On the Line

(This was written for org4change.nl, an activist group in Amsterdam)

In 1961, one year after I’d moved to Berkeley, I met the man who would become the father of my three daughters. He was a lawyer and a Marxist, deeply involved in radical politics. For our third date he invited me to join him in front of the Atomic Energy Commission building (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to protest the nuclear bombs being tested in Nevada.

When I arrived, there were only six people walking slowly in a tight circle in front of the main door. My heart pounded as I joined them, I had never taken part in any political action before. I was giddy with excitement at seeing again the man I had already fallen in love with. But my heart pounded also for another reason: I had learned early in life to keep my head safely down, to silently and without complaint do whatever was asked of me. I was naive to a fault, and the idea of walking in front of a government building carrying a sign saying Ban the Bomb, No More Hiroshimas, or Down with the AEC, seemed not only impolite but downright dangerous.

Our little circle was so meek that when someone went in or out of the door, or when people walked by on the sidewalk, we moved aside to let them pass.

As the hours went by and nothing dire happened, I began to relax. I began to feel that we were the only thing standing between the AEC and total nuclear annihilation. I stood taller, my steps became firmer, I started talking earnestly with passers-by. I became suffused with a sense of power, the likes of which I’d never before experienced.

When my oldest daughter Kate was two weeks old, I carried her in  the crook of my elbow on a march in Vallejo. It was a warm sunny day, full of joy and optimism. We marched on the side of the highway, where the trucks carrying napalm to be shipped over to Viet Nam rolled by. This time there were about twenty of us, there to support the four brave souls who actually lay down across the highway, risking their lives to stop those trucks in their tracks.

In just one year, political protests had developed into actions of danger and sheer courage, secretly organized by small groups, designed to cause unexpected disruption. By the time the police showed up, the napalm trucks had come to a complete standstill, we protesters were marching all over the road and in between all the trucks, the place was a confused frenzy, and the police were faced with a brand new kind of traffic problem to solve.

A hostile group had formed on the outskirts of all this mayhem, shouting at us that we were “UnAmerican,” “Bolsheviks,” “Dumb Hippies,” but the most fervent name-calling was directed at me: “Go home!”  “Take care of your baby!” “Evil mother!” “You belong in jail!”  It was a relief to hide in the car every now and then when my baby needed to nurse.

I continued to march and demonstrate throughout the 1960s. By the time all three of my girls were born I was adept at carrying one on my back and fitting the other two onto one stroller. Throughout those years my sense of political power continued to strengthen and was interwoven with my strengthening sense of the power of love, learned for the first time in my life as I became part of the family that was growing around me. My inner and outer horizons were expanding simultaneously.

This past January, I took part in the Women’s March on Washington, with Kate by my side. She and her husband are spending the winter with me here in Arizona, and we joined the march in Tucson. My other two daughters were marching in their homelands: Susan in Amsterdam, Emily in New Zealand.

It was thrilling to be surrounded by 15,000 other marchers. The atmosphere was cheerful, the crowd well-behaved, the side streets cordoned off, the police smiling and some even wearing pussy hats. Though we were all drawn to the occasion by a shared horror at what lay ahead after the elections, the march’s purpose lurked deep below the almost celebratory surface. The fear we all felt erupted only occasionally in angry shouts and on banners and signs.

Marching along with such a huge crowd of like-minded people made me forget, for the moment, the utter helplessness I had felt after the election results were in. In that crowd I felt again some of the power, the potency, I had first encountered in front of the AEC building in 1961. But the feeling was short-lived, it dissipated as soon as I was alone again, reading reports of what was happening in Washington, DC.

In the 1960s we were small in numbers, our actions unpredictable and threatening to those in power. With the Women’s March it was the opposite: huge numbers, orderly well-publicized action, with little lasting effect. But now, small isolated acts and large marches are no longer enough. In response to the radical changes taking place in the White House, new methods of political protest are evolving, and the heroes at Standing Rock make clear that it will be increasingly dangerous and more difficult than in the past. Yet it is more urgent now than ever before that we take action. At the very least, we can make our opinions heard by our representatives, we can vote, we can march.

I turned 80 this year, and to celebrate I gathered my three daughters from the far corners of the earth, along with one son-in-law, the two oldest grandsons, and one dog. We lived together in my Arizona mountain house for a few weeks, an unprecedented togetherness for us all. After dinner, we sat outside around the camp fire, talking and laughing, passing the guitar around and singing together, long into the nights. The world around us, explored each day with gusto, shrank at night to only as far as the firelight glowed. I looked at our faces, held in the fire’s orbit, shining with love and happiness, and we seemed an entire universe unto ourselves.

This is the universe that we fight for when we put ourselves on the line, when we fight for what is right. This is what will help us maintain a steady moral compass as so much crumbles around us. It is for this that we must be willing to risk everything.