Grandmothers of Invention

Older is bitter—when it comes to the war in Iraq. A peek inside the granny-power movement.

Two weeks before going to trial in Manhattan Criminal Court for disorderly conduct, Joan Wile was stirring things up again. The founder of Grandmothers Against the War—better known for being one of 18 grandmas who got arrested last October after trying to enter the Times Square Recruitment Office—Wile had just taken center stage at a recent luncheon for 1199/SEIU retirees.

Dozens of retired union members, most grandma types themselves, had come to hear Wile speak about the plight of the New York anti-war grannies, who face prosecution this week. But Wile, a former TV jingles writer, didn't do much talking. Instead, she seized a piano, tickling the keys and belting out a tune.

"Grandmas, get offa your tush," she sang, her glasses perched on her nose so she could read the lyrics she'd written for her own anthem to anti-war grand-mothers. "We've got to go after Bush."

Grannies hold court at their weekly vigil outside Rockefeller Center.
photo: Mark Manley
Grannies hold court at their weekly vigil outside Rockefeller Center.

"That's right!" someone yelled, instantly lightening the mood. The retirees stomped their feet and clapped their hands to the snappy beat. Wile, meanwhile, let loose:

Grandmas, let's unite
While we are still upright
Let's protest that parasite
Watch out! We've just begun to fiiiiiiiiiight!

At 74, Wile still moved like a spring chicken, working the crowd, winning converts. The room erupted in applause, with audience members calling for an encore. Instead, Wile announced her next gig.

"We're going to trial on April 20," she told her newfound fans, who listened as she relayed how she and her 17 aging colleagues tried to enlist on October 17. How they were arrested and hauled off to jail. How the Manhattan district attorney's office has yet to drop their disorderly- conduct charges.

"We would like to pack the courtroom," she added, "so if you can come, please do."

One person requested a flyer so she could remember the date. Another asked if she should wear her union T-shirt to court. And from the back of the room came this show of support: "I'm with you! See you there!"

It's the kind of response that Wile and friends have become accustomed to these days. City prosecutors may think it's worth pressing their case against 18 gray-haired women who range in age from 50 to 91. But the eclectic bunch—women accomplished in their own right, who've worked as counselors, teachers, actresses, politicians, and therapists, and who still keep busy with all kinds of activism—has already triumphed in some quarters.

Wile is savvy enough to know how the word grandma plays in the court of public opinion—indeed, she has even encouraged the New York anti-war grannies to hand out cookies on the street. She first got the idea to organize older women against the Iraq war back in the fall of 2003, when the death toll among U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens began rising. "Grandmother struck me as a powerful word," she says, thinking that someone seen as wise, nurturing, and loving could appeal to people's consciences like no one else. So, as Wile explains, "I thought that to see grandmothers on the street would impress people with the gravity of the situation."

At the very least, the anti-war grandmas are getting noticed in ways that younger protesters aren't. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, some 20 Grandmothers Against the War stood on Fifth Avenue outside of Rockefeller Center, where they gather for a weekly vigil. They displayed the standard messages—the signs that read, "Thousands of Iraqi children are victims of this war," the pins that said, "Bush lies." They shouted the standard lines—"Bring the troops home now!" Plenty of passersby didn't give the grandmas the time of day. But plenty of others did. Tourists snapped photographs of them. Shoppers stopped and stared. Even those who support the war were nonplussed. One middle-aged man walked along the vigil line, shaking his head but smiling as he told the grandmas, "God bless you! I disagree with you, but God bless you for getting out here."

These grandmothers may be filling a void in the anti-war movement. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of U.S. history at New York University, notes that campuses have yet to become the epicenter of the anti-war scene as they did during the Vietnam War. One reason is obvious. "The draft created an imminent and urgent reason for young people to protest the Vietnam War," Zimmerman says. Most of his students oppose the war, he says, but none of them are in danger of being sent to Iraq or even know people who are there now.

The Granny Peace Brigade, as the 18 grannies now call themselves, has captured attention far beyond New York, generating buzz on the Internet, on progressive websites and political listservs. Media outlets have covered the grannies with fawning fascination, playing up the images of little old ladies clutching their walkers and hanging onto their flowered hats, flanked by beefy cops. Carol Huston, a veteran peace activist and granny brigade member, tried to enlist at the Times Square recruiting center to protest the Iraq war three years ago. Not one reporter showed up. This time, as she puts it, "the press went nuts over us like I've never seen before and all of a sudden—zoom!—this action takes off."

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