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.


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.


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.












I Still Love the Nevada Test Site!

by Karen Topakian

Peg and I are often asked how we met. We always say at Greenpeace. Which is true. But Peg was my hero before I ever met her. Or knew her name.

Here’s why.

In early April 1986, while driving my old gray Volvo to the San Francisco Art Institute where I was a graduate student, I was listening to the radio.

KALW was broadcasting a BBC report that members of Greenpeace had hiked through the desert at the Nevada Test Site and stopped the Mighty Oak underground nuclear weapon test by occupying ground zero.

Mighty Oak was not just your run of the mill nuclear weapons test. It was a test of defiance.  A global slap in the face.

President Gorbachev had recently announced a unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. He challenged President Reagan to join him in signing a treaty banning nuclear tests. Reagan responded by scheduling Mighty Oak.

Once the US government announced the schedule of the test, the anti-nuclear movement moved into high gear to stop it anyway it could. By lobbying. By protesting. Greenpeace chose to stop it, literally, by occupying the site.

Instantly, I wanted out of my car and art school and back into anti-nuke activism.  (An avocation I had left behind in RI to pursue a career as a fine arts filmmaker.)

I wanted to be one of those people. I wanted to hike through a hot dusty desert to stop one of the most egregious acts committed by our government – the design, production, and testing of nuclear weapons.

All day long, I thought about the audacity of the US and the bravery and courage of the Greenpeace members.  Their ability to stop the test, if only for a matter of hours, fueled my adrenaline.

Art school be damned. I wanted back into the world of activism.

Fast-forward 11 months to March 1987. Where my wish came true. Greenpeace hired me as a nuclear disarmament campaigner to work on the Nuclear Free Seas campaign. (Two months before I received my MFA.)

While at Greenpeace, I met and fell in love with Peg Stevenson.

One day in passing, she mentioned that she was one of the people. One of the people who had hiked through the Nevada Test Site desert in April 1986. To occupy ground zero. Peg Stevenson and her colleagues had stopped an underground nuclear weapon test.

Not only had I scored a dream job. But my girlfriend had been my hero before I even met her.

P.S. If you’re interested in reading about Greenpeace’s occupation of ground zero, check out Mike Roselle’s book, Tree Spiker. The book starts with this action.