Friday May 5, 2006
Granny power takes on the Iraq war
NEW YORK: I WENT TO the grannies for a booster shot of optimism. It's been that kind of week. We just passed the third anniversary of the flight-jacket photo op and its mission unaccomplished. The plunge in the president's approval ratings, down to 33 percent, hasn't translated into a howl of protest but a low-level depression. And the Official Bush Countdown Clock is barely a tick below 1,000 days.
But in Manhattan, 18 women of granny age, full of wit and wisdom, have just won a court case and sent their protest story around the world. I'll take my optimism where I can.
Last fall, these women descended by foot, cane, and walker onto an armed forces recruitment center in Times Square. Inspired by groups such as the Tucson Raging Grannies, they demanded -- ''we insist/ we enlist"-- that the Army take them rather than their grandchildren.
When the soldiers locked them out, 91-year-old Lillian Runyon banged on the door, singing: ''If I had a hammer . . . " The women of the Granny Peace Brigade then staged a sit-down until the police, rather more gently than is their wont, took them to jail in handcuffs.
Their cry against the war's dishonorable conduct came up against the government's claim of their disorderly conduct. But on April 27, a mere whippersnapper of a judge -- 46 years old -- declared them not guilty. Whereupon Joan Wile, lyricist and grandmother of five, promptly then told the courthouse crowd, ''Listen to your granny; she knows best."
Now four of those grannies were sitting around the conference table in their lawyer's office still wearing buttons and the glow of notoriety. Wile was even brushing up the lyrics of her call-to-elder-arms: ''Grandmas get offa your tush/ We've got to go after Bush."
Something about the granniness of the event -- though some were younger than the average senator -- made the coverage read more like a lifestyle story than a gathering political storm. But then again, these protesters have a lightness of spirit that brings a message home: ''Just forget your retirement pursuits/ And get out your old marching boots."
Wile, 74, and Molly Klopot, 87, and Carol Husten, 74, and Vinie Burrows Harrison, ''don't ask," are not amateurs in the action department. Molly's first protest as a child was for Sacco and Vanzetti. Vinie remembers the Depression Era civil rights protest in Harlem: ''Don't shop where you can't work."
They didn't know each other before they got together over a shared antiwar sentiment. But now they finish each other's sentences. What do grannies have that won the attention? ''Novelty." ''Respect." ''Authority." ''Mom and apple pie."
Why are they protesting while their children and grandchildren aren't? ''They're busy; we're retired," says Joan. Molly adds, ''We helped the world get in the shape it's in. We have some responsibility here." And all shake heads in agreement with Vinie and Carol on the notion that they have reached a wonderful stage of life called: nothing left to lose.
You can argue that these women have an unsophisticated political solution to the war: Get out. But first read that same unsophisticated view in the journal Foreign Policy by retired Lieutenant General William Odom under the title: ''Cut and Run? You Bet."
You can argue too that protest is futile against an administration that has left the reality-based community. But first consider what the granny movement with its loose connections across 38 groups offers those of us who turn from disapproval and confusion to passivity.
With her button reading ''love the troops/ hate the war," Carol says simply, ''If you're not hopeful, you're helpless." Vinie adds, ''You have to stand up for something or you mean nothing." As Norman Siegel, their longtime civil rights lawyer, says with respect, they represent a generation that still believes they can make change. ''They have in their experience the belief that you can challenge the government. They believe they can stop the war."
We are now in the run-up to Mother's Day, a holiday that evolved from Julia Ward Howe's antiwar crusade to Hallmark Cards' breakfast-in-bed day. The grannies are cooking up something that won't fit on a bed tray.
Before I leave, Joan rifles through the folder on her lap, stops for a moment to hand me another set of lyrics, ''Grandmas, let's unite/ While we are still upright." But then she pauses to quote something from a man who never got beyond 38, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: ''Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
She looks around the table at grannies against the war who are shaking their heads and adds: ''I think that's our theme." A booster shot of optimism? Mission accomplished.