The Raging Grannies, Blazing a Trail of Humorous Protests
Meddlesome Crones Make it their Business to Keep an Eye on the World
“We’re granny guerrilla/ With a lot of ‘tude! Granny guerrillas/ And we’re in the mood/ So we’ve taken our stand/ At the head of the line/ Doing it for our grandkids/ Yours and mine/ You’re gonna mess with our kids/ You’re gonna mess with us…” (Raging Grannies Rap)
With their disarming smiles, outlandish hats, arsenal of witty, spunky lyrics and outrageous actions, the Raging Grannies have become an institution in protest circles. They tap into an unending stream of creative ideas for songs and stunts to express their views on peace, environment, social and economic justice, women’s issues and human rights. They challenge authorities and stereotypes, bringing a new approach to activism.
“We’re criminals exposing stuff that’s going on/ belting out our biting messages in songs/ we poke and pry and dare expose/ what you prefer folks didn’t know … we’re pesky raging grans/ try and put the lid on, try to shut us up/ pepper spray won’t do it/ nothing makes us stop.” (tune: “Lily Marlene”)
The eleven Victoria women who first dressed up as Raging Grannies and offered an Un-Valentine to their MP were protesting the presence in Victoria waters of U.S. ships that might carry nuclear weapons, or be powered by nuclear-reactors, or both.
“Twinkle twinkle little nuke/ How we wonder who you spook/ So far all the tests have failed/ They’ve got a scorpion by the tail/ But if the U.S. conquers space/ It’s a whole new tale–And a new arms race.”
Ranging in age from 40 to 94 years old (most are seniors), the majority have been actively involved in their communities for many years.
Granny Lanie Melamed immigrated from the U.S. with her husband and children after years of living in an interracial intentional community and opposing the Vietnam War. A dynamic university professor, she was involved with Voice of Women, the breast cancer advocacy movement and started Health Environment Action Learning (HEAL).
“Our leaders of course show no shame or remorse/ supporting the slaughter called war/ So we’ll bitch, rage, and roar even more/ ’Til we change our country’s course.” (Tune: “Grandfather’s Clock”)
“Something humorous and satirical has much more punch than something that is serious and analytical,” says Granny Ava Louwe. The uses of humour are well known to former nurse Granny Kathleen Dunphy: “We have to have laughter. You have to have some way of expressing your concern in some way that doesn’t devour you and doesn’t immobilize you.”
Long-time activist and adult educator Granny Muriel Duckworth adds: “Humour, there is no doubt about it, is a way to teach.” Humour requires “digging within one’s mind to find an angle, a thread that sheds light on a particular situation,” adds Granny Louise Edith Hébert-Ferron.
“We used to do peace demonstrations and peace marches and things on the street,” says Granny Barbara Seifred. “Lots of people would stand there and argue … or they’d back off, they didn’t want to know anything about it. But with the Grannies, because we look so funny, they lean in instead of leaning out. … They want to know a little more about what these crazy women are up to.”
Among the Raging Grannies, imagination rules. “Rose DeShaw in Kingston, she’s got a wonderful hat,” says Granny Joan Harvey, “and at the back of it she has a little bicycle horn that you squeeze. And if she’s singing to a politician and they’re distracted, she goes [sounds of horn] and they don’t know where it’s coming from, but all of a sudden they’re paying attention again!”
For emphasis, Rose waves her brolly, dances in her hiking boots, and leads with a rubber chicken as her baton. Rose recalls poking then-finance minister Paul Martin in the tummy with the chicken. “I really did it … though it was just me getting overexcited, not an act of violence. We were chatting. I had never seen such an expensive suit on anyone, man or woman, and I was gesturing with the rubber chicken … I got going on some aspect, I forget which, and when I came to, I was poking him emphatically, beak first, with the chicken.”
When the Defence Department declared a day to search for missing papers during the Somalia affair, Grannies in Ottawa offered to lend a hand. Armed with magnifying glasses, they chased defence personnel on their way to work and carefully scrutinized briefcases and bags, and endlessly pawed through waste containers. When Mike Harris cut welfare to pregnant women in Ontario, saying they were spending the money on beer instead of milk, Kingston Grannies put their pillows under their dresses and, “pregnant,” went to the social-services office. Surprisingly, they found the staff cheering and applauding. For Rose, words are important, but imaginative graphics and props help get people’s attention: “It’s art for a purpose,” she says.
When someone referred to the Raging Grannies as entertainment, Rose DeShaw wrote in the Grannies’ newsletter: “Call us activists if you will but we simply do not have time for entertainment. … The raging is a cry from the heart. … Being a persistent nuisance would be a more flattering description than billing us as entertainers, however well-meant. The heedless policies of our misguided provincial leadership are creating critics in the most unexpected places. We are proud to stand and sing among them.”
“Take me out to the clearcut/ We’ll picnic on a few stumps/ I want you to know/ I’m a tree-farming nut/ Who thinks like a chainsaw/ That’s stuck in a rut!”
On February 13, 2000, in London, Ontario, headlines in the local newspaper read, “Raging Grannies Take a Swipe at Squeegee Law.” To “mess with squeegee kids” in that Ontario town is to “mess with the Grannies.” That’s the lesson London motorists learned as eight Raging Grannies sang, squeegeed, distributed pamphlets and pressed motorists for donations, in protest against homelessness, and to raise money for London’s food bank. After an hour of panhandling, the Grannies … had already raised $158, which they celebrated by singing in front of the closed office of MPP Bob Wood (PC-London West). “People have to become more aware of the homeless,” said 86-year-old Florence Boyd-Graham, who blasted the province’s crackdown on squeegee kids and noted that, at her age, she doesn’t “give a hell” about what people think of her politics. A police officer did stop to question a Granny after the action, but no charges were laid, despite a new law banning soliciting on public roadways that went into effect January 31.
“We thought we were going to get locked up,” said Boyd-Graham, laughing. Michelle LeBoutillier … said the Grannies were “concerned” they might get charged, but were compelled to disobey the law because they “felt so strongly that poverty isn’t being addressed in the way it should be.”
Grannies at Seattle and Québec City
Grannies from Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle went to the now-famous Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). As Granny Anna Johnson wrote, they walked and sang, “Pausing only for the many people who wanted to take our photograph. The attention we received was heartwarming. We learned that young activists see us as role models and hold us in a sort of reverence.”
Other Grannies joined the FTAA protests in Québec City. Montréal Granny Joan Hadrill spoke at the Teach-In at the People’s Summit of the Americas in Québec City, along with David Suzuki, Naomi Klein, Alexa McDonough and many from South and Central America who talked about the negative impact of NAFTA on their lives.
It was all “a little closer to the edge than many people our age would put themselves,” says Granny Angela Silver. One 90-year-old Granny in a wheelchair later told the Grannies Un-Convention how she had had to defy her family to go to Québec City–it was that important to her.
Granny Alma Norman recalls the decision making about going to the wall or staying with the safe march:
“Some of us, and I was one, said, ‘I came to Québec City to go to the wall because that wall is an abomination and I’m here to accept my right as a citizen to do that. So I would like to go to the wall.’ Well, some of the other members of the group said, ‘There was tear gas all over the place and there might be very unpleasant consequences.’ And … other members said, ‘No, I didn’t want to do it, I have asthma, I can’t take a chance on that.’ Others said, ‘No, I just don’t feel that’s what I want to do.’ And I said, ‘I won’t go alone, because I came with a group and I don’t feel I can just walk away from the group and do this thing. And yet, it is very important to me. If I don’t go to the wall, I will feel as if I have in some sense failed in my purpose in coming here.’ … Two Grannies and two women who were not Grannies then, but have since joined us, decided to come with me.”
A small group left the safety of numbers to bear witness at the wall: “We were somewhat nervous about being tear-gassed but that possibility had to be faced. We were lucky. There had been gassing before we arrived,” said Alma. Soon they came across a group of heavily armed police in full combat gear. The police were unaccountably preventing the peaceful progress of a small group of protestors trying to make their way down a street: “The police looked more like armadillos,” according to Alma, aged 78, the small band of Grannies’ fearless leader. One “amardillo” stepped forward, fingering his rubber-bullet gun. Undeterred, the Granny group linked arms and put themselves between the small group of protesters and the police. First they sang “Hysteria.” Then they took small steps towards the police. Then it was, “We Shall Overcome,” and a few more steps forward, voices cracking a little, according to the youngest, an apprentice Granny. Finally, Alma, the 78-year-old Granny leader, explained to the police that the Grannies could indeed be their mothers or their grandmothers, but that they were simply there for peaceful purposes and posed no danger. Amazingly, the police then retreated a few steps. The Granny group blew them a few kisses, and turned and made their way back down the hill.
Their way back was a “tremendous moment of solidarity,” according to Granny Alma Norman. “As we were going down the hill, all these young people … came up to us and hugged us and said, “Thank you … thank you for coming, thank you for supporting us.”
A few months later, the G-20 meetings took place in Ottawa and the police were accused of harsh treatment of protesters. When a citizens’ panel on police (over)reaction was held, the Ottawa Grannies made a presentation. “One of the points we made,” says Alma, “was that what Grannies can do at demonstrations is simply to be there as witnesses, but also if we see a confrontation building up to interpose ourselves between the confronting parties and perhaps begin to sing, so that the song itself begins to diffuse the situation.”
It’s caring about people that gives the Grannies the courage to do what they do, says Joan Harvey. “I will not cower, I will not shrink, I will not tremble, I will not hide behind somebody’s skirt. … If people all through history didn’t stick their necks out to help other people, where would we be?”
The Raging Grannies is not only “a forum for older women to express their views, but an opportunity for like-minded activists to meet, and to meet younger activists, as well,” says Granny Lorna Drew. “Youth realize that we’re not in the box, you know, like their parents and other parents [who may] hold perhaps more conservative views and wouldn’t do anything they consider ridiculous like getting dressed up in funny clothes and making a public spectacle of themselves, while we rejoice in it. … They see how much fun we’re having and why we’re doing it, that we’re putting our message across, and they think, “Eh, that’s great!”
“Without the right to protest/ Where would we be? There’d be no votes/ For women yet/ And no democracy/ Blacks segregated still/ The poor would have no schools/ Small tots would still work in the mines/ While rich folk set the rules”
The Raging Grannies transform anger and despair into creative rage: deep caring, compassion for suffering, willingness to engage with the problems of their time, excellent research and a dynamic creativity all contribute.
While they are hopeful for change, they realize they are preparing the ground for the next action: “You see, you don’t always win. But at least we brought a lot of attention, and next time it will build,” says Angela Silver. The Grannies take their place in the long line of women who have cared, protested, demonstrated with creativity, flair, sincerity and, at times, courage. With their dynamic protests, the Raging Grannies forge a new path and dare us to hope. With wit, irreverence, daring, creativity and a pedagogy of persistence, “these long-livers refuse to give up, refuse to shut up.” As we laugh may we find insights and the courage to honour life in all its dimensions.
Carole Royʼs new book, The Raging Grannies: Wild Hats, Cheeky Songs and Witty Actions for a Better World, is reviewed on page 61 of this issue.