Seniors for Peace activists are ready for prime time
PBS will show documentary by Brisbane filmmaker
If you were foolish enough to point out that he might be in the autumn of his years, Rolly Mulvey, 76, would snort.
"A lot of people think seniors get up, eat breakfast, read a book, eat dinner, play bingo and go to bed," he said. "We don't do that."
Mulvey, a bear of a man with a quick wit and piercing eyes, was busy commanding his troops the other day in the lobby of the Redwoods Retirement Community Center in Mill Valley. It was 4 p.m. on a Friday, D-Day for the 50 or so residents of the center who call themselves Seniors for Peace.
"We're hittin' the road," Mulvey called out, hitching up his red suspenders on which were pinned two buttons that said, "Dump Bush," and "Seniors for Peace." Guitar case in hand, he and the group trekked a few hundred yards to the corner of Camino Alto and Miller Avenue, where each Friday, they hold forth at one of Mill Valley's busiest intersections in their now yearlong protest against the Iraq war.
With their anti-war signs, flags, wheelchair and canes, this band of seniors (average age 86), has become a sidewalk fixture in town and some say, an inspiring model for grassroots activism.
"We just get out there and have a hell of a time objecting to what's going on," said Mulvey, just before he launched into the group's theme song, "Down by the River- side," on his guitar.
Last year, the aging protesters were the subject of a film, "Seniors for Peace," which won a standing ovation at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Now the half-hour documentary by Brisbane filmmaker David L. Brown is being aired by PBS -- on KQED on April 4 at 5:30 p.m., and on KTEH on May 3 at 10 p.m. The KQED airing will be followed at 6 p.m. by Brown's other film, "Surfing for Life," about an extraordinary group of older surfers.
"In our totally youth-obsessed society, we look at elders as tired and decrepit," Brown said. "The message of both films flies in the face of those stereotypes."
Brown, 56, met the seniors when he went to do a promotional video of the facility and ended up falling in love with Seniors for Peace.
"It's not just their age but their life experiences that give their activism credibility," he said. "The fact is, they've had direct experience with war and social activism for the past 60 years. When they put their bodies on the line for social justice, civil rights and peace, that impresses me."
Kathleen Burgy, a sweet-voiced former social worker who will be 89 next week, is typical of the seniors.
"We've all lived a long life," she said. "Many of us know what war is because we've lived through wars. It isn't something we saw on television or on a picture page."
Burgy sailed to England on a World War II troop ship with the American Red Cross and ended up working with children of Holocaust victims.
"It's why we are so passionately devoted to all matters of peace," she said. "And we're not alone. We're not a little group of old people waving our banners and signs. We are in solidarity with people all over the world."
The pastoral grounds of the retirement center hardly seems an incubator for rabble rousing. The 335 residents range in age from 62 to 103. Some are "old Marin folk," others have children who live in the area.
"I don't think anyone expected their Friday afternoons would turn into what it has," said Barbara Solomon, Redwoods executive director.
Certainly not Nora Porter Boskoff, a dainty 85-year-old whose distress over the threat of an American pre-emptive war on Iraq more than a year ago started the whole thing.
"I couldn't stand it," Boskoff said. "My heart was breaking."
So Boskoff trotted across the hall to talk to Eleanore Kennedy, 86, whose door, she noticed, was covered with a plethora of peace signs. In no time, a meeting was held. Boskoff expected maybe five or six residents. Twenty-seven showed up.
"They were all asking, "What are we going to do?," said Boskoff. "It was very exciting."
The ripples from that meeting are still expanding.
"After we decided on the protest we stayed up til 3 in the morning making signs," she said. "We spent a 16-hour day getting prepared."
If motorists were surprised at first, they now seem to love the street theater.
"They expect us to be here," said Pat Kenney, 84, as she waved to a driver who smiled and honked his horn. "Everywhere you go, people recognize you because of our button pins. They tell me, 'My father honked at you!' "
"When they honk, I start crying," said Sarah Waszink, 87. "It's so emotional for me when I get a response."
She must have been wailing buckets that day because there were plenty of honks and waves. Some drivers displayed singular dexterity while negotiating a turn, honking their horn and in some cases, talking on cell phones. A mom and her kids, ice cream cones in hand, waved. A man in a Toyota truck, his black lab leaning out the window, honked, as did two postmen and a UPS delivery guy. A "Grapevine Express" truck outdid them all with two shattering horn blasts in solidarity.
"They're so cute!" said one young woman who popped her head out of a car dashing by.
There were also those of another view. One driver wagged a scolding finger at the seniors. Another guy in a truck stuck his head out and yelled something nasty before roaring off.
"Some give you half a peace sign," said Miles Durr, 76. "But it's a rarity."
Still, the protesters all have their own tales of insults.
"One guy told me to go back home and take some Geritol," said Army vet Bill O'Brien, 81.
Burgy recalled one motorcyclist who swung close to the sidewalk to yell, "You bunch of Commies!"
"We thought that was kind of funny," said Burgy.
None of it seems to bother 95-year-old John Giuliani, the oldest of the protesters out that day.
"This group has one frame of mind: We want to stop the war," he said.
When the sun beats down too hard during the hourlong protest, Redwoods staff members bring out lemonade. In the winter, there's hot cocoa and coffee.
Solomon, of the center, said nonprofit Redwoods takes no position on the war. It regards the protest as one of many activities residents engage in.
"The Redwoods is a very vibrant community, where people are encouraged to be themselves and live as full a life as possible," she said. "This is one issue that's very, very important to them. There are different views at the facility, and not everyone has the same viewpoint. But it's sparked a lot of discussion."
The seniors' burst of energy has spilled over activism. Every Monday, the group meets to talk about issues such as Medicare and the state's recall election (they opposed it). Recently, they gathered 89 signatures for petition to repeal the U.S. Patriot Act. Much of their attention, however, is focused on stopping the war. Thursday is sign-making day. And on Sunday, there is a candlelight vigil with 15 minutes of silent meditation.
Burgy is aware the group's goals aren't universally shared at Redwoods, or elsewhere. "We have to be very careful and respectful," she said. "But some have joined us after witnessing the protest and seeing the video. I hope that peace can be contagious."
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