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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
“I’m not too worried about the trial,” Wile says confidently.
Jail time doesn’t faze some of the more experienced types. Huston, 74, of Brooklyn, has decided she’d rather spend time behind bars than accept any other form of punishment—such as community service or a $250 fine.
“Oh hell!” says Runyon. “I would go to jail if I had to just to make the goddamn point! You’ve got to make a statement.”
Of course, the New York grannies have done more than make a statement. They’ve sparked something of a movement. When Marjorie Lasky, 66, of Berkeley, read the headlines about the local grannies, she recalls, “I said to myself and to a group of women friends, ‘We could do this.’ ”
By November, she and dozens of other grandmas had formed the Bay Area Grandmothers Against the War, in honor of their New York counterparts. By February, they had designated Valentine’s Day a national enlistment action day, prompting 15 anti-war granny groups to try to enlist in 15 cities from Oakland to Cleveland and Baltimore to Barre, Vermont. Last Monday, the Bay Area group spearheaded another action around tax day, with anti-war grannies hitting the streets in Philadelphia, Madison, Detroit, and naturally, New York City.
“Our numbers are growing,” Lasky says. Her group has plans to host a national gathering of anti-war granny groups some day. “Cool, huh?” Lasky enthuses. “Isn’t it cool?”
So why are all these little old ladies taking to the streets? Simple, says NYU’s Zimmerman. “These grandmothers come out of a political context in which vivid and loud protest was the norm,” he notes. Ask the grannies, and they will likely tell you that they took to the streets to end the Vietnam War and segregation and a myriad of other causes that defined the 1960s and ’70s. By contrast, Zimmerman says, “it seems to me that young people haven’t engaged in that kind of mass protest. It isn’t part of their political experience.”
Maybe that’s why the 18 members of the Granny Peace Brigade remind their own lawyer of the good old protest days. As Siegel has it, “The grannies remind me of the whole ‘We Shall Overcome’ movement. They’re very positive and upbeat and warm. Recently in New York, I have not found that spirit.”