Grandmothers of Invention

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

Similar granny groups have popped up across the country, staging their own protests at military recruiting centers, fueling the larger anti-war movement. Now there are as many as 38 anti-war granny groups in the United States, from Pittsburgh to Detroit, Berkeley to Sarasota. Just last month, three of the New York grandmas flew to Berlin, where they gave speeches to hundreds of people on why they've hit the streets to protest the Iraq war.

Canadian filmmaker Magnus Isacsson calls the trend "granny power." At least, that's the title of his current documentary, which will feature the local grandmas on trial. "It's an idea that spreads like a contagion," he says.

But the idea isn't new—indeed, Isacsson focuses his film on the Canada-born Raging Grannies, a decades-old grassroots group promoting peace and social justice. Likewise, the Grandmothers for Peace have existed for 24 years, boasting members all over the world, including in New York.

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

Still, it didn't take hold in this country until last July, when a feisty bunch of grandmas in Tucson, Arizona, arrived at a local recruitment center. The Tucson Raging Grannies had been marching outside the center since the start of the Iraq war. But they took a different tack on July 13. Inspired by their Canadian counterparts, eight grannies marched into the facility and demanded to enlist.

"We read our statement of how we want to change the world," Pat Birnie, 76, the head granny, recalls. She and her colleagues were promptly arrested. The charges were later dropped, but not before the grannies made international headlines.

When Wile, a Manhattan grandma of five, heard about the Tucson event, she grew inspired. By then, she had formed Grandmothers Against the War and had organized the Rockefeller Center vigils. Yet the attempted enlistment seemed fresh, provocative, the kind of protest the average person would notice.

"It was obviously the thing to do," says Corrine Willinger, 78, a local Raging Granny who heard about Tucson through the grapevine and who attended Wile's vigils.

Willinger and Wile got cracking, sending out word to the Gray Panthers, the Raging Grannies, and Code Pink, calling any activist in their Rolodexes. To grandmas all over, they made their pitch to enlist, thus symbolizing a desire to spare kids—their grandkids—from a senseless war. It wasn't an especially tough sell.

"I said, 'Sure, see you there,' " recounts Marie Runyon, the oldest of the New York brigade at 91. Runyon is legally blind and walks with two canes, yet she trekked from Harlem to Times Square. "I thought it was a great idea to get the message through to that son of a bitch in the White House," she explains. "Our men are dying and the Iraqi people are dying and for what—for that idiot Bush!"

Betty Brassell, 76, of the Lower East Side, decided to shuffle uptown with her walker after spotting a leaflet on the enlistment. She didn't know the grandmas who would become her fellow defendants. Simply put, she says in a soft Southern lilt, "the flyer said Grandmothers Against the War and I'm strongly against this war."

By October 17, 18 grandmas had committed to enlist. They convened in Times Square across the street from the recruiting center, where they met their attorney, veteran New York civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel, who was serving as a witness, not to mention dozens of senior supporters draped in "RAGING GRANNIES" signs and signature floppy hats.

When the anti-war grannies approached the station, the door was locked. No one appeared inside, though Wile says she saw someone peek from behind a desk. Evidently, the military had foiled the grannies' plan, so they improvised what occurred next. "I was so angry," Runyon recalls with a chuckle, "I started banging on the door, singing, 'If I had a hammmerrrr!' "

The grandmas took over a building ramp near the station door and, one by one, crouched to the ground. "That was the hardest part," Wile confides, "all these old, beat-up broads with arthritic problems getting down on the ground."

Eventually, a police officer warned the grannies to disperse or face arrest. Minutes later, a half-dozen cops were gingerly escorting them to a midtown precinct, where the grandmas remained for four hours.

For the granny brigade, the entire action lasted six hours. Their court proceedings, by contrast, have dragged on for six months. City prosecutors tried to offer the grannies a plea—no arrests for six months and the charges would be dropped. But these anti-war protesters didn't want to stay silent and off the streets. In court, Siegel has tried to argue for dismissal, to no avail.

"I never thought we would go to trial," Siegel observes. After all, he has represented thousands of peaceful demonstrators who, like the grannies, cooperated with the police. He argues that the 18 grandmas didn't do anything illegal—they sat outside the recruiting center, he notes, not in the street or in front of the doorway. In these instances, he says, things rarely make it this far.

"I don't know why the district attorney's office is prosecuting grandmothers," he adds.

Calls by the Voice to the Manhattan D.A.'s office were not returned by press time. In any event, these grandmas are having a whale of a time, using the trial as a chance to highlight their continued opposition to the war. Many have already prepared statements to read to reporters, friends, and anyone else who will listen to them during breaks. They've sent out a flurry of alerts to allies in attempts to pack the courtroom, even securing a promise from Cindy Sheehan to be there.

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