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No Combat for Grannies Full of Fight


By Clyde Haberman
The New York Times
Tuesday 18 October 2005

To use a hand-me-down phrase from a more gallant time, they were women of a certain age. More precisely, they were women of a certain age in an uncertain age.

They were not kids, that's for sure, these women who went yesterday to the armed forces recruiting station in Times Square.

Ostensibly, they were there to enlist. Send them to Iraq, they said. They've led long lives, long enough to have grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. Better, they said, to put them in harm's way than young people just starting out.

"I'm a double grandmother," said Betty Brassell, who is 75 and lives on the Lower East Side. "I have a great-grandson. I'm sorry, I forgot to bring his picture."

It will not shock you to learn that the Army was not interested in signing them up. Same went for the Navy, Air Force and Marines. The crisp-looking young men in uniform who staff the Times Square booth had locked their doors, having been warned that the women would come knocking.

It will also not shock you to learn that the grannies - their word - never thought that anyone would take their volunteering seriously. The military is not in the habit of offering enlistment bonuses to people on walkers.

They were there to protest the war, having perhaps unconsciously taken a page out of President Bush's book. If he can use the troops to sell his war, as he did last week in a scripted Q. and A. session with soldiers in Iraq, why should the grannies not use a military prop to sell their opposition?

"One of them asked me, 'What happens if they accept us?' " said Norman Siegel, the civil liberties lawyer, who was the group's go-between with the police. "I told her: 'Then you're off to Iraq. I'll have to get a habeas writ to get you out.'"

That proved unnecessary.

No question, these were serious women with a serious message, agree with them or not. They understood that if you want the cameras and microphones to pay you and your cause some attention, a bit of street theater helps. It doesn't hurt, either, to march under banners like Raging Grannies, Grandmothers Against the War, and Elders for Peace and Justice for the Next Seven Generations.

It had been arranged with the police that 15 or so would try to enlist and then, once that failed, hold a sit-in outside the booth.

First in line was Joan Wile, 74. She carried a bucket of cookies. Behind her was Marie Runyon, a former state assemblywoman who has fought more left-wing battles than AARP has members. At 90, Ms. Runyon can barely see, but that did not stop her from banging on the booth's door, to the right of the poster of Uncle Sam pointing and saying, "I Want You."

"You" did not include her. "Are you hard of hearing?" Ms. Runyon hollered at the young men inside. "Let's get cracking here. We want to enlist. What's the matter with you?"

After the door-banging went nowhere, it was sit-in time. For some, that was easier said than done. "I can't sit," Ms. Brassell said, clinging to a walker. "I'll stoop as much as I can."

As she went into her best crouch, a police lieutenant, Kevin Lee, approached with a bullhorn and a script of his own. "I'm ordering you to leave this pedestrian area," he read from a sheet of paper.

No way. "We insist we enlist," the grannies chanted.

Minutes later, the police moved in to make arrests. In some recent antiwar protests, they have been accused of unnecessary roughness. Not this time. This time they were solicitous.

"Is that too tight?" an officer named McMinn asked one woman as he cuffed her hands behind her back - standard procedure. An officer named Frias bent to help another protester, the actress Vinie Burrows, get to her feet. "You all right?" the officer asked.

Watching and chanting "Grannies rock" were about 50 supporters. One of them was Herb Hecsh, a "partner or companion or whatever you call it these days" of Ms. Wile. He could not help observing, he said, that "the cops are the only ones here with their original hips."

In all, 18 women were arrested, some quite familiar with the back of a police van.

As they were taken away, Times Square quickly returned to normal. Tourists snapped their pictures. The recruiting booth unlocked its door. A strapping young man walked in, possibly to enlist.

The war was still on.

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