First Person: The Grandmothers Go To Washington

By Joan Levinson
Friday January 26, 2007

A lobbying group of 100 grandmothers from 20 states descended on Washington D.C. on Jan. 18, visiting all 100 senators and some representatives to protest the war in Iraq and to demand that American troops come home quickly. Four Berkeley/Oakland grandmothers were part of the contingent—Helen Isaacson, Marge Lasky, Renate Sadrozinski and myself.  

The Granny Peace Brigade, including our local group, Grandmothers Against the War, timed the visit deliberately for the opening of the new Democratic-led Senate so as to set the tone that Something Must be Done Soon to change U.S. policy in Iraq. Citing the daily horror of casualties on both sides, a deep resistance in the U.S. and Iraq to the illegal war, and the squandering of this country’s wealth, the grannies pressed members of Congress to immediately stop the funding of the war as the most effective way to get the U.S. out of Iraq. 

Anti-war Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio hosted our press conference at 9 a.m. in a small room in the basement of the House of Representatives. Kucinich applauded the granny contingent as “conductors on the train of peace.” Rep. Barbara Lee, and newly elected Rep. Albert Wynn (MD) commended the efforts of the women, several of whom were New York veterans of the arrest in 2005 for allegedly blocking the entrance of the Times Square military recruitment office. 

South Carolina Gold Star Mother Elaine Johnson spoke of her son killed in Iraq and her dismay at the continuation of the war. As she campaigns around the country, she is challenging politicians for prolonging and escalating the war. In a public event she asked President Bush to explain why the U.S. was in Iraq. Subsequently he privately gave her a Presidential coin and then admonished her, saying “Now don’t go selling it on Ebay.”  

The news conference was covered by a few television reporters—Agence Presse France, NHK (Japan TV), a Russian TV station and Capitol News 9 from Albany, NY. One American photographer for a Tribune-owned Atlanta paper documented the event; stories and photos appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and on a New Jersey news website. No reports of the event turned up in The Washington Post or any other DC paper. 

By mid-morning, all the grandmothers were streaming through the halls of Congress carrying gifts of white roses and George McGovern and William R. Polk’s OUT OF IRAQ: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now for the senators.  

Along with visiting our California senators and a few Republicans, our Bay Area team talked with other progressive Democrats who agreed that we needed to leave Iraq sooner rather than later. But several were reluctant to sponsor legislation mandating that policy since the reality at this moment is that there are not enough votes to set a timetable for withdrawal.  

The palpable sense of flux on Iraq policy, evident everywhere in Washington except for the White House, has spawned multiple Congressional plans in the form of resolutions, both binding and non-binding. 

Republican Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, who coined the term “freedom fries”, has changed his mind and is now against the war. Kucinich has proposed a plan for withdrawal based on a political process that would involve Congress. Senators Biden, Levin, and Hagel have introduced a non-binding resolution condemning the escalation. That resolution will be countered by a softer condemnation in a resolution proposed by Senators Warner, Collins, and Nelson. House Speaker Pelosi has called for an exit plan. Even Hilary Clinton has put a finger to the wind and shifted from her position of support. 

A major source of tension is between binding legislation and non-binding, i.e. symbolic, resolutions. Senator Ted Kennedy has introduced legislation that requires a congressional vote before the President can introduce more troops into Iraq and has enlisted Senators Boxer, Kerry, Leahy, Sanders, Harkin and Brown as co-sponsors. Despite this notable list of senators, Senate maneuverings make it doubtful that the full Senate will ever vote on the Kennedy bill.  

Progressive Caucus members Representatives Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, and Maxine Waters have introduced a comprehensive bill which goes beyond any measure introduced to date in requiring the return of all U.S. military personnel and military contractors within six months. In our meeting with Lee, she urged us to contact people throughout the country to pressure their Representatives into co-sponsoring the bill, “The Bring the Troops Home and Iraq Sovereignty Restoration Act.” 

Senator Dianne Feinstein’s aide told our group that the senator does not support an escalation and wants the withdrawal of troops by the end of this year.  

At the entrance to Senator Barbara Boxer’s office visitors are greeted with large posters of the names of the 3000 plus troops who have died in the conflict. Boxer’s aide inferred that she and Senator Feingold (both of whom have long opposed the war) are likely to sponsor similar legislation.  

The Democrats count six to ten Republicans who are moving away from the Bush party line on Iraq, but still not enough to assure that the Senate could stop a filibuster on legislation that might be considered too progressive. Harnessing this Congressional shift in attitude is somewhat like turning a three-story leisure cruise boat around in choppy waters against a gale wind. 

Here’s the good news. Although it’s very difficult at this juncture to get to see the senator or representative directly, in every single office we walked into, with or without appointments, we were treated well and taken seriously. The senior policy aides we spoke with—again some with and some without appointments—were mostly young, knowledgeable, interested and gave us adequate time to discuss our positions. Two of them, a bit older, were men with military backgrounds. 

I suspect they were professionally polite and also possibly amused at the savvy and passion of this cadre of older women. (Of course, we are their constituents and we always vote.) They were good-humored, well informed, and generally closer to our position than the public statements of the legislators they worked for.  

And more evidence of positive change: The Berkeley grannies sat in on a three hour session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator Joseph Biden. Committee members listened intently to three experts on foreign policy—former Ambassadors Dennis Ross and Richard Haass and Dr. Vali Nasr (author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future). All emphasized the impossibility of a military ‘victory’ and that the only possible hope is a political settlement.  

With the lineup of Democrats on the committee, including Senators Boxer, Obama (five cameramen took pictures of him as he came into the session), Kerry, Webb, Casey, and Nelson, and a number of Republicans asking serious questions, some light was shed on the actual repercussions of the war and occupation. It was an intelligent, reasonable approach to the issue and, for me, the most hopeful experience of the visit as an illustration of rational governance.  

After several days of talking with lawmakers—and innumerable searches at every entryway to the capitol and the office buildings—we took off for the museums for something completely different. It was in these non-political places we had the most affirmation of the popularity of our mission. 

In the National Gallery Helen’s yellow, black and red Grandmothers Against the War bumper sticker on her handbag produced an interesting response from the woman in charge of security. As she read the sticker her face said “I may not let you in” but when she opened her mouth she said “I was a Marine in Iraq for a year—it’s enough now!” 

As I was wondering around the Sackler Museum I asked a guard where Gallery 5 was. He read my Grandmothers button and said “I like your button” and we launched into a 30-minute conversation about the war, about sparse press coverage on U.S. television (he had read an article about an anti-war protest in NY on January 2 in The Final Call, the Black Muslim paper), about Amy Goodman and the state of the world. Similar support for our position was evident in elevators in the House/Senate buildings as well as among people standing in lines with us. It seemed that in Washington, at least among everyday people—where residents still can’t vote—there was a clear consensus: it’s time to get out.  

From our unscientific impression of the mood in Washington one could say that the majority of the people we encountered feel as the grannies do, those who simply smiled at us are probably in sympathy, and most people with political titles are making excuses.