You may have seen them holding signs outside City Hall or marching in a Black Lives Matter rally.
Before that, they were protesting nuclear weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since June, the local Grandmothers for Peace chapter has held a weekly “anti-racism witness” in Duluth and Superior. Women held signs with messages of solidarity for racial justice “to use our privilege as, for the most part, white elders, to make a statement about police violence and white supremacy,” said Dorothy Wolden.
This fall, G4P joined a local Black Lives Matter group that had been demonstrating in front of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial on Tuesday nights.
It’s a point of legitimacy working with Grandmas for Peace, the local chapter of the NAACP, Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and other Duluth residents who want to march with us, said local BLM organizer Waylon Jensen.
It also felt a lot safer.
“'Patriots' show up with guns and signs and flags,” he said, adding there were people who shut off their engines to yell white-supremacist sentiments.
G4P came at the right time, “when we needed a mama bear.”
Everybody knows who they are, and you don’t think the younger crowd is going to start looting and burning things with grandma there, he said.
* * *
Grandmothers for Peace was founded during the Cold War in 1982 by Superior native Barbara Wiedner. Experiencing the loss of her child to police violence, she joined demonstrations against nuclear weapons in California.
Wiedner’s sister, Jan Provost, launched the local chapter in 1983.
G4P stands against global militarism and nuclear weapons. The local chapter holds peace vigils, co-sponsors community actions: Hiroshima Remembrances, Project ELF, the Northland Anti-War Coalition and more.
Philip Anderson of the local Veterans for Peace chapter said the groups have collaborated in the past, marching in the Twin Ports Pride parade or collaborating on opinion editorials.
“Our organizations have almost identical goals in terms of opposing war, opposing nuclear weapons, advocating for more sensible spending on our federal budgets,” Anderson said.
There are more than 60 people on the G4P email list, and about 12 core members. While not all are grandmothers, they’re all female elders who “have always been a rock for humanity, leaders in wisdom, leaders in caring,” Wolden said.
Seniors can sometimes be considered irrelevant, but there’s power in life experience. With that, there’s a responsibility to help improve things for the next generation, she added.
* * *
Many in the group have had experience with aggression while demonstrating.
Having an anti-war position in this country is not always very popular, Wolden said.
She recalled carrying the Grandmothers for Peace banner with her child during a July 4 parade, where people were encouraging kids to throw rocks and spit at them and other peace activists.
“Unfortunately, it’s part of the territory. You put your opinions out there, and you try to do what’s right, and sometimes, there’s a very negative backlash.”
Part of what Grandmothers for Peace likes to convey is you don’t have to react in the same way. You can stick to your principles.
“People think that civil rights leaders Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. sprung up from nowhere,” but they went to the Highlander Folk School, and most civil rights activists had some sort of nonviolence training, said Penny Cragun.
She has been through training herself.
It takes practice to learn, but “I believe that violence always leads to more violence in some way. Ultimately, nonviolence has achieved more,” she said.
A common training is to create a hassle line, a group of people facing each other, and practicing interaction with an aggressor. You learn how to stay calm, how to introduce yourself when someone is yelling in your face.
“The very act of saying to someone, ‘Hello, I'm Penny. What's your name?’ often throws angry people off guard,” she said.
Role play is a very good way to learn, said Donna Howard.
You have to practice your response in those mock situations. “No matter what you do in response, it's a teaching moment,” she said.
Howard, another local G4P member and worker in the Loaves and Fishes community, recently led a three-hour workshop for SURJ members on de-escalation and how to be a peace marshal.
Howard used to protest the Navy recruiting ship that visited Duluth every year.
“I remember a guy just being right in my face and screaming all kinds of names at me and making me feel like he was going to grab and hit me. That’s their goal: to harass and scare. The thing is to stay centered with why you’re there, and not engaged with that kind of anger and energy.
“You root yourself and smile and stay really calm,” Howard said.
* * *
Howard came up in Berkeley, California, in the ’60s during anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, but things really changed when she had her first child.
“Those first moments when they lay the child on your chest and you realize you’d do anything for them. In there somewhere, I realized we have to be willing to do that for all children. That led me to a lifestyle of nonviolence and activism that’s not just action or going to a march in Berkeley. It was about who we need to be in relationship to all beings on the earth and what kind of lifestyle that requires of us,” she said.
For Howard, that meant prison time.
In 1996, she was sentenced to three years for nuclear disarmament action against the Navy Elf transmitter near Clam Lake, Wisconsin.
Every day in prison is a challenge, but it was easy to remember the goal and how profoundly important it was, she recalled. She served one year, and the rest was served at home.
“It was absolutely worth it,” she said. “At that time, my parents were alive and well, and my children were grown and well, and I had this window of opportunity to devote myself to that cause.”
The key for Howard is that she and others spent nine months preparing this action, the safety, understanding international law and how to make the case in court. She also turned herself in.
“One doesn’t just run and do that; that would be terrorism,” she added.
Community is important in this work. Find others who share your passion and who are demonstrating in a way you respect. Don’t try to do it alone.
“Refuse to have enemies, that’s part of my nonviolence life strategy,” Howard said.
Persistence and patience are key, Cragun said. “I’ve been working for peace and justice for how many years now, and I don’t often see the ends that I want.”
Along with experience to share and work to do, the women of G4P see their role as one supporting others also working for justice and peace.
It’s part of their job as female elders.
Howard is not biologically a grandmother, as are other women in the group, but for her, “a grandmother is an attitude.”
“We say you only need to be a grandmother in your heart, meaning you yearn for and thrive for peace with justice,” Cragun said.