With a rap sheet that spans some three decades, one of the activists who famously hoisted a 75-foot “Resist” banner from a crane behind the White House last November is now the subject of a short documentary.
The protest denouncing President Donald Trump’s policies made national headlines and landed Greenpeace activist Karen Topakian and a handful of others, including local activist Nancy Pili Hernandez, in jail for 18 hours. By Topakian’s standards, it was a tremendous success.
“It went around the world a few times,” said Topakian, who lives in the Mission District. “I do this to be a body count to show that there are people who are willing to risk their freedom for unknown consequences.”
The action certainly wasn’t the first time that Topakian put her freedom at stake to protest social injustices. Weighing in on nuclear weapons policy, war, human rights and environmental abuses, the passionate social justice advocate has made marching, laying down, sitting-in or climbing on public spaces in protest her life’s work.
Topakian’s first arrest was in 1982 for “laying in a road in New York” in protest against nuclear proliferation at the United Nations headquarters. Since then, Topakian has been arrested some 33 times – “maybe more, but definitely not less,” she said.
The 62-year-old’s activism is now featured in the four-minute documentary “Arrested Again,” which premiered at the San Francisco Green Film Fest in April and will screen again in the SF Documentary Film Festival on June 4 and June 6. The documentary is filmmaker Dan Goldes’ third short film since 2011 and was shot entirely using his iPhone.
Goldes, who met Topakian on the screening committee of the Green Film Festival last year, said he was inspired to tell her story after inquiring about a telephone number scribbled on her forearm in black sharpie.
The phone number was to the National Lawyers Guild, which among other things provides legal support to activists and protesters who are arrested. Topakian had gone to a protest earlier that day and was, as always, prepared to leave in handcuffs.
“She told me that she always writes that [number] on her arm when there is a protest and there is a possibility of being arrested,” said Goldes. “That’s when she told me she’s been arrested dozens of times – She told more of her story, like it wasn’t a big deal.”
Topakian, who is the chair of the board of Greenpeace, Inc., is both humble and straightforward when it comes to talking about her extensive history of advocacy, clearly preferring to let her actions speak for themselves.
“It’s not about self-promotion,” she said. “It’s about, ‘this issue requires a response and I believe it requires an elevated response – hence, I do X.’”
When asked about what drives her to repeatedly put her body on the line, Topakian said it comes down to channelling outrage and fear into peaceful action.
“What is the thing that you really care so much about that you are willing to step away from your everyday life and do something about it?” she asked.
Still, Topakian doesn’t necessarily consider civil disobedience the mark of an activist. She says it simply “isn’t for everyone.”
Topakian knows that she is in a position of privilege to make radical moves, which she said she has chosen to leverage while practicing her first amendment right. “I am white, I’m well educated, I’m older and I do not worry about my immigration status,” she said. “Being a woman [gives you] a tiny privilege, but not a whole lot.”
“She’s willing to put herself out here on behalf of many people who can’t,” said Goldes.
Under the current administration, both Topakian and Goldes hope that the film will inspire others to forego their comfort zones to make a change.
“There is a clear need for resistance work, and I think Karen’s story can be that inspiration. But it doesn’t mean people will have to get arrested,” said Goldes. “Hopefully it will inspire people to get involved with an advocacy organization, contact their representatives, or go to a march.”
“Arrested Again” will screen at the DocLands Film Festival in San Rafael on Friday, May 12 at 7 p.m., and at the San Francisco Doc Fest on June 4 at 12:30 p.m. and on June 6 at 7:15 p.m. at the Roxie Theater at 3117 16th St. Tickets can be purchased here.