Ah, the power of deterrence! An arraignment is taking place in
Los Angeles today of fifteen Greenpeace activists and two journalists
who stand accused of felonies in the disruption of the Pentagon's
antimissile defense test at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California
last month. The charges, which carry a maximum sentence of more
than 11 years in prison and fines totaling half a million dollars,
are among the stiffest yet handed down to anti-Star Wars protesters
at Vandenberg. Apparently, the government is trying to send a message
to deter future activists. Will it work? All you need to do is look
across the courtroom at today's arraignment to get your answer.
Representing the Greenpeace fifteen is Katya Komisaruk of the Just
Cause Legal Collective. You might recognize her thick black hair
and quizzical expression from Seattle, where she worked around the
clock in the rainy streets and was instrumental in getting all the
charges against close to 600 World Trade Organization protesters
In Washington DC, where demonstrations confronted the International
Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings, she joined civil rights attorneys
in negotiating a plea that got serious charges against about 800
arrestees reduced to the equivalent of a traffic ticket. In Los
Angeles, she worked hand-in-glove with activists to get charges
dropped against protesters arrested during the Democratic National
Convention. To thousands of demonstrators, Komisaruk has become
It stands to reason that she'd be representing Star Wars protesters
at Vandenberg. But it also makes a mockery of the government's belief
that stiff sentencing deters protest. You see, fourteen years ago,
it was Komisaruk breaking into Vandenberg and Komisaruk in the dock.
It hasn't deterred her. Far from it.
In fact, her experience spurred her to become a people's lawyer
-- an "organizer attorney" as she puts it. According to colleague
Frances Olsen of UCLA Law School, "Katya is potentially the leading
criminal defense attorney in the U.S." Which wasn't quite the government's
Late one June night in 1987, when she was 28, Komisaruk hitchhiked
to Vandenberg, north of Santa Barbara. Armed with a poem, a box
of cookies, a bunch of flowers, a hammer, some spray paint and an
electric drill, she walked through an open gateway and left her
offerings for the absent guards, then made her way to what she believed
was the headquarters of the NAVSTAR navigation system. NAVSTAR enabled
the United States to launch a first strike nuclear missile attack
-- in violation of international laws against initiating nuclear
Next, Komisaruk hacked at an IBM mainframe computer and dented a
satellite dish, aiming to disable the military's satellite guidance
system, a critical component in the Pentagon's arsenal. She scrawled
"Geneva Convention" and "No first strike" on the walls. Two hours
later, still no guards in sight, she hitchhiked home, got legal
advice, held a press conference and gave herself up.
The government came down hard on Komisaruk, too. What followed was
a landmark trial -- standing-room only in Los Angeles' federal court.
The government prosecutor pioneered a new strategy on Komisaruk:
gag the defendants. They've been using the same tactic on political
prisoners ever since. On a prosecution request, the judge banned
all talk of "nuclear missile," "Geneva Convention," or "necessity
defense," along with any description of NAVSTAR, or first strike.
The words were literally forbidden to be said in the court.
Powerless to explain her motives to the judge or the jury, "it was
like one of those nightmares," Komisaruk said afterwards. "Where
you're trying to scream for help or give some warning and no sound
comes out." Equal parts furious and inspired, she decided to become
Convicted on felony damage charges and sentenced to five years,
Komisaruk studied furiously for the LSATs at Camp Geiger, a minimum
security federal prison near Spokane. She applied to Harvard from
prison, was accepted on her release and in 1994 she set up practice
in the San Francisco Bay Area where she has been practicing law
on behalf of political activists, the poor, and those caught up
in the state's draconian drug net ever since.
Today her clients are six Americans, two Germans, two Britons, two
Australians, one Indian, one Canadian and one Swede who are charged
with "conspiracy to violate a safety zone." A Spanish videographer
with a green card and a British photographer (both freelance journalists)
face similar charges.
Reflecting on the arraignment today and the parallels between her
position twelve years ago and where she stands now, Komisaruk says
"it's eerie." It should also be instructive. If her clients are
as inspired by Komisaruk as she was by her lawyer, the Greenpeace
fifteen may be the movement's next most valuable recruits.
It's funny how the government never seems to catch on. Making martyrs
of activists makes more impassioned activists. (Not to mention some
pretty motivated lawyers.) I guess that's why they say Military
Intelligence is a contradiction in terms.
Laura Flanders is a journalist and broadcaster, host of the
Laura Flanders Show (formerly on KWAB/RadioForChange) and author
Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting."
Her Spin Doctor Laura columns appear daily on WorkingForChange.
You can contact her at email@example.com
© 2001 WorkingForChange.com