chalk on the pavement. Mimicking the effect of the Japanese people whose bodies, seared by the impact of the bomb, only left a shadow outline on the street.

A white piece of paper, proudly pinned to my chest, bears the name of Hiromu Morishita, a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. Mr. Morishita, president of the Senior High School Teachers’ Society and the Hiroshima Peace Education Institute in Japan, was one mile from the atomic bomb explosion, which severely scarred the left side of his face and blew off his ear.

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I think about all the lives lost on that day. And about the lives of those lost most recently in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. I don’t distinguish between innocent lives and the lives of the not so innocent. I’m saddened by my inability to stop those deaths or to stop these weapons.

Committed to nonviolence, I haven’t seen a war I’ve liked or supported. They all end in bloodshed, trauma and destruction. They weigh heavy on our souls. Making us small and inhumane.

Eventually an Alameda County Sheriff approaches me, tells me if I leave I won’t be arrested. If I stay I will be. I don’t move. I can’t. And still remain true to myself.

I rise from the ground when the officer tells me I’m under arrest. Escorted by an officer in camouflaged riot gear, I walk past the phalanx of heavily uniformed police. The officer asks for my ID, then handcuffs my hands behind me. One hand holds my California drivers license.

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A female officer pats me down, looking for weapons, sharp objects. The only item in my pocket, a pin of Greenpeace’s ship, the Rainbow Warrior III. To remind me of one more reason why I am standing on the other side of the law.

Another officer helps me into a waiting van, already occupied by my fellow protestors. We introduce ourselves. Some I have known for decades. Others I meet for the first time. All friendly. All here for the same reason. The last person to join us, a nun in her 80s who attends religiously. We total 30.

The van drives a short distance; officers escort us out of the van into a warehouse, set up to handle the booking. Two women record the information on my license on two separate forms. I sign them both. I ink my thumbs for fingerprints. I receive a copy of my citation for blocking a roadway.

Since we are the last arrestees, the guards quickly escort us out the gate.

No officer asks us why we spent our morning remembering this day of horror for more than 200,000 Japanese people. But we all know why.

This wasn’t my first trip nor will it be my last to the scene of this crime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of Stuff released their newest film today – The Story of Change

by Karen Topakian

Once again Annie Leonard distills a very big story into an easy to follow recipe for change. The Story of Change – a six minute animated film – outlines the 3 simple steps required to make big change in our country. To move from a corporate driven economy to one driven by safe healthy consumer choices and a happy healthy planet.

At the end of the film, she invites you to take a quiz to see where you fit in the world of changemakers. Are you a resister, a builder, a communicator, an investigator, a networker or a nurturer?

Watch the film. Take the quiz. Then share your changemaker title. More importantly make some change!!!