Karen Topakian had a pretty good reason not to be at her San Francisco book club this week.
The 62-year-old Greenpeace chair was 100-feet up in the air on top of a crane in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, spreading her progressive messages on Facebook Live, before she was arrested along with six other activists — three others of whom are from the Bay Area.
“This is why I had to miss book group last night," Topakian wrote cryptically on Wednesday to a friend, in a post from atop a crane that has been seen nearly 500,000 times. “I told her I’d explain it to her later,” Topakian said in a phone interview on Friday, a day before she plans to return home to her home in the Mission District.
The action was one of the top trending stories earlier this week, and drew global attention to the simple banner the group hung up top of a construction crane that read: “Resist.”
Their protest came one day after President Donald Trump signed orders intended to restart construction of two oil pipelines, the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL. Trump’s administration also moved on Tuesday to delay implementation of at least 30 environmental rules and froze new Environmental Protection Agency contracts and grant awards. On Thursday, he reiterated he was going to build a wall on Mexico's dime.
Yes, this was Topakian’s first time climbing a crane. But no, this was not her first arrest. It was her 36th.
The Rhode-Island born activist started off as an anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s, about the time when she moved to California and attended the San Francisco Art Institute.
So she is quite familiar with the legal process. She and the six other high-climbing protesters were arraigned Thursday on three misdemeanor charges. The charges are unlawful entry, destruction of property and unlawful demonstrating.
There’s another court appearance scheduled in a few weeks and Topakain said, “I fully intend to be there. It’s my responsibility to follow through.” She was arrested with Pearl Robinson and Zeph Fishlyn, both of of Oakland and Nancy Pili Hernandez of San Francisco. The three other activists, Zachary Riddle of Maryland, Josh Ingram of Seattle and Zakaria Kronemer of Brooklyn, were the ones who climbed up the full 270 feet to hang the banner.
The group received much praise from like-minded liberals. "From the bottom of my heart, thank you," wrote Jennifer Bryson.
But Topakian’s own Facebook feed is full of critics too. Rachel Springstead wrote: “Learn to accept it. It is democracy and it’s in the constitution. What you have done today is dangerous and illegal, with careless regard for anyone else.” And Lecia Balian wrote, “You are a shame and embarrassment to Armenians everywhere around the world. Your actions should be considered an act of treason.”
Topakian, who owns her own communications business when she’s not climbing cranes, doesn’t know who first came up with the idea to pull the stunt in D.C. She was on the East Coast anyway for the Women’s March. All she knows is that when she heard about it, she knew she was in, despite her very strong fear of heights.
“I was absolutely freaking out,” she said. “But I knew I had to past it because the stakes are much greater than my fear.”
She also feels the action was a “complete success,” based on the news stories it garnered and the views on Facebook Live, which she said was surprisingly easy to use, even at five stories up in the air. “It was really effective in delivering my message, which then gets immediately shared,” she said.
As for the message?
It was a long laundry list of environmental, feminist and pro-immigrant rights desires and platforms. “Our goal was to send a message to the president, We’re going on the record to resist your reprehensible policies,’ “ she said.
But, she said, the action was also to “inspire people who don’t understand their country any more and serve as a rallying cry to resist.”