After you cry, what will you do?


by Karen Topakian

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

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

In one moment Phoolvati lost everything.

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

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

We humans also have the power to do both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ode to the Sun


by Karen Topakian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our sun. Our glory. Our joy.

Questioning My Commitment

downloadby Karen Topakian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I continued to question myself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Nagasaki Day


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


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


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


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.


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


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

Gavel on sounding block

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


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.