Katya Komisaruk's Revolution : Why a Berkeley MBA Trashed a Multimillion-Dollar Air Force Computer in the Name of Peace

Times Staff Writer

It was Sunday morning, and Katya Komisaruk was standing in the kitchen of a friend's home in North Hollywood ironing a green corduroy dress, a gift her father had sent for her trial in federal court. The trial was two days away, but Komisaruk was planning to wear the dress that afternoon to a fund-raising event for her legal expenses.

Noticing a spot on the dress, she announced with mock authority, "After the revolution, everyone will have Spray and Wash."

"After the revolution" is a phrase she frequently uses as a joke. But what revolution? The question was asked Monday as she stood outside a former ground-control center for the NAVSTAR military navigation system at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Looking startled and delighted, she answered quick as a flash in a mock-serious tone: "Why the nonviolent, peaceful revolution that will take centuries to bring about, but afterward. . . ." She broke off, paused, and continued more seriously, "There isn't really an after. It's an evolving concept. What's really revolutionary is living nonviolently and making social changes that way."

Apparently, Komisaruk's nonviolence does not extend to inanimate objects. At least not all of them.

This was not her first trip to Vandenberg. She could face 10 years in federal prison for actions taken on a previous visit, actions that led to a charge of destruction of government property. She went on trial Tuesday in U.S. District Court before Judge William J. Rea. On Monday, the government dropped a second charge, sabotage in injuring defense materials, which could have added another 10 years if she were convicted.

It is a conviction she appears to anticipate. By her own admission, in the early hours of June 2, Komisaruk entered Vandenberg by back roads and made her way to the NAVSTAR facility. There she found the gate to the fenced and barbed-wired compound wide open, the building unoccupied and locked.

Danced on Computer Chips

She broke into the building and for two hours trashed a million-dollar mainframe IBM 3031 computer, hacking away at it with crowbar, bolt cutters, hammer and cordless drill. She danced on the computer chips she had pried loose, spray-painted the casing walls with slogans such as "International Law," "Nuremberg" and "Defense of Necessity," and climbed to the roof to take similar action against a satellite dish.

She left behind a bouquet of flowers, a box of Mrs. Fields cookies, and a poem: "I have no gun / You must have lots. / Let's not be hasty / No cheap shots. Please have a cookie and a nice day." Komisaruk walked off the base, hitched a ride to the Bay Area, got some legal advice and gave herself up after holding a news conference at the Federal Building in San Francisco.

Cited Nuremberg Treaty

"You're party to mass murder if you don't get out there and try to stop it," she said at her press conference. She upheld the legality of her action under international law, citing the Nuremberg Treaty, signed by the United States, in which nations swear to never prepare for or begin a war of aggression.

Out on bail since her arrest, she has not wavered. The Nuremberg Principles are key to her defense, she says, but the judge ruled two weeks ago that reference to international law is irrelevant to the case and may not be used in court.

She said she believed the facility was operational and that the NAVSTAR system provides the United States with a "first strike" capability in a nuclear attack. The government contends that the computer was out of commission and was being stored as surplus and that the satellite navigation system had been moved to Colorado 18 months earlier. Pentagon officials have denied the first-strike capability of NAVSTAR, describing it as part of a sophisticated, satellite-based navigation system.

Whatever its function and status before June 2, the computer is certainly out of commission now. The room remains as evidence--a mess in a room full of jumbled electronic space-age trash and banged-up office furniture. Broken glass and plastic, smashed tubes, bent metal, and computer chips litter the floor. The huge cabinets that housed the computer are like a deserted, vandalized house. The doors hang open, the contents are demolished, the outsides still scream of international law and Nuremberg with black spray-painted graffiti.

A wooden Can't Miss mousetrap and a can of mothballs sit on one table, next to what looked to be the smashed insides of a cathode-ray tube. A number of roach motels are on the floor. A dead mouse lies next to one.

Wearing a navy-blue-and-white shirt with "Vandenberg AFB" over the left breast, Komisaruk made her way through the scene of her crime, accompanied by her defense team, prominent New York civil rights lawyer Leonard Weinglass and co-counsels Dan Williams and William Simpich, and several others. The party was escorted by two FBI agents and several Air Force personnel.

Midway through, Komisaruk's self-described nervousness and discomfort gave way to the self-satisfied smile she occasionally displays when she talks about what she did. At one point, she gave her head a determined shake and said, "Suddenly I am feeling very hungry."

The group roamed around for about an hour before heading back to Los Angeles for a hearing. As they bade cheery goodbys to their hosts, one FBI agent smiled and said, "See you in court."

Long Trek to Court

Katya Komisaruk, 28, has been on her way to court for a number of carefully considered years.

Born Susan Alexis Komisaruk--Katya is a childhood nickname--she grew up in Michigan and California. Her father is a psychiatrist, her mother a housewife--progressive, well-read liberals and Zionists, she said, but not politically active. Today, they are divorced, she added.

She did not become politically active until she was working on an MBA at UC Berkeley, she said. Earlier, her most haunting awareness was of the Holocaust and of the pogroms that preceded it, especially those that persecuted her forebears in the Ukraine.

She described her early life Sunday, sitting cross-legged on her friend Max (nee Ingrid) Ventura's bed in a cozy room full of Early American feminine kitsch and radical, progressive literature.

A bright student who got bored after one year of high school, she said she dropped out at age 16 and was accepted at Mills College. She spent one year there, then two at Reed College in Portland, Ore. There she majored in classics and graduated in 1978 at age 19.

Not a 'Political Thought'

Fencing, sky-diving and sitting up all night writing compositions in "beautiful Ciceronian Latin" were her college preparation for life, she recalled. That and a hitchhiking and hostel stint through Europe.

"I did not have a political thought in my head," she said, confessing herself shocked when a college friend committed an act of civil disobedience. "I read a lot of philosophy, but I never thought it applied to life."

The only jolt she had received came when she was a candy-striper in a nursing home when she was 12 or 13.

Calling the place a hellhole, she said: "To end one's days in a bed, lying in your own urine, being snapped at by nurses, was no way to die. I decided if I'm going to get old, I want to have a lot of money so I can just hire someone to play patty-cake with me or whatever it is I feel like doing."

But wanting "lots of money" ruled out the Bohemian life she was attracted to. So she went to business school.

Disillusionment Dawned

"A month into it and very suddenly, I had this massive realization that business is corrupt. It had never permeated my thinking before," she said, detailing at length what she believes are flaws in the system that leave "the workers exploited, the government screwed and the environment raped."

Next came her feeling that "the whole electoral process was subverted into one dollar, one vote," and that military spending was destroying the economy. She was confused and in conflict, she recalled, describing herself more and more "disturbed" by the week.

"All of this left me extremely politicized. It came to me I had to do something. I felt I should go to a rally and protest."

She was on her way.

It was 1982, and Komisaruk saw a poster for a demonstration at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. She said she went to the nonviolent training that preceded it, mainly to get a ride to the demonstration, and stayed for eight hours, won over by the process. Much to her own surprise, she added, she was among 1,400 arrested at Livermore and held for two days.

Control, Power, Consensus

"I was astonished at the control we'd taken, the power we had, the consensus," she said. "I was just euphoric about it for days and went around with what C. S. Lewis calls 'the zealousness of the newly converted.' I was thoroughly obnoxious, buttonholing everyone."

After that, Komisaruk finished her degree, took an administrative job at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley for a year and continued her activism, she said.

By then she was living communally with other movement people and organizing on a number of issues, primarily anti-nuclear ones. Increasingly, that became the focus of her life. She put every other paycheck into the movement and started Community Defense, Inc., with two lawyers, to defend people engaged in civil disobedience.

Komisaruk today is slightly condescending and disparaging about GTU. It is an attitude she tends to take toward people less committed and presumably more compromised than herself, at one point making an amused reference to the American Civil Liberties Union as a group that "means well" but often misses the point.

Last week she spoke to an anti-nuclear group of students at UCLA and made a few snide remarks about " '60s activists who are now in yuppie jobs."

Found Plowshares

After she quit her job, she said, she then began taking part-time work to support her organizing, demonstrating and direct action. She was jailed briefly for participating in "back country" action at Vandenberg in 1983 when protesters tried to foil the launching of an MX missile.

While at GTU she had become aware of the Plowshares movement, a religious activist movement that grew out of a 1980 attack on the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Pa., by Philip and Daniel Berrigan and six others. Plowshares actions since then seek to destroy nuclear weapons, usually symbolically.

Komisaruk said she talked increasingly with Plowshares people and other movement friends and decided, "They were normal, funny people. If they can do it, I can too. They were kind of the bridge to do something that implied being in jail for a long time. I was getting it clear in my own mind. . . .

"In the end, it's a purely moral argument."

Avoids Labels

In the end, the young woman who walked through the back country to destroy the computer is a person who avoids political labels but says she could probably be called "an anarchal feminist" politically and a "secular humanist" spiritually.

"I believe the good spirit is in all people and that it can be tapped."

She has read a lot of religious texts, she said, looking for questions more than answers. Lately Taoism has appealed to her, and she has been reading Lao-tse, "who asks some good questions," she said. She has done all this reading, she said, but remains unresolved about her own spiritual or religious position.

"I have a lot of material I have to digest," she said. And then she summoned forth again the self-conscious, flip irony that seems so much a part of her private defense.

With a smile and a shrug, she added, "I may well have all the time I need to do just that."

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