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From the Jails to the Streets to the Courthouse

Katya Komisaruk, who trains and defends protesters, has been there--and done that.


In the firmament of civil disobedience, Katya Komisaruk is a rising star.

Komisaruk, who has a key role in this week's Democratic National Convention protests, first came to public attention a dozen years ago, when as a 28-year-old Berkeley MBA, she took a crowbar to a million-dollar computer at Vandenberg Air Force Base. She believed the computer gave the U.S. the capacity to mount a first-strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.

Along with wall scrawlings explaining that she acted because she felt a responsibility to prevent nuclear war, Komisaruk left cookies, flowers and a poem addressed to guards: "I have no gun / You must have lots / Let's not be hasty / No cheap shots. Please have a cookie and a nice day."

The nuclear defiance cost her two years in federal prison and was the last of her 31 arrests for acts of civil disobedience while protesting issues ranging from U.S. military involvement in Central America to homelessness.

These days, Komisaruk, at 40, has other things to do besides go to jail herself. As an attorney and an organizer, she trains others who are willing to put their bodies where their mouths are to make political points.

She makes her home in Oakland, but over the last year, Komisaruk has become an itinerant attorney for activists throughout the country, starting with anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C., Republican National Convention-related protests in Philadelphia and now Democratic National Convention demonstrations in Los Angeles.

Her clients are angry about such a wide variety of things--from the death penalty to oil company skull duggery to the spread of biogenetically engineered foods--that they evoke a memorable exchange from the movie "The Wild One," in which Marlon Brando, as the leader of a motorcycle gang, is asked, "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" His answer: "What have you got?"

But to Komisaruk, the issues are linked. "It's all one struggle--Teamsters and turtles," she said, referring to labor and environmentalists joining forces to fight corporate greed.

Komisaruk is a woman of bright eyes, open manner and thick black hair cut in a no-nonsense "wedgy." She dresses in business suits when negotiating with government officials, but shorts, sandals and T-shirts when talking to her trainees.

Komisaruk is a rarity: Someone who is able to take herself seriously and with a grain of salt. She acknowledges, for example, that her sanctimony level was once off the charts, a characteristic she attributes to "'the zealousness of the newly converted,"' quoting C.S. Lewis. "We thought we would abolish nuclear weapons."

One of her T-shirts advertises "Reasonable Doubt at Reasonable Prices."

Actually, she lives on donations as the de facto leader of a loose-knit group called the Midnight Special Legal Collective. The name is taken from a song popularized by folk music legend Leadbelly, who sang about a train that passed a prison where he was incarcerated each night at midnight. Legend had it that if the train illuminated an inmate, he would be the next released.

The collective evolved from the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle last fall, where Komisaruk stood for 15 hours in the rain, shouting legal advice to arrested demonstrators whom authorities were holding on a bus.

In preparation for this week's protests, Midnight Special rented a three-bedroom, stucco house near La Brea Avenue and Washington Boulevard. It so lacks frills that a wall separating the living and dining rooms has been constructed of cardboard cartons.

Although the house may not look like much, it is the nerve center of the collective's legal operation, whose phone number has been taught to hundreds of protesters in the form of a doo-wop ditty:

For legal help at the DNC,

Doo-wop doo-wop,

Call Midnight Special at three-two-three,

Doo-wop, doo-wop.

Nine-three-nine, three-oh-three-nine.

We're all law,

All the time.

Demonstrators also have other places to turn for legal help. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Lawyers Guild are actively monitoring police conduct and defending protesters who are arrested.

For Komisaruk, convention week in Los Angeles has been a blur--long days and long nights visiting arrestees in local jails and making her first court appearances stemming from convention-related protests.

"I'm representing the first John Doe," Komisaruk proclaimed Tuesday night, referring to a young man arrested at a protest against Occidental Petroleum Corp. on Monday. He was charged with lying on a sidewalk in violation of the municipal code and has refused to give the authorities his name as part of "solidarity" tactics designed to create problems for the court system.

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