Tag Archives: protest

Letters from West Berlin, Part 4, by Kitty Kroger. December 1966: Awakening to the Vietnam War

13 Jul

Berlin.Kitty.East.1967In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the fourth of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.

FOURTH IN A SERIES
December 1966

December 10, 1966
Dear Mom and Dad,

Today I took part in a demo against the war in Vietnam. I feel strongly about it although there are still so many gaps in my knowledge. But the more I learn, the stronger I feel.

 

Dec. 10, 1966
Dear Charlie,

Berlin.U.S. Campaign2I’ve recently become part of a study and action group of American students who are against America’s presence in Vietnam. We may start marching in January. Meanwhile we’re learning. We have a lot of literature on Vietnam, and we read all we can. All the kids in the group are clean-cut types, no beats at all, which should impress the conservatives at least. Today I joined a group of Free University students, about two to three hundred, in a short march and protest speech in the heart of Berlin. I was very disappointed that the group got rowdy at the end so that the police had to disperse them from blocking traffic and even had to haul off three or four students bodily. But the interaction of discussions between students and bystanders was very profitable. At the end, however, the students burned a Papier-mâchéhead of Johnson, shouting Johnson Murderer, etc., which probably doesn’t do anything at all to advance anything at all. About ten Americans took part in the march itself, not in the aftermath.

 

Monday, December 12, 1966
Dear Parents,

I’ve been reading a lot about Vietnam and also a novel Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse in German.

I read a good article saying that Vietnam can’t be compared with Hitler’s conquest of Europe because China is not able or willing to move in and overtake another country Blitzkrieg style. [At the time one of the arguments for the Vietnam War was that China wanted to take over the world like Hitler did.] She [China] works through internal subversion and exploits national unrest and revolution, which is occurring in South America, Africa, and Asia. America is outdated, unenlightened, and immoral if she thinks she can prevent Communism by distribution of military support to governments all over the globe “whose main virtue is often their anti-communism” and whose vices are greed and exploitation of its own people’s poverty and an eagerness to take American money into its own pockets.

Here according to my limited knowledge is what I think is happening in Vietnam and elsewhere. America pours money into many foreign countries to support the governments in the status quo. In doing this we disregard the fact that we are making these countries extremely dependent upon us industrially, which the people and leaders of the people resent. America promises support and protection of the ruling regime (like Batista) against communism and revolution in return for the raw materials of these under-industrialized lands. America buys these goods out, cheaply develops them in her own factories and with her highly developed industry, then in return sells them back to the countries at a tremendous profit. The people don’t receive even the initial price for the raw goods. The government in power receives this money, which it uses to build palaces, great monuments to its own glory, to support mistresses, and for an army to defend itself against its own people. Thus the money doesn’t go to build factories, to enable the people to produce their own finished products. The lands remain backward and poor, and the people grow more and more dissatisfied.

So the communists support revolutionaries who overthrow (or try to) the government, and then America is forced to send military supplies—and in Vietnam and elsewhere—men to suppress these uprisings. It’s a fallacy for us to assume that these virgin governments, which are just beginning to attain independence, will simply become puppets of China or Russia. They want to be independent, to be allowed to develop their own industry. Look at Ghana and Indonesia and Cambodia. They are not communist, although they have sharply dealt with America. They have succeeded by themselves in setting back communism and they want to be left alone to develop, to be neutral, to trade with both the east and the west. But first they have to have a period of isolationism, just as we did in the nineteenth century, to build themselves up. If we put pressure on them to accept our way of government, then the communists react with counter-attacks and the country may even become a battlefield.

We shall lose economically when a country “breaks away” from us, but we shall not necessarily lose it ideologically.

Yes, there is no doubt that Vietnam will become communist under Mr. Minh.

Berlin.Ho Chi Minh[Ho Chi Minh led the Việt Minh independence movement from 1941 onward, establishing the communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and defeating the French Union in 1954 at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ. He officially stepped down from power in 1965 due to health problems, but remained a highly visible figurehead and inspiration for those Vietnamese fighting for his cause—a united, communist Vietnam—until his death. After the war, Saigon, capital of the Republic of Vietnam, was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City. when (if) we pull out, but Vietnam has had an unhappy history of horrible colonial exploitation by the French, which was finally ended by Ho Chi Minh and the communists. Then the bungling and cruelties of Diem, who was apparently set up by America, caused the National Liberation Front to arise within South Vietnam itself. In other words, Vietnam is not a Nazi situation and is no test case for America and its desire to check the flow of communism. (Source: Wikipedia)]

Please comment if you have time.

Love, Kitty

 

[December 1966]
Dear Family,

Thanks for your letter, Dad. I’ll answer it soon. Hope you had a great Christmas.

People were very nice to me at Christmas. My landlady brought me a huge plate of assorted fresh fruit and chocolate. She still keeps bringing me homemade applesauce with lemon rinds, cranberry sauce, homemade potato soup, and other goodies. For Christmas Eve I went to the home of a German friend Elizabeth. The family stems from Bayern (Bavaria). They speak a strong Bavarian dialect among themselves, and it was wonderful to hear them all talking excitedly among themselves and brutalizing the German language. The mother played “Silent Night” on the piano and we all sang. We had carp—boiled and fried—and a delicious sour cream dessert. They gave me a huge plate of nuts, fruit, and cookies. I gave Elizabeth a bright red and blue plaid tablecloth. We watched part of “A Christmas Carol” auf deutsch on TV and then an exhibition of religious frescoes and oil paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance—also on TV—while the father, a psych prof at the Technical University, explained some of their typical characteristics to me. The whole family (three daughters and a son) all walked to Midnight Mass through falling snowflakes. They light the candles on the tree for the first time that year. (All Germans have candles instead of colored lights, which they first light on Christmas Eve.)

On Christmas day I went to Wicclair and Mierendorff’s apartment for supper and wine and bloody Marys. I gave Mr. Wicclair a theatrical calendar which I bought in East Berlin and I gave Mrs. Mierendorff a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast because it deals with his life in Paris during 1920-1924 or so and because Mrs. M. spent time there after the Second World War and fell in love with it just as I did. She gave me a book of German poetry and he gave me a huge box of chocolates.

On the 26th, I went to Frau Kern’s [she had employed me to babysit and houseclean] for a delicious half-chicken lunch and schnaps and wine. I brought the kids a “doctor set” and they gave me a wonderful “Care” package, which consisted of fresh fruit, Wurst, candy, eau de Cologne, tea bags, and canned mandarin oranges. I discussed “life at the University” with Herr Kern, who is an assistant physicist there, working on his doctorate.

Berlin.Wall.www.bbc.co.ukMy friend in East Berlin is an elderly man about 70 years old. He invited me and a friend to hear some Beethoven on his record player, and he treated us to an egg liqueur and he and I played Mozart for four hands on his piano. He was very warm and cultured and dignified and sweet—and somehow so tragic too because of his isolation in only half of what used to be his whole city.

Being here in Europe has made me terribly proud sometimes of America and our schools and art and spirit and friends. After [I was] held by the East Berlin officials [one] day and discussed politics briefly with [an] official, I was especially proud of our freedom of expression and of my liberty to express to that man my own political views without having to worry about whether I was expressing ideas in accordance with the ruling party of my government or not.

The East Berliner expressed only ideas that were in the strictest harmony with the “party line,” but by so doing he didn’t impress me as being either sincere or even rational. The only impression I received was one of stupidity that he could defend his government so blindly with the same responses to whatever I said. Or I felt pity that he was so afraid to discuss openly with me both the mistakes and the progress made by his government. Not that I would expect him in any case to condemn his government, but he couldn’t even admit the possibility that perhaps the mess that Germany is in today is the result of many complex factors involving errors on both sides. And not just on Germany but on every single issue he assumed the same sort of stereotyped attitude of black and white. It was impossible to discuss solutions to problems with him—he was too concerned with making East Germany and the communist-block countries appear golden.

Berlin.Map1Once during the conversation I mentioned that my interest in politics had quickened after I’d been in Europe a few months, and that for the first time I was beginning to actively study the Vietnam War and take issue with some of my government’s policies. The official responded in the most sincere manner, “That’s understandable. Of course you couldn’t criticize the U.S. policy when you were in the states: you’d be put in jail.” I was shocked, but he was very sincere; I think he really did believe that. I said, “Where did you ever hear that? That’s completely false. you couldn’t be more mistaken. I can criticize the government as much as I want to.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Oh yes, the American freedom.” Then he changed the subject.

We are losing face all over the world by our stand in Vietnam, because of the way we are handling the war. If I am sincerely against the war for intelligent, well thought out, and largely moral grounds, then I can’t be so hypocritical as to appear otherwise, and I can’t do any service to my country regarding its image in the eyes of the world if I either verbally support or at best refuse to discuss outside of the family the topic. The world has got to know, Johnson has got to know, that a large number of Americans intelligently, not blindly, and strongly follow what they believe to be their moral responsibility in opposing the continuation of the war. Johnson is not the only American. I am an American too. And I think, Dad, that the information is available to the layman, to the non-specialist, to the public.

Kitty

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Sweltering in the Classroom, by Maria

13 Jul

Maria is currently involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project, which works within state prisons, at Homeboy Industries, and in the community to encourage people to transform their lives in a more purposeful and peaceful way.

Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra is located about 20 yards from the San Bernardino freeway (the ‘10’ as it’s called today).  There were no  high brick ‘n mortar walls back in the 1970s; only a chain link fence separated the school property from the freeway itself.

I was a teacher in the science and mathematics department at the time. My classroom, room number 153, was the closest one to the freeway. Because our school had no air conditioning, windows were kept wide open despite the noise of the freeway to allow for the hoped-for breezes, which occasionally drifted in and reduced room temperatures. In addition, a significant grade on the roadway at this point meant that large trucks must shift gears to gain power. Through the noise, the stifling heat (100 degree temperature at times), and the heavy smog which caused their eyes to burn, students suffered in the summertime and found it difficult to learn.

The head of the department, whose room was down the hallway from mine, testified that she suffered severe hearing loss from the incessant loud noise.

Finally a courageous teacher put forward an idea which seemed to have some ‘promise’ for resolution of this unbearable learning environment. Thus began “Project Student,” with  active support from parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire community, as well of course as from the students themselves. There were fundraisers, letter writing campaigns, and visits to Sacramento to directly address the state legislature by students, staff, and parents.

Project Student was a long and arduous campaign, involving the entire community in which the school was located.  And, in the end, it did produce the desired result. Sacramento finally listened. Yet the installation of air conditioning was not to come from this. The irony is that our victory was gained not in consideration of the heat and air-quality but rather the noise factor. From then on for a number of years, schools which were located adjacent to freeways were granted state funding to install air conditioning.  The high school I attended as a student many years earlier, John Muir High School in Pasadena, located adjacent to the Foothill freeway (210), was granted air conditioning soon after this ruling was made.

But it would be many years before schools in the state were required to be air-conditioned because of heat, not just noise.

“Reborn” at Berkeley in the ’60s, by B.B.

21 Dec

B.B. lives on the West Side of Los Angeles and is a retired librarian. She studied writing at UCLA and Santa Monica College, and found her style—short, personal essays. She has been an activist since her college years, and is now trying to decide which activities she wishes to pursue in retirement.

 

I come from a liberal Jewish family in Denver, but unlike some kids, I wasn’t a red-diaper baby.In the 1960s I attended UCLA. One of my memories from that time is that women students who wanted abortions had to travel to Mexico. A friend of mine got very sick after an abortion in L.A. When the school board found out why she was sick, she almost lost her teaching job. Earlier that year my roommate, the same woman, came back to the dorm and said, ”There are pills you can take to avoid getting pregnant.” This was an eye-opener and I soon hAbortion Symboleaded to my doctor’s to ask for a prescription. I was nervous that he wouldn’t prescribe them since the idea of women having sex outside of marriage was still not widely accepted. My mother, for example, had said, “There were girls ‘like that’ in my day, too.” However, he wrote the prescription without incident, perhaps resigned by this time to college girls.

I was also involved in feminist consciousness-raising groups and even worried that I’d be too hostile to my boyfriend. After graduating from  UCLA in 1962, I transferred to Berkeley, where I was “reborn.” Berkeley was like the center of the world to me then. Every social movement seemed to be happening there, from women’s issues to sex and drugs, from the student movement to civil rights.

Berkeley Protest
I was arrested at Sproul Hall in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement2 and later spent a couple of weeks in Santa Rita Jail [in Alameda County.]  I could have just paid the fine, as many did, but I wanted to see what jail was like. Bettina Aptheker3 was in there at the same time. The women prisoners slept in  a big dorm and worked at repairing men’s clothes. Jail was interesting. Many of the women were minorities and poor. For us, it was a choice to be in Santa Rita, but not for them.

At the time of my arrest I was a student teacher. Max Rafferty4, superintendent of education in California at the time, denied some of us a credential because we’d been arrested. We took it to court, and through the ACLU and other attorneys we did win our credentials. (I have many of the documents from that court case and was recently asked to donate them to the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley, where other Free Speech Movement documents will be housed.) I finished the teacher-training program, but after winning the credential fight, I decided I didn’t want to be a teacher!

L.A. Public Library

I lived in Berkeley almost ten years. I went to graduate school to become a librarian, but there were no jobs. In 1972 my sister urged me to come to Los Angeles. “No way,” I thought, but two weeks later I found myself there. I took my first job at a private, special education school as a librarian. The teachers were all graduate students so I felt as if I was still in Berkeley. (Later I worked at the L.A. Public Library for thirty years—until 2013—and was happy working with a diverse public.)

In 1977 I adopted my newborn son. Medically, it was the right thing for me to do. Although I’d had several serious boyfriends, I was single when I adopted. I loved being a parent. I was friendly with other single women parents and joined single parenting [support] groups.

Notes:

  1.  Red Diaper Baby:  a child whose parents were in the Communist Party U.S.A.

  2. Free Speech Movement: a student protest which took place during the 1964–1965 academic year on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley under the informal leadership of students Mario Savio, Michael Rossman, Brian Turner, Bettina Aptheker, Steve Weissman, Art Goldberg, Jackie Goldberg, and others. In protests unprecedented in scope, students insisted that the university administration lift the ban of on-campus political activities and acknowledge the students’ right to free speech and academic freedom.[Source: Wikipedia]

  3. Bettina Aptheker: an American political activist, feminist, professor and author as well as a former member of the Communist Party USA.

  4. Max Rafferty:  Rafferty was an educator who opposed busing, sex education and the New Left. His books condemned progressive education and urged a return to the fundamentals. For example, he wanted schools to focus on phonics, memorization and drill, and to discontinue “life adjustment” approaches from education. Among his controversial actions as school superintendent was his attempt to stop schools and classrooms from using books that he considered obscene, such as Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and Leroi Jones’s Dutchman. He threatened to revoke the teaching certificate of any teacher who used such works. Politically, he was known as a spokesman for the ultra-conservatives. [Source: Wikipedia]

“While there is a soul in prison ….”: Amnesty International, by Maria

19 Oct

Biography:  Maria is currently involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project, which works within State Prisons, and with Homeboy Industries, which encourages young people to transform their lives for a more purposeful and successful experience.

AmnestyLogo

 “While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”  Eugene Debs, Socialist labor leader

In the early ‘70s, I was teaching high school in the Los Angeles area. I had the opportunity to meet both Ginetta Sagan1 and Joan Baez in Palo Alto at the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, which Joan had earlier established. Joan was a strong supporter of Amnesty International2, and she inspired me to become involved too. Together with other teachers, I established an Amnesty chapter at our school as a response to Amnesty’s campaign to increase its numbers here in the U.S.

Ginetta_Sagan

Ginetta Sagan

Joan Baez

Joan Baez

Some of our foreign students were aware of government atrocities in their own homelands, so about 10 to 15 students wanted to get involved. We got together weekly to write letters to the prisoners to whom we were assigned. Knowing that we were the only persons in the world who were acting on these prisoners’ behalf, we took our responsibility seriously.

Prisoner

One of our assignments was a doctor in Chile, who had been arrested for his involvement with the medical clinics set up by Salvador Allende3.We were given the name of this doctor, and address of the location of his prison, as well as the information needed to communicate with General Pinochet directly. We were given specific guidelines to use in our letters so as not to offend Pinochet but rather to enlist him in the cause of freedom and justice for all citizens. The Chilean people couldn’t do this work, of course, because it was too dangerous. So our work was paramount to the release of the prisoners we were assigned.

Of course, we never received a response from either Pinochet or our prisoner. It was important though that we kept on writing these letters, as, we were told, there reaches a point where the mail coming to Pinochet becomes overwhelming, and he fears that these letters demonstrate that many people are aware of his atrocities. Eventually he will have no alternative but to release the prisoner in order to deter the world community from calling for his own demise.

I don’t recall just how long we continued this weekly letter-writing, but after a year or so we were able to get him released. We were informed by Amnesty International that the guards simply came to his cell one day and announced that he was now a free man. And I recall that he did come to America following his release  and somehow he communicated to us his gratitude for our help. It’s a bit hazy now though after over 40 years.

Notes:

1. Ginetta Sagan helped found Amnesty International here in the U.S. She was a political prisoner in Italy during the 1940s while working with the northern Italian resistance movement. She was covertly taken from a movie theater one night and tortured relentlessly for her humanitarian views.

While imprisoned and scheduled for execution the next day, a prison guard threw her a loaf of bread. As she broke it open, she discovered a match clip in which was inscribed “coraggio,”  the Italian word for “courage.” The next day she was freed by several prison guard defectors.

In the 1950s she came to America and in the early ‘70s to the West Coast. Her intention was to spread the Amnesty International movement here, with the help of folksinger Joan Baez. During the next few years, as Joan spoke passionately about the work of Amnesty International on her concert tours, they were instrumental in increasing the number of chapters in the U.S. to 75,  with over 70,000 members. [Source: Maria]

2.Amnesty International is a humanitarian movement which works for the release of “Prisoners of Conscience” throughout the world. The way Amnesty International works is that a chapter is given the names of three prisoners each in different areas of the world. These activists have taken actions against their government, and as such have been determined to be “criminals” by the State.

A specific chapter of Amnesty International is the only one working on these prisoners’ behalf. The goal is to get them released. This is done largely through letter-writing campaigns targeted at the governments and prison officials in the affected countries. Letters are sent to the prisoner as well, to show that he has support. These letters are written weekly, and in the language of the country, if possible.

Letters received from America are seen as having the greatest impact in foreign countries. [Source: Maria]

3. It was the assassination of Salvador Allende, the social democratic leader of Chile, which led to the rule of General Augusto Pinochet. Many of the citizenry who had supported Allende were imprisoned and tortured. [Source: Maria]

 

My Path towards Feminism, by Leslie Gersicoff

23 Sep

Leslie Gersicoff is involved in the movement for single payer health care for all Californians. She is Executive Director at the Jewish Labor Committee Western Region, which works with labor and the community on issues affecting workers, including human trafficking. Her home is in Los Angeles.

Leslie GersicoffIn the early ‘60s I was still in high school in Rochester, N.Y. and was very “repressed.” What I mean by that is that I didn’t speak out about anything. My brother and I lived with my grandfather. He emigrated around 1914 from Minsk [Note: formerly part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and now the capital of the independent Republic of Belarus]. A tailor and dry cleaner by trade, he was also a Democrat, interested in electoral politics, and a faithful reader of the Rochester Times Union and the Democrat and Chronicle. I remember that his heart broke over JFK’s assassination.

After my grandmother died, when I was ten, our house continued to be a “gendered” one. I was expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I was lousy at housework. I burned the meat and frozen French fries and broke the washer by stuffing it with 17 sheets at once. After that, because I could drive, I used the Laundromat. There I encountered many creepy guys “on the make.” I had no feminist awareness but at 16 years of age I felt that creepiness to my bones.

I had finally learned to drive and I got my license because my grandfather needed help to get around. This delighted me because for the first time I acquired a measure of freedom and independence beyond my capacity to walk and take public transportation. The first car I drove was a light blue Plymouth Valiant with a push-button transmission. It was one of the first compacts. (Cars were still configured to male dimensions in the sixties.)

In 1965 I attended Alfred University, a small private school 80 miles south of Rochester inLeslie.Alfred.New York
the middle of nowhere, hills and fields all around, and no street signals. (I had wanted to attend Santa Cruz, but my grandfather said reluctantly that he would never see me, it was so far away.) Alfred was popular for its ceramic design school. The town of Alfred was filled with Seventh Day Adventists. Women weren’t allowed to be seen on the streets in hair rollers. In the dorms there was a curfew (something I had never known) for the women.

Alfred is where I gradually began to get the idea of “social sexism.” The Sexual Revolution was just starting. Men were starting to look better with longer, fuller hair and tighter jeans. In my junior year, while looking for a doctor who would perform an abortion, a woman in my dorm found a country doctor who was willing to write prescriptions for birth control pills called Enovid E.  At that time, it was socially unacceptable for unmarried (and even married) women to use birth control, so when mLeslie.EnovidEy friends and I visited his office, we wore rings turned around to appear like plain wedding bands. I had the impression that this doctor was a kindly man who was onto our tricks but wanted to help us anyway. He’d probably seen young women die from complications of illegal abortions and suffer from the social stigma surrounding their pregnancies. The pills were high-estrogen, but I was relieved to have them and would never admit they were the cause of leg cramps or weight gain.

At that time the first steps toward my becoming an independent woman were a driver’s license, birth control, and an education. Most women I met at the time were not going to college to become independent but were pursuing an education to get a degree so they could either find a professional man to marry and take care of them financially or teach until they met “Mr. Right.” Settling for security broke up many potentially better matches. Perhaps that contributed to women not being taken seriously in any field in higher education. Or perhaps that was why we were not taking our own abilities seriously enough.

I transferred to the State University of New York in Buffalo and lived with my boyfriend in a large politically radicalized building called the Fenton Arms. Our railroad-flat style apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up, had three parlors, gas fixtures, and tin ceilings.  Many students and hippies lived in the building, as well as a pair of brother and sister tenants who didn’t want to move out of their apartment because the sister believed their deceased Mother wouldn’t know where to find them. While she worked at the university, he listened to religious radio programs most of the day.  (As a point of interest, Paul Krehbiel, contributor of a previous blog here, knew many of the same people I did, and we met again 43 years later through Labor United for Universal Healthcare, which advocates for single-payer healthcare in California.) Downstairs were storefronts (the original mixed-use buildings), one of which was occupied by a draft resisters’ organization. My boyfriend hung out there. Off of Main Street a half block up from us at West Ferry St. was a bar. The American Nazi Party had held meetings in the back room there during World War II.  The air smelled raunchy with cigarette smoke. I suspect that ghosts goosed the evil ones in the neighborhood.

The Fenton Arms was in police district number 6 or 8, I can’t remember which. It was notorious as a tough, brutal station. One night the police beat up the guys in the draft-resisters’ office. They had been verbally taunting the cops, who then attacked them viciously. My boyfriend was in the hospital for several days. On his buttocks was a boot heel mark where a policeman had kicked him.  Many of us later held a demonstration outside that police station, led by a woman named Judy Goldsmith, who later served as President of NOW from 1982 to 1985. We were not arrested, although we were prepared to be beaten. My stomach was churning but we went on with the demonstration without being hurt. We heard later that the attorney for the police warned them he was through defending them for brutality so they should behave better. They may have—that is until political unrest broke out on campus. Then batons and tear gas replaced classes and student union beers.

One demonstration that took place against the war in Vietnam occurred on campus. As we were marching around in a large circle, someone introduced a chant that went something like Death to the Vietcong or to the USA or somebody. I was horrified. I didn’t want anybody to be killed. I couldn’t chant. I stayed silent, but I kept marching. Something definitive shifted in me that day. I started to pay closer attention to what people were saying and to what I was thinking.

All of these events helped politicize me, although slowly. Even more slowly, I moved to embrace feminism. It seems women were still fighting for men’s causes. I wasn’t only a little aware of women’s issues at that time. (I was not yet hearing the term “feminist.”) I was first aware that abortion rights were legalized in New York State in 1973. Leslie.Abortions'Some women in my building tried to organize me to go to a meeting on women’s rights. We became more aware of the grunt work that women were expected to do at meetings – typing, copying, coffee-making, hand-holding. I think that one reason Vietnam vets had a harder time than prior vets is that they no longer had women waiting at home for them who were willing to take care of them and do this traditional women’s work.  We had started taking care of ourselves instead.

In 1970 I moved to Coconut Grove, a beautiful “cityburb” in Miami, Florida. I lived in Florida for two years with no awareness except personal awareness – getting that experiential knowledge. For a while I worked in the Child and Family Services Department of the state welfare system, which was listed as 47th to the bottom of all states in providing social services benefits. Most of the young people I met were involved heavily with drugs. I myself was an overeater. It was the time of heavy drug culture, beyond smoke and hallucinogens, for white youth. Women were becoming more involved in drugs. I think this tipped the balance of power that had previously been dominated by males in many bizarre ways. There was dependence and there was independence.  Women could sell as well as buy their own drugs. There was a monetary avenue that was risky, dangerous. For some, satisfying; for others, deadly. Mother’s Little Helpers were causing many women to become addicts. There was a breakdown in the roles males and females were supposed to be playing. If a woman was stoned, she didn’t really care as much about cooking dinner as she may have prior to the cocktail hour. And girdles were definitely dead!

With my new job, I had opportunities to go into the field to visit families, mostly African-American mothers. I saw the projects in Northwest Miami. They were like cells, with few windows and with dark, ominous outdoor walkways. I remember one interview with a woman who told me, I’ll never remarry because I have daughters and their stepfather might molest them. I was shocked. It was a moment I can’t forget. My naiveté had kept me from realizing that such things went on.  Her comment illuminated a huge need to investigate the world of human behavior and find out why I was so ignorant. And that light shed an eerie glow over tears shed for others I considered so less fortunate for the knowledge they already had suffered.

Yet another experience in stupidity, or to be kind, naiveté, involved my innocently quitting the welfare department to take a job as a waitress in a bar called (I’m not kidding!) The Trojan. The waitresses’ uniforms were leopard-skin mini-skirts. I found out too late that we were supposed to climb up onto the bar and dance, with all these slobbery old men looking up at part of us. I was outraged by that demand. I couldn’t figure out why another waitress looked as if she enjoyed dancing up there. I refused and got fired. While searching for these plum jobs, the manager of another bar assessed me accurately. He said, You don’t know what you’re getting into. You don’t want this job. From his tone, I concluded he was a basically decent man in an indecent business.  I don’t know what his real business was. I think this was an intersection in my life where my fate was mysteriously protected and I was able to get on down the road.

In 1972 I went back to school in Buffalo. The Women’s Center had opened. I got involved in women’s communities. We had lots of democratic discussions—quite different from the top-down process in male-dominated groups Women working together—we experienced ownership of a project, and we could take credit for it. Women’s issues were artistically, culturally, and politically related. Attending meetings there was an amazing experience.

Another step toward my feminist consciousness was that one day, after returning to school in Buffalo, I was walking behind a couple on the sidewalk. The man said to the woman, Good idea! You keep having the ideas. I’ll make it happen. I was shocked and disheartened that it was so automatic for men to expect women to be passive while the men actively made changes founded on women’s thoughts.  Hearing that suggestion that women were not able to bring their ideas to productivity pissed me off a lot and brought a lot of anger to the surface.

At the Women’s Center there were, of course, personality conflicts. We had moved from a larger site to a much smaller one. At one point there was a territorial fight in which the majority of us were forced to move into the store-front basement because a more aggressive woman wanted to take over the bigger space and teach martial arts. I learned how damaging it could be to exploit each other. Those wounds cut deep. I’ve worked hard to keep such divisions out of feminism. I had to develop astuteness.

At one of our marches for women’s rights, some men joined us, to be supportive, I believe. The press was there, and my close friend and mentor Roberta said, Don’t talk to the press about the men here because it’ll be all about them. But someone did talk, and sure enough, the press interviewed the men only and ignored the women. I am so thankful for changing times and for Wendy Davis.

By the time I graduated in 1973, some working and student nurses had started a Feminist Health Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves had just been published. Leslie.Our Bodies Ourselves I will never forget one of the activities in the book that about 20 of us participated in at the Women’s Center. The “teacher” explained to us that everyone’s sexual organs were unique. The idea was to explore the part near our cervixes called the os and to see others’ os to realize how different and beautiful they were and how they looked during different phases of the menstrual cycle.  We all used plastic speculums (which we had to fight a pharmacy supply house to purchase) and mirrors and lay on the floor in a circle. We observed our own os, and then got to go around and view others’. It was amazing. Never before had I felt such pride in being a woman—it was a combination of realization, choice, and healthcare. We were also seeing our own mysterious beauty, part of that “miracle of life” that then defined us socially as women. Nobody else had shown interest in revealing this to us. Seeing really was believing. I can picture us all in that circle even today, 40 years later. That belief system grew beyond the Land of Os.

[Ed. note: The os. The part of the cervix that can be seen from inside the vagina during a gynecologic examination is known as the ectocervix. An opening in the center of the ectocervix, known as the external os, opens to allow passage between the uterus and vagina. The endocervix, or endocervical canal, is a tunnel through the cervix, from the external os into the uterus. Source: http://women.webmd.com/picture-of-the-cervix%5D 

There was also a feminist therapy group. I recall one woman saying, I wish I’d been born a man. I felt stabbed through the heart. It seemed to me that no matter what we did, it wasn’t good enough: we were the weaker sex and as we all know, survival of the fittest is the way things work.

In 1974 I worked with a program called Bridge that matched citizen sponsors to prisoners who had impending paroles. There I met ex-Attica prisoners. One of them Dewitt Lee, Jr., became the director of the organization. He’d served 17 years for driving the get-away car in an armed robbery in which a man had been killed. The two men who had committed the robbery and murder were the last two prisoners to be executed before a moratorium was put into place on executions in New York State.  DeWitt told us stories about life inside prisons that made us laugh hysterically and cry for the sadness and misery which no one can escape, especially in prison. This was my introduction into social justice.  Social justice and feminism cannot be separated.

Today I like to believe I’m much more aware. Over the years I had a number of unhealthy relationships and pursued therapy for a long time. I needed to deal with my anger. I realized how personal experiences affect social/political behavior more than political experiences affect personal behavior. I became very comfortable with being a feminist who is finally free to pursue fairness and justice for all because I don’t put up with any crap anymore. Thank you, Sisters.  And thank you, too, to those good men who truly have embraced feminism.

But mostly, thank you, Sisters.

Brownies and Legionnaires, by Alyson Ross

10 Aug

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When Alyson Ross was in her 20s and 30s, she wrote short stories for confession magazines and others of that ilk. For a 10,000-word story, she would receive three cents a word ($300). She jokes that as a Catholic she had to go to confession so she thought she should write confession stories. Alyson taught English and ESL for 27 years at East Los Angeles Community College. She has been retired over 20 years and is still writing, including working on a long, fictionalized family saga. She has traveled to 35 countries so far.

                       

Of the dozen or so Civil Rights marches in the San Gabriel Valley [Los Angeles metro area] that I went on, the most memorable was the first. In the early 60s, many suburban cities had unwritten covenants preventing people of color from buying or renting a house or an apartment. We were marching to persuade people to end this practice.

A week before one of the demonstrations, the local American Legion post presented my daughter’s newly formed Brownie troop, of which I was a parent leader, with an American flag. As the legionnaire marched up the aisle, I noticed that he was so tipsy that he almost dropped the flag. After presenting the flag and leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance, he spoke a few words, some of them slightly slurred, about how proud we should be as Americans.

On the morning of the Civil Rights march, the leader told us to avoid eye contact with people who would heckle us and under no circumstances to shout anything back at them. As the march proceeded, several bystanders joined us. And as we were warned, so did the hecklers, running along beside us and repeatedly shouting things like ”Are you walking with them or sleeping with them?” After hearing this taunt dozens of times, I could no longer restrain myself. I turned to the heckler next to me and shouted “Both!” To my amazement I found myself looking straight into the eyes of the legionnaire who a week earlier had presented my daughter’s Brownie troop with the American flag.

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                                                    Alyson (right) and her writing group

When we lived in Douglas, Arizona in first grade, there were only two non-Mexican students, a girl named Donna and myself, who were white. The other school kids lived in poor houses. Since my name was French—Balliot—the teacher thought I was a minority too, so she would talk louder to me. I was able to observe the cruelty of the teachers towards the students.

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In fourth grade history class in Los Angeles we read that slaves were well-treated, spent their time singing and dancing, etc. I told the teacher that wasn’t true but she replied, “The textbook says so.”

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One afternoon our neighbor, Mrs. Jones, came crying to our house. She had seen a black woman with two daughters on the streetcar and told the woman that her girls were the cutest pickaninnies she’d ever seen.  The woman had then said “something very cruel” to Mrs. Jones, causing her tears. My mother sympathized with Mrs. Jones. They both wondered why the black woman had been offended.

Even as a nine-year-old, I knew that word was an insult.

*****

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Alyson’s 80th birthday party                      Birthday present for Alyson

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When I taught vocabulary-building at East Los Angeles College in the ’70s, my students and I marched and rallied against the administration. We were teaching in old, decrepit World War II bungalows while the administration had suites. Every Tuesday at noon there was a vigil at the administration building protesting the war.

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My daughter, who was attending Pomona College, got sick on the day of a peace march and couldn’t participate. She gave her sandals to a friend to wear so she could say her sandals had “walked the course.”

             

Working Single Mother: Maintaining Her Sanity, by Ruth Persky

9 Aug

Ruth Persky was born in the Bronx N.Y. in 1934 to a somewhat observant Jewish family, which had immigrated to the U.S. in 1920 from Russian-occupied Poland. In 1943 the family moved to L.A. by train. Ruth attended after-school Hebrew School; joined a religious Zionist youth organization at 12; and spent a year in Israel from 1951-52.  Married twice, she reared two sons and her cousin’s two daughters.

In late 1965 I separated and was adjusting to single motherhood. Because of financial needs, I also had to find part-time work.  At that time I wasn’t focused on politics. Instead, I was maintaining my sanity, between work and single parenthood, through international folk dancing, dating, and occasional college classes.

The only political activity I did at the time was when Women Strike for Peace* had a demonstration. (I found out about it through my cousin-in-law.) A very large  middle-class contingent of women gathered at City Hall in a peaceful protest. WSF later opened a store-front office near my home.

Vietnam.Women Strike for Peace           Vietnam.Women Strike for Peace Anti-war demo

I participated occasionally in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that I heard about through friends. The Peace and Freedom Party** was starting at that time, and I hosted a meeting at my home. But soon enough one of the children had a serious problem, and I realized I needed to focus on the kids, not on political activities.

Still, I did listen to the news but didn’t pay much attention. One morning, however, as I was driving the kids to school, I heard the news that  Martin Luther King, Jr. was going to lead the sanitary public-works employees in a march. All of  a sudden I had the thought, “Gee, it would be terrible if something happened to him.”  I don’t know what made me have that thought; very likely, even without focusing, I had picked up the tenor of the times. As we know, tragedy struck and he was assassinated that day. I remember being very sad and near tears when I picked up my kids after work. As soon as I arrived home, I went next door to the home of a black family to express my sorrow to them for their loss. Of course, it was a loss for us all, but especially so for African-Americans.

Notes:

* Women Strike for Peace was founded by Bella Abzug and Dagmar Wilson in 1961. It was initially part of the movement for a ban on nuclear testing and to end the Vietnam War. They used many tactics that were different forms of legal pressure that include petitions, demonstrations, letter writing, mass lobbies, lawsuits and lobbying of individual Congressmen. They also had a few forms of illegal, nonviolent direct action activities that included sit-ins in congressional offices, and statements of complicity with draft resisters aimed at tying up the courts.

Vietnam.Women Strike for Peace.Bella Abzug           Vietnam.Women Strike for Peace logo

They played a crucial role, perhaps the crucial role (according to Eric Bentley), in bringing down the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), promoted the adoption of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963 and 1964), and were among the first Americans to oppose the Vietnam War. On November 1, 1961, at the height of the Cold War, about 50,000 women brought together by Women Strike for Peace marched in 60 cities in the United States to demonstrate against nuclear weapons. It was the largest national women’s peace protest of the 20th century.   [Source: Wikipedia

** The Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) is a nationally organized left-wing political party. The California branch was founded on June 23, 1967, after the riot in the wealthy Century City section of Los Angeles. The Peace and Freedom Party went national in 1968 as a left-wing organization opposed to the Vietnam War. It nominated Leonard Peltier for President in the 2004 U.S. Presidential election;  Ralph Nader for President in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election; andRoseanne Barr for President and Cindy Sheehan for Vice President in the 2012 presidential election. According to its main website, PFP “is committed to socialism, democracy, ecology, feminism and racial equality” and tries “to build a mass based socialist party throughout the country.”  It is a strong advocate of environmentalism, aboriginal rights, rights to sexuality, health care, abortion, education, housing, employment and a socialist-run economy. [Source: Wikipedia]