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.