Confessions – True or False?

Interrogation Room

by Karen Topakian

While listening to Terry Gross interview Ada DuVernay about her film “Central Park Five,” my ears perked up when she asked about the boys’ confessions.

Why did they “… agree to a confession that was not true, why they agreed to implicate themselves by saying that they did things that they didn’t do?” asked Gross.

DuVernay pushed back about the word “agreed.” She responded, “I mean, we’re talking about minors. We’re talking about minors who are in rooms alone with police officers who are aggressive, who have guns on their belts and badges, who were told to mind and to respect and to follow orders from….”

Gross posed a commonly asked question, “Why would you confess to something you hadn’t done?”

Most people would say they never would. They would stand up for themselves. Substantial evidence from the Innocence Project says otherwise.

I believe only people who have never been questioned by a police officer would ask this question.

In all fairness, I have never been interrogated by a police officer. But I have had more than my fair share of interactions of my own doing with them. The circumstances are quite different but nonetheless I am aware of a police officer’s power to intimidate and to coerce.

While preparing for committing acts of nonviolent direct action, I have received training that reinforces the need to act politely to the police but not speak to them without a lawyer present. I do not harbor any ill will towards them but I offer them nothing. I know I’m in the tiny minority of those who have received this training, which takes patience and practice to achieve.

But all the training in the world does not remove the anxiety and fear I feel when I’m interacting with police, especially when my freedom and well-being sit in their hands.

For example, once while I was leg shackled to a chair bolted to the floor two police officers read me my Miranda rights. They asked me to affirm I understood them and then check each one off on a piece of paper. I followed their directions.

One of the officers said I appeared “familiar” with the rights, insinuating that I had heard them before possibly under similar circumstances. I said nothing in response.

I wanted to say “Yes, I’ve heard them before from cops.” But I didn’t. (I also thought about saying, “I’ve watched enough episodes of “Law and Order.”)

Since they didn’t know anything about me, I didn’t see a reason to admit I had been arrested before. Without the training, I may have.

And I’m not a black boy. I’m a well-educated middle class white woman with all the unfair associated privilege who knew that a team of lawyers would defend me regardless of what I said.

But if I were a young person of color, I could only imagine how an interaction with armed police officers would feel and look.

Therefore, if you ever find yourself asking, “Why would someone confess to something they hadn’t done?” Change that question to, “How many confessions are falsely given because people feel intimidated, anxious and afraid?”

 

 

Grief: A Journey Without A Map

 

 

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by Karen Topakian

You don’t know where you’re going. Or when you will arrive.

But you know you’re traveling. Down a road full of memories. Dreams. Nightmares and spontaneous tearful explosions.

Chirping birds can send you into paroxysms of grief because they remind you of the serenading birds on your mom’s deck.

Walking on buckling pavement can instantly draw tears as you remember your mom clinging to your arm as you guided her to make sure she didn’t fall.

Chuckling at a funny squib in the paper can turn to sobs because you know she would find humor in the same bit of absurdity.

These moments. These memories. All drive you back to other times. Times when the person who is gone lived and breathed.

The loss remains. Along with the sadness and the pain. But the journey continues without her. To an unknown destiny.

Your wife wants you to do this

 

 

 

 

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by Karen Topakian

This subject line appeared in my inbox from someone I didn’t know.  I didn’t have to open it to know what to do. Because I know what my wife wants.

But how did the mystery sender know….

  • She wants me to finish collecting the information to complete our tax return.
  • She wants me to schedule the new toilet installation from the SF PUC.
  • She wants me to confirm my Greenpeace meeting travel plans for July.
  • She wants me to schedule the tree pruner.
  • She wants me to be happy.

 

“I understood that the best way to prevent violence is to be nonviolent,”

 

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by Karen Topakian

said Nikol Pashinyan, the newly appointed interim prime minister of Armenia.

When this 42-year old former opposition member of Parliament, former newspaper editor and political prisoner, saw President Serzh Sargsyan wanted to continue his national leadership by becoming prime minister after his 10-year term as president had ended, he knew he had to stop him. (Recent constitutional changes made the prime minister position the most powerful in the government.)

Inspired by Nelson Mandela and Gandhi’s famous 1930 Salt Walk across India to oppose British taxation, Pashinyan, began a village-to-village walk on March 31 across 75 miles of Armenia organizing his fellow citizens to oppose the president’s power grab.

Pashinyan’s call for an end to Sargsyan’s oligarchy, corruption and nepotism resonated deeply and quickly with young people and students. But people of all ages joined the call to oppose the president’s move to seal his own power.

By April 13, Pashinyan arrived in Yerevan, the capitol, along with tens of thousands of people and joined the students already protesting against the parliamentary vote of Sargsyan’s appointment.

The nonviolent protests brought central Yerevan to a standstill by blocking metro entrances, squares and central streets and by dancing in the streets.

On April 17, the Parliament voted to appoint Sargsyan as prime minister. Five days later, on April 22, he detained Pashinyan in an effort to decapitate the movement. Instead, it had the opposite effect. The street protests intensified and grew in number but never with violence.

The government released Pashinyan and on April 23, Prime Minister Sargsyan resigned in a concession to the opposition. (Sargsyan resigned on the eve of a historic day in Armenia, the commemoration of the Armenian genocide on Armenian Martyrs Day.)

Pashinyan understood the need for his supporters to remain peaceful to win. So he urged them to raise their hands if the police used force. And he reminded the police that they were all Armenians.

Pashinyan appeared before the Parliament on May 1, with an offer to serve as interim prime minister. When the Parliament voted down his offer, he called for a nationwide strike on the following day.

On Tuesday, May 8, the Parliament met again, bowed to the pressure and chose Mr. Pashinyan as the interim prime minister. He vowed to make his first act the calling of fair parliamentary elections.

Victory achieved without firing a gun, spilling blood and the military taking over. A truly magnificent testimony to the power of nonviolence.

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https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/emil-sanamyan/saint-nick-of-armenia-how-nikol-pashinyan-rescued-armenia-and-made-it-merry

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/europe/armenia-nikol-pashinyan-prime-minister.html

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Losing a species

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photo of Sudan taken by Jana Hajduchova

by Karen Topakian

In case you haven’t heard we lost the last white rhino male, Sudan. And I mean we. The human race. The species that thinks it’s in charge.

Now only two females roam the planet. Two.

In the 1960s, there were approximately 2,000.

According to the New York Times, “War, habitat loss and poaching for rhino horn have decimated populations, and by 2008 researchers could no longer locate northern white rhinos in the wild. But a number of the animals — including Sudan, who was captured in 1975 — remained at zoos around the world.”

We, humans, bear the responsibility for their decline. We start wars. We encroach on their habitat and we kill these majestic creatures to grind up their horns as a mythical cure for cancer.

And we show no signs of stopping. Since we don’t assign a dollar amount to our natural world, we don’t value what nature does and provides. In a capitalist world, no financial value truly means no value at all. Therefore, we don’t know how to assess the “cost” to the planet when we lose a species.

Because white rhinos eat grass, they have changed the ecology and structure of the grasslands. According to Business Insider, “Although seemingly counterintuitive, grazers, like rhinos, increase biodiversity by selecting certain plants over others, giving other species more ability to grow.”

The loss of this one species can alter this ecosystem in profound ways.

If we lost these five species, humans could not survive on this planet – ants, termites, bats, frogs and birds. These creatures decompose plant material, stir up soil, aid in seed dispersal, pollinate plants, serve as bio-indicators of our ecosystem, recycle nutrients and provide pest control. Try getting along without these free services!

Until we value these creatures’ lives, defend their right to live and protect their homes and habitats, we will reduce biodiversity. Disrupt the intricate web of life and place our food sources and clean drinking water at risk.

Now back to Sudan.

My friend and colleague, Jana Hajduchova, knew Sudan since she volunteered for the Czech zoo in Dvur Kralove before he was transported to Kenya in 2009. “I met him several times, last time about three weeks ago. He was still doing well, although I could see that it is already painful for him to walk. He was such a darling… Well, all rhinos are, but he was very kind and a nice animal.”

 

 

 

 

 

A Fish Out of Water

 

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by Karen Topakian

This summer, I accepted an invitation to attend the Pomegranate Film Festival, in Toronto, Canada, which celebrates Armenian inspired films.

The Festival planned to screen “Arrested (Again),” a short documentary film made by Dan Goldes, about my 30 plus year experience with civil disobedience.

Scores of people entered the Cineplex on opening night, juggling popcorn and drinks while greeting each other in Armenian and English. I found a seat between two separate groups of women.

An older woman on my left spoke with her daughter seated beside her but occasionally glanced over at me. I could feel her puzzled expression as she tried to place my unknown face.

Ignoring her glances, I focused on the thick glossy program full of the directors’ biographies and film descriptions.

The crowd fell to a hush, when a female festival volunteer approached the mic. She opened the event with several minutes of remarks in Armenian, a language I don’t understand and can’t speak unless you count swearing, telling you to comb your hair or sit down to eat.

As laughter and applause erupted from the audience, I sat motionless, noticing the woman to my left observe me.

The festival volunteer briefly switched to English. Then she introduced the first film “The Last Inhabitant” and the filmmaker, Jivan Avetisyan, who had come all the way from Armenia, that afternoon.

The volunteer interviewed the filmmaker in Armenian. When she didn’t provide an English translation, I began to worry. What if the entire festival took place only in Armenian? Why hadn’t I asked about the language before I said yes to the invitation? How could I sit through 5 days of films without understanding a word? I felt like a fish out of water.

Then the house lights dimmed, the music started and, thankfully, English subtitles appeared on screen.

The film told the story of two older men who continued to live in Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh), a disputed area between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They remained committed to being the last inhabitants of this hold out village, prepared to defend it as Armenia. One man also needed to protect his daughter from the trauma she experienced from her violent husband. Not an easy film to watch – lots of pain and suffering.

A brief intermission before the second film started allowed me to return to my program.

Again, I could feel the women to my left staring at me. After a few moments, she gently put her hand on my left wrist and tried to ask as politely as she could in English who I was and why I was there.

“I’m the subject of a short documentary.”

“About what?”

“Me.”

She knitted her eyebrows together trying to understand.

“A film about my experience with civil disobedience.”

She tilted her head towards me.

“I’ve been arrested many times in anti-war protests.”

She leaned closer.

“At the end of the film, I talk about my grandfathers who fled the Turks.”

“Ah, the Turks,” she exclaimed while raising both arms in the air. She patted me on my wrist again and smiled. I had made a new friend.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Festivus for the Rest of Us

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by Karen Topakian

Festivus, a secular holiday celebration that exploded after its introduction in a 1996 Seinfeld episode, includes airing grievances and performing feats of strength. For the past several years, Peg and I have celebrated this event in Belmont, MA with her lefty college friends and their teen-age and adult children. This year, some participants responded to “What’s your grievance?” by uttering only one-word while others posed a question. Here are the highlights:

Trump and the Election

Bernie or Bust people – Fuck You

110,000 people voted for Harambe, the dead gorilla, for president (PunditFact says this claim is a hoax)

Why is the voting age 18? (A college junior questioned whether his peers would know enough make the right choice.).

Bannon

The Media

TV ads for pharmaceuticals (I’d rather take my chances on the disease than the medications’ side effects.)

Realistic video games. I don’t want my video games to look realistic.

Emotional tearjerker commercials. It’s just fucking shampoo.

Truthiness

 Parking and Traffic

Uber drivers. They drop people off where ever they want.

Boston drivers (do you really need an explanation?)

Self-driving cars

Road rage

Pedestrians surging into traffic

A lack of consistent placement of bike lanes

Belmont, MA roads. Requires the patience of a saint.

The Wilson Farm parking lot traffic pattern. It’s one way for a reason!

 Sports

Tennis is boring when Serena doesn’t play

Football games are boring

The Cleveland Browns – ugh

Philadelphia sports fans: drunk, sad, angry

Technology

Why does every kitchen appliance beep whenever it completes a task? What am I supposed to do, applaud?

My dishwasher treats me like a moron

My new phone doesn’t know my swear words

Google is run by an evil genius

General

I HATE HAMILTON!!!!!!! (A high school junior rap fan resents the false belief that the musical invented the genre)

Private colleges are a rip-off (said by a private college student)

Pharmacies should designate a colonoscopy preparation aisle that includes Jello, clear liquids and citric acid. Like the wound and incontinence aisle.

Small pockets on women’s clothes

Lifesavers – why are they so hard to find?

Men