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I was sitting around watching soaps Just a useless old sad sack Then I heard those Republican dopes Say we had to bomb Iraq -from the song "Grannies, Let's Unite"*
"I've Got to Do Something"
In the middle of the night in September 2003, I awoke, very troubled. I had been increasingly upset about our invasion and occupation of Iraq since before Bush had launched the attack. Prior to its beginning in March 2003, I marched, I rallied, I signed petitions, I wrote letters to elected officials and newspaper editors, and was sickened when all my efforts and those of millions of people all over the world failed to stop Bush's mindless action. I became more and more distressed with each passing day as I began to see pictures of Iraqi children horribly wounded by our bombs and as I noted the rising death toll of our American kids fighting there. I was particularly horrified by a picture in Time magazine of a twelve-year-old Iraqi boy, Ali, who had lost both arms and was horribly burned over much of his body as a result of our bombings. In addition, this child had lost his entire family-mother, father, and many siblings. I thought to myself, "I've got to do something. I've got to try and stop this terrible war."
Well, I jumped up right out of my seat Got my banners and peace signs out Then I hurried down to the street And started to yell and shout -from "Grannies, Let's Unite"
Suddenly, the word grandmother popped into my head. "Wow," I thought, "that's a magic word. It connotes wisdom, love, nurturing, maturity, good common sense. People will take us seriously. They won't dismiss us as a bunch of drug-infused young radical kooks like they often did in the beginnings of the Vietnam resistance movement when the kids spearheaded the opposition. They'll pay attention." The words Grandmothers Against the War zoomed into my mind.
I had been an activist for brief periods throughout my life. It came somewhat naturally to me, inasmuch as I had been reared in the home of my uncle, Louis Bean, economic advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture, and later vice president, Henry A. Wallace. Thus, I was infused at a tender age with Roosevelt's New Deal ideology. Another molding force was my maternal grandmother, Frances Whitmarsh Wile, who had been a suffragette in Rochester, New York, and had published her antiwar poetry, music, and a lyric still visible in the Episcopal Hymnal ("How Beautiful the March of Days"). She lived far away and died when I was eight so I hardly knew her but, years later, when I learned of her activist history and read her poems about the futility of war, the connections between us were so striking that I have come to believe there is such a thing as genetic inheritance of talents, and, yes, attitudes. After all, I have been a lyricist most of my adulthood, as well as an activist.
However, the pressures of my career as a singer-songwriter-musician and my duties as the single mother of two children kept me from any long-term political commitments. I'm ashamed to say that actually I was relatively unconcerned about the Vietnam War. My kids were babies then, and I was in the beginning stages of making headway in the music business. I didn't fully digest how wrongheaded the war was and, regretfully, the extensive death toll of our soldiers didn't get under my skin as it should have. I was then what I find so reprehensible about people now-apathetic.
In 2003, though, I was fully cognizant of the danger we posed to ourselves and the rest of the world by invading Iraq and was absolutely deadly serious about taking action. Thank God for e-mail! I was able to reach out to many people with likeminded sympathies about the Iraq catastrophe and organize a rally near my apartment at the beautiful Eleanor Roosevelt statue in Riverside Park, Manhattan. I set it for Saturday, November 22, 2003, and prayed for good weather-not too cold, and no rain.
God cooperated-she provided us with a lovely late fall day. Approximately fifty people showed up, including an assemblage of speakers I was able to corral famed Emmy Award- winner and Oscar-nominated actress Barbara Barrie (in the film Breaking Away, she played the mother, and she appeared as Brooke Shields's grandmother in the TV series Suddenly Susan), and a few local elected officials. I also invited my friend Marjorie Kadi to speak about Iraq, where she, an American, had lived for many years as the wife of an Iraqi diplomat. Marjorie knew a great deal about the history and culture of Iraq and was able to put our invasion into perspective, as its being one of many wrongheaded occupations perpetrated on Iraq over the centuries. She enlightened us as to Iraq's high level of art and knowledge and its unique archeological sites. Too many Americans are unaware that Iraq is a highly developed civilization-not, as some believe, a third-world desert outpost. I was very impressed, also, with a speech given by our then local New York State assemblyman Scott Stringer, who later became the Manhattan borough president. He was fiery and eloquent, in the spirit of his mother's cousin, the great congresswoman Bella Abzug. I've always been grateful to Scott for speaking at the rally. After all, I was someone he'd never known or heard of. Another rousing speaker was my dear old friend Judge Frank Barbaro, about whom I have much to report on later.
I was also extremely pleased to have my oldest and youngest grandchildren, Jake and Livia, at the rally, holding antiwar signs. Hopefully, someday they will look at pictures of themselves from that day and be proud to have been such young activists early in the movement to end the occupation of Iraq.
I felt the rally was a good beginning, but it was a onetime event. I couldn't stop there; I had to do something on an ongoing basis. Not long after the rally, I was hit with another middle-of-the-night inspiration-I would hold a regular vigil. I called a meeting in December of a few antiwar women friends and posed the vigil idea to them. I wanted to get started very soon, so as not to lose momentum from the rally. Almost everybody pooh-poohed the idea. "It will be too cold, winter's almost here," said one. "Nobody will show," cautioned another, and one person made the particularly helpful remark, "You're crazy!"
I was very depressed after they left, feeling I had started something that was just going to fizzle out having accomplished nothing. I called one of the meeting's attendees, my friend Judith Cartisano, the only one who had not expressed an opinion, and told her how disappointed I felt that nobody supported the idea. I thought maybe Judith, who had been active in the feminist movement during the '70s and '80s, might be up for another battle. "Despite the naysayers, I still believe it could work," I said, and to my immense relief, she replied, "I think so, too. Let's try it."
But, where to do it? Outside Grand Central Station? Penn Station? Lincoln Center? Each location seemed to present unsolvable problems-at the train stations, people would likely be in too much of a hurry either going to work or going home to notice, or during in-between times mostly not there; Lincoln Center would be only well attended at night, and so on. But Rockefeller Center had a spacious sidewalk and was flooded with tourists from all over the United States and the world. A quick check with the local police confirmed that it was legal to stand on the street side of the sidewalk (near the curb) and hold a vigil. I chose Wednesday afternoon from 4:00 to 6:00 P.M. That way, I'd catch the matinee crowd, tourists, and people going home from work all in one fell swoop. I set the date of the first vigil for January 14, 2004.
Two Little Grannies Standing in the Cold
The afternoon of our first vigil was possibly the coldest day in New York in years. Judith Cartisano and I went to Fifth Avenue in front of Rockefeller Center, each wearing two sets of gloves, layers and layers of clothing, and a homemade sign around our necks with the words Grandmothers Against the War. We were very nervous and apprehensive, expecting people to heckle us and, perhaps, push us around. One can feel very vulnerable making a controversial political statement in the middle of pulsating Manhattan crowds. Remember, in early 2004, an antiwar stance was not a majority opinion.
Although I originally planned for a two-hour vigil, we vigiled for only one-Judith or I dipping into a nearby building occasionally when the cold became too unbearable. It wasn't exactly a rip-roaring success, our little vigil, but we weren't jeered and insulted either. When Judith went inside to warm her hands and I was left alone on the street, I felt even more vulnerable. I had an instinct to take the sign off and pretend to be just another passerby. But, I charged up my guts as best I could and held my ground, praying for her to return as quickly as possible.
And then there were three little old ladies standing in the cold. The following week, another friend, Marjorie Perces, a dancer-choreographer in her eighties, joined us. Again, nobody aimed verbal darts at us; in fact, a few people smiled and gave us a thumbs-up gesture of support. We began to feel a little less uncomfortable in our new roles as public agitators. I soon reduced the time from two hours to one-it proved to be much too difficult to stand for more than an hour. Aged bones and joints react rather poorly to standing still for lengthy periods.
One day in February, a tall, nice-looking man strolled over and introduced himself as Clyde Haberman, a columnist for the New York Times. There were still only the three of us, but he interviewed us anyway. Shortly thereafter, the most wonderful article, "Heck, No? Antiwar Voices Persist, Softly," appeared in the Times, to a large extent featuring our little grandmothers' protest. Mr. Haberman humorously described our vigil. Among his comments, he noted that a passerby made a gesture as if he were shooting a gun at us, then quoted Judith who was not in the least bothered by the man's pretended assault, and said, "His aim was bad."
As spring and summer approached, our little vigil began to expand. I bought a white sheet at the Salvation Army for one dollar, washed it, then sewed it in half horizontally. Two of my grandchildren, Emily and Jake, and their friend Sebastian, helped print Grandmothers Against the War, in big, bold, multicolored letters.
Soon, our numbers totaled about six or seven on any vigil day. In July, a man approached us and introduced himself as Dennis Duggan, a columnist for New York Newsday. He told us he had been riding a bus down Fifth Avenue when he spotted our group holding the banner. Intrigued, he hopped off the bus and came over to interview us. Soon, another article about the grandmothers appeared, in New York Newsday, under his byline.
Shortly after that, a young Japanese woman, Miho Sakai, asked if she might film us for a segment to be broadcast on Japanese public television. It was quite a project-she filmed some of us in our homes and interviewed people at the vigil. Her television piece ran several times in Japan, we learned.
On the Avenue
A group of Veterans for Peace, headed by Peter Bronson, president of the New York City chapter, heard about our vigil and they joined us "on the avenue." They're still there today. I can't tell you how much we like their being there every Wednesday. They make us feel secure and also give us an authenticity-it's not just old ladies standing there demanding an end to the war, it's veterans of wars, themselves, who, unlike most of the war makers in Washington, have actually experienced firsthand the horrors of combat. They can't help but command respect and serious attention.
Pete, a regular of our vigil, is a veteran of the Korean War, bearded, very serious and very dedicated to antiwar causes. He also has led the fight to keep the government from closing the Veterans Hospital in Manhattan. Another regular is Bill Steyert, a Vietnam vet. There isn't a vigil, an action, an arrest connected with the Iraq question that Bill hasn't been part of, he is so incredibly committed to ending the war and protecting our military people. Bill was one of the hundreds of people arrested for protesting during the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, who were imprisoned for as many as forty-eight hours in an old, dirty pier. They had to sit and sleep on an oil- and grease-ridden floor and were barely fed. Many of the lawsuits against the city are still pending in some cases, although a number have been settled with monetary compensation to the mistreated protesters!
The vets also lend some masculine saltiness to our vigil. Sometimes, one of them will call out within the earshot of passersby "What ever happened to Mission Accomplished?" Or, "How do you know when George Bush is lying?" And another vet will yell out, "His lips are moving!"
Soon, we began to sense growing support for our opposition to the debacle in Iraq. Some people applauded, some even joined us. We were particularly struck by the numbers of foreigners who gave us their approval. A woman from Spain told us, with a big smile, "I'm so glad to find you here. Until I saw you, I assumed all Americans supported Bush's war policy." A man from Italy came over to us one afternoon and gave each of us-by then twenty grannies-a kiss on the cheek. More and more often people stopped and photographed and filmed us. We were now a tourist attraction!
Once in a while, we were heckled. The most common remarks launched at us were, "Traitors" or "I support the troops." I found that very hurtful. How could we support the troops more than by trying to bring them home safely? This is indicative of the awful split this war has created among Americans. Sometimes, one of us would not be able to restrain his or her temper and would engage in a dialogue, sometimes heated, with an adversary.
Occasionally, a New York nut case, in which our city specializes, would give us a really hard time, often babbling incoherently. One such person began to hurl insults one day at one of our vets, Hugh Bruce, vice president of the New York City chapter of Veterans for Peace and a veteran of the Vietnam War. The man wouldn't stop, no matter what Hugh and the other vets said. Finally, Hugh had enough, grabbed the guy by the back of his collar, and marched him down to the end of the avenue where a policeman was standing. The heckler was taken to Bellevue Hospital, the usual repository for people having psychotic episodes.
Another time, Bill Steyert got into a verbal scuffle with a nasty heckler, and became so angry that I was afraid it would evolve into a physical confrontation, but it stopped short of that. Those are the only two occasions I can recall in the four-plus years of the vigil, which teetered on the brink of physical violence. Those few episodes aside, I would say we were a phenomenal success at peacefully alerting passersby to the crisis in Iraq. People from all over the United States and the world began snapping our pictures, some even videotaped and filmed us, giving us hope that our protest reached everywhere and thereby helping to dispel the notion that Americans were solidly behind the war. Perhaps, in our small way, we were able to counteract a bit the growing global antagonism (and, I'm afraid, well deserved) toward our nation. Maybe, just maybe, our little vigil had a long reach.
Chapter Two Grannies Take Drastic Action
We were taken to the hoosegow The judge said, "Pay your bail" We said, "We ain't payin' nohow, We'd rather stay in jail
You see, Judge, we've got to stay 'til they stop that gol-darn war, someone's got to say We won't take it any more" -from the song, "The Granny Jailhouse Rock Blues"
Granny, Have You Gone off Your Rocker?
After a year and a half, I began to face the unhappy fact that despite many protests, including ours, throughout the United States, Americans who opposed the war were not having an effect. Bush and his cronies were just as determined as ever to continue the war indefinitely. I felt that we had to do something more dramatic than the weekly vigil and the occasional mass marches we joined to get our urgent message across.
Excerpted from GRANDMOTHERS AGAINST THE WAR by JOAN WILE Copyright © 2008 by Joan Wile. Excerpted by permission.
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