By Teddy Robertson
I haven’t seen Judy for fifty years, but here she is on Facebook, standing next to a sign that reads: “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” Her face is not really familiar to me but it triggers the memory of another face—her mother. Of course, I might not recognize Judy herself after so many decades and never seeing her as a grown up.
But when we were kids our mothers were in their prime. I remember their adult faces very well, those female models in our child lives, sometimes adversaries or rivals, subjects of our intense interest about their mysterious world of grown women and their secrets which we were beginning to intuit. And so it was Judy’s mother who jumped out at me from the computer screen, there at the Women’s March in San Francisco on Jan. 21, as if from another world.
I last saw Judy when we were in the fifth grade, she with tousled black hair and the heft of a tomboy who could be rascally, her antics hovering at the fringe of legal elementary school decorum. We grew up in northern California and lived on the outskirts of our town where our school was nestled at the dead end of a valley. Classes were small, the postwar baby boom having just barely begun to swell the numbers of children.
When I commented about recalling her mother’s face, Judy (now Judith) responded that when she was six years old her mother took her to a march against nuclear war. The year must have been 1951 or ’52, six years after Hiroshima. My mother was not as daring. Judy’s mom was probably the most radical woman my mother knew during my grade school years and I suspect that my mother was awed by her.
So here we are on Facebook, Judith and I, sharing pictures of our respective marches, she in northern California and me near Los Angeles; bolstered by seeing others, we’ve powered through a fortnight of demonstrations.
Flint water crisis emerges in LA march
For the first one, the Day of Action to Save Health Care, I went downtown to LA General, officially the Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center. Founded in 1878 and one of the largest public hospitals in the US, the old hospital (Mary Pickford laid its cornerstone in 1930) stands on a hilltop in an area called Boyle Heights, once a wild mix of Jewish, east European, Hispanic, Portuguese, and Japanese. Today it’s Latino east LA. The site reminds me of Hurley, with its current “old” building up high and new additions grafted onto it below. Around the bus stop at the foot of the hospital hillside several bundles stowed under benches await the homeless who gather at night around the exhaust grates that belch gusts of warm air from the hospital.
Some 800 or 1000 people stand on the steps of the new entrance to the medical center that slopes down to the street. There’s a podium, yellow tape, and a small tent to our right where security men are visible between the flaps. The first speakers are women who tell their stories of severe, chronic conditions, of how they survived without medicine until the ACA came along.
Then white coated staff from the hospital are introduced and the first one stuns me. He is an African American psychologist in the Emergency Department—LA County is a Level I Trauma Center like Hurley. He announces that he was raised in Grand Blanc, Michigan. He rises today, he says, to speak about Flint and the suffering there due to lead contamination. People listen in hushed amazement to this horror story from far away.
Finally, Kamala Harris, California’s new senator, recounts her first 48 hours in the Hart Senate building, as old timers scurried through the halls for the late night “vote-a-rama” marathon that culminated with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act . She tells about her parents who met in Berkeley in the 1960s, in another era of movements and marches, and then closes quoting Coretta Scott King: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” Do not give up hope, she exhorts us.
Redondo march surprises
The following Saturday I joined a small march in the LA area. Redondo Beach organizers offered an option for families with children, a less than two-mile walk, accessible as the organizers emphasized, for little legs. For old legs too, I thought. The crowd gathered slowly, women greeting one another with happy surprise, as if slightly amazed that the event was going to come off. Morning on the SoCal coast and only in the high 50s, the hand-held megaphone no match for the gusty ocean air and women glad for the warmth of a pussy hat.
Discipline from marches past came back to me as we walk: close up the spaces and don’t leave gaps in the march, link arms only if there’s danger, signal politely to drivers who try to exit through the line of marchers. But this is a very relaxed, suburban group—middle aged and younger. What would they know of civil rights or antiwar demonstration drill? People seem happy to be doing something, conversations are lively. Word passed through the crowd that the organizers here got a permit for 30 people—half way through the march someone ran by us shouting the count: 1800.
No chants in laidback beach land or what I miss most, singing—civil rights marches swelled to the lyrics of black church hymns, spirits rose on the resonant African American voice. Folksong buoyed antiwar marches; Woody Guthrie optimism pierced with the scratchy laments of Bob Dylan, the quaver of Joan Baez, the solo voice as tenuous as the concept of peace. Anthems will come; it’s early days yet.
Judy’s mother would be 104 this year, my mother (who finally got political during Adlai Stevenson’s two presidential campaigns) would have turned 100. We carry our mothers’ experience and our own, over six decades worth. Yes, we are still protesting. Believe it.
EVM columnist Teddy Robertson, who is spending the winter in Los Angeles, can be reached at email@example.com.