Grace Paley Occupies Wall Street

As I read some of the recent commentaries about the politics of space, Occupy Wall Street, and Zuccotti Park– “private space gone public”– I’m continually distracted by a very different pin on the map of the city grid: The War Resister’s League National Office, at 339 Lafayette Street, affectionately known as the “Peace Pentagon.” I thought of that hulking corner building as I read a review of the book Oppose and Propose!: Lessons from Movement for a New Society by Andrew Cornell in the latest issue of WIN, the understated magazine of the War Resisters League, a pacifist organization that has been working for nonviolent change for nearly a century. The reviewer, Sachio Ko-yin, describes the consensus-building model that drew him into his first War Resisters League National Committee meeting in the 1990s:

“What impressed us most at the meeting was the complex consensus process called a spokescounsel, where power flowed from coordinated small groups to a synthesis process. Here was an organization that was resisting the war state…”

The “spokescounsel” Ko-yin describes sounds quite similar to the processes governing Occupy Wall Street. Christopher’s recent post enumerated the unique communication methods of the OWS protesters—hand signals, mic checks, labored consensus building through mediated dialogue. Ko-yin’s review reminded me that the rush to compare Wall Street occupiers with Tahrir Square dissenters sometimes obscures a grounding in a much closer and richer history– to the peace movement right here in the United States. In method, strategy, communication, and character, the whole Occupy enterprise borrows generously from the anti-war and nuclear disarmament movements.

Photo by Ed Hedemann

While many locate its direct origins with those independent culturejammers, Adbusters—very true!— the broader lineage of OWS remains aggressively pastiche. JoAnn Wypijewski’s recent ditty in The Nation draws a surprisingly fluid connection: through the more corporeal emphases of the Occupy Movement, she argues that critics itching for ‘demands’ from this movement “need only pay attention, because like the women’s health movement in the 1970s, the AIDS solidarity network that evolved from it in the ’80s, Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs embody their demands.” Each of these examples, however, suggest activist groups that have faded with the shifting priorities of the moment. The Peace Pentagon is a powerful symbol of the workers who have kept the peace movement humming along, toiling away– and frequently getting arrested– for decades.

I was interested, then, to see the Peace Pentagon mentioned– and not– in a recent New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about Global Revolution,  a media collective that acts as “the switchboard” for the live coverage of the OWS protests across the nation. “The revolution is being streamed from a dilapidated second story office in NoHo,” the author, Andrew Marantz, explains, mentioning only the A.J. Muste Institute, a pacifist organization founded in 1974, skipping over the fact that it was the War Resisters League (WRL) that originally purchased it in 1969 and created the Institute to maintain it. The Institute leases office space to Global Revolution for a mere $400 a month. In this way, they have fanned the embers of resistance activity in this real estate mad metropolis: the Institute provides cheap space to many of the dendrite-like organizations of the OWS movement.

But the WRL itself isn’t mentioned in the article; Marantz quotes the fellow behind the live streaming, who jokes that he’s overstayed his welcome: “the building’s owners should have known this would happen when they invited us, but we have sort of occupied the space.” (I’m quite sure, sir, that they have seen it all.) Marantz– no doubt hemmed in by a word limit– makes no mention of the fact that this dilapidated building is host to any number of activist organizations, many of whom are playing a role in OWS. The video below goes a long way in explaining the significance of 339 Lafayette Street for New York City’s activist communities– with a list of concerns and passions as wide and varied as those of OWS. (A partial list of their past and present tenants can be found here– it includes the Catholic Peace Fellowship, The Grannie Peace Brigade, Peace Action, Grey Panthers, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Metropolitan Council on Housing, GI Resistance, Health Care Now. To name just a few.)

But there’s another face of the WRL that I see reflected in the OWS protests: Grace Paley, the wonderful writer of short stories and active member of the War Resisters League who passed away in 2007. During my first trip to see what all the hubaloo at OWS was about, I immediately noticed the Granny Peace Brigade members there. The Grannies were wearing the sort protest-sign-smock-vests that made me think immediately of a famous image of Grace—her author photo from the back of her essay collection, Just as I Thought:

Photo by Jackie Snow

Photo by Dorothy Marder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While her exquisite stories of quotidian heart break are widely celebrated, Grace Paley was also famous—and sometimes infamous—for protesting much and writing little. Vietnam, nuclear arms, municipal stupidity: all ranked worthy among her protest causes and efforts. In 1979, Grace was fined $100 for unfurling a banner against nuclear energy during a protest on the lawn of the White House; in the 1980s, it was the Women’s Pentagon Action. As Marianne Hirsch explains in her article about Grace’s myriad contributions, Grace was a member of many activist groups that refused to be quiet about the connections they saw between racism, sexism, heterosexism, the disregard of the environment and unfettered militarism. Much of Paley’s advocacy work focused on the military budget, but this was before the disparity between rich and poor had grown to such mammoth proportions. Yet Grace even then was linking economic injustice with the plights of our urban areas: “Our cities have already been effectively bombed by the military budget,” Grace said. “Billions of dollars are put into what’s called defense, while the needs of the people are neglected.”

But back to the War Resisters League. Taking the omission from the Talk of the Town piece as a kind of provocation, I did a quick search of the New Yorker archives for mentions of the WRL, which turned up some interesting (and also brief) mentions of the organization: 2003 war protests in Times Square, demonstrations after the nuclear accident on Three Mile Island in 1979, and a 1973 article about the Vietnam cease-fire, which included an interview with David McReynolds, a field secretary for the WRL at the time.

Armed Forces Day Parade, 1979. Photo: Grace Hedemann.

McReynolds also appears in the Peace Pentagon video above. (In describing the significance of 339 Lafayette Street, he gives voice to ideas that apply easily to OWS– especially in its ability to link causes such as labor with the principles of anti-violence and an international viewpoint.) McReynolds had been working to bring the war to an end since 1961, the year of the first American casualties; the New Yorker asked him what he thought would become of the peace movement:

“…The underlying problems of an unrestrained Presidency and a huge military establishment remain. It’s true that the war in Vietnam was an outgrowth of American history and character but so is the anti-war movement. There is a great tradition in America of independence of judgment and resistance to tyranny.”

 

Comments

  1. Matt Meyer says:

    Great, lovely tying together of peoples, issues, organizations, and generations! Thanks for this wonderful piece!

  2. Liz Roberts says:

    A million thanks for this terrific article showing a bit more of the oft-overlooked lineage of nonviolent direct action in the US. We at WRL are very excited about the burgeoning Occupy movement and hope that a deepening analysis about the relationship between the war economy/war profiteering and the 1% will be further integrated in the messaging and the push for change.

  3. Hillary says:

    @Matt: And thank you for reading and commenting.

    @Liz: Thanks too for reading and commenting; I share your hope! It’s interesting that you mention the potential for a deeper analysis that comes with OWS. The past weeks, teaching public speaking at Baruch– with the majority of my students focused on a Business major– has demonstrated to me just how rich in potential this moment is. So many opportunities– from the OWS visuals that make it into the mainstream news, to the shift in conversation that has happened in my students’ lifetimes– for a much deeper discussions and debate. With that, of course, comes the potential too for so many missed opportunities and simplistic messaging.

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