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.

 

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.

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“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.

 

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.

 

 

Am I Ready?

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When my partner Peg and I were hunting for a house in 2001, I announced we needed one with a secret hiding place for Jewish people, god forbid. Peg pointed out that the people who might need hiding would be us, lesbians.

At times, I have wished I had lived during those ugly, dangerous Holocaust years so I could test my commitment to nonviolence, my values and my inner strength. To see where I stood in the face of fascism. I questioned whether I would have summoned up the courage required to protect and defend Jewish people, gypsies, queer people, people of color, leftists and many others targeted by their government.

I have frequently read about the people who reached out during those harrowing times to help those scorned, harassed, targeted, rounded up and killed by their government, despite the great personal risk. Often, they didn’t hold important or powerful jobs, but they felt the moral imperative to act. I asked myself, would I have risked my life for others?

My better self answered, Yes!

I also wondered how good people could do nothing to stop the attacks? How could they stand by? How could they let it happen?

Up until November 8, these questions lived in the theoretical world. But no longer. Now I believe we stand on the cusp of that exact time. I see it on the horizon – the need to personally protect and defend people of the Muslim and Jewish faith, undocumented immigrants, people of color and other groups singled out by the President-elect. I ask myself, am I ready?

Am I ready to stand up, take on and resist the President-elect’s plans for incarcerations, deportations and roundups?

Am I ready to march, sit down, lockdown against threats, intimidation, increased bullying and intolerance toward the people vilified by the President-elect and his supporters?

The answer is Yes.

I’ve spent the last three decades protesting against war, nuclear weapons and environmental threats to the planet without incurring serious threats to my health and well-being. But the current climate may require a whole new commitment level. Because the ominous tone will increase once he’s in office.

Now I feel the urgency to commit myself to acting with greater fortitude.

I ask myself how much am I willing to risk? My livelihood. My home. My freedom. My life…

How will I know when to take those risks?

If I act too soon will I make myself an unnecessary target? If I wait too long will I miss the opportunity to stop the President-elect’s actions?

What do I need to do to protect others at risk? Do I even know how?

Am I ready to wear a headscarf in solidarity with Muslim women? Even though I loathe religious customs that control women’s appearances.

Am I ready to oppose the threatened Muslim registry, by registering as one, even though I’m an atheist?

Am I ready to chain myself to the railroad tracks or trucks or lie in the road to block deportations?

Am I ready to stand up to the face of fascism with all my might?

Will my actions be enough?

Am I ready?