Joan Wile, a former songwriter and actress who in her 70s weaponized the power of grandmotherhood by organizing a nine-year-long weekly vigil by fellow venerable protesters against the war in Iraq, died on May 4 in Nanuet, N.Y. She was 86.
The cause was complications of diabetes, her son, Ron Wasserman, said.
Ms. Wile had written letters and marched against the war, but it was a horrific photograph in Time magazine — of a 12-year-old Iraqi boy who had been burned and lost both arms and whose family had been killed by American bombs — that galvanized her to do even more.
“I’ve got to do something,” Ms. Wile later recalled saying to herself. “Suddenly the word ‘grandmother’ popped into my head. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that’s a magic word. It connotes wisdom, love, nurturing, maturity, good common sense. People will take us seriously.’ ”
And so Grandmothers Against the War was born. Ms. Wile and a largely gray-haired group parked themselves for an hour of street theater every Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue in front of Rockefeller Center from Jan. 14, 2004, until mid-November 2012 to protest Washington’s continuing military entanglement.
The protesters, sometimes joined by grandfathers and antiwar veterans, never reached platoon size. Their ranks waxed and waned with the weather, and were eventually diminished by time and by other policy priorities.
But they logged some 460 Wednesdays in all and missed only two: in 2009, when they were barred from occupying their customary ground because the area was off-limits for the annual Christmas tree lighting that particular Wednesday evening; and in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy made travel virtually impossible.
Their perseverance in the face of infirmities (some depended on walkers and canes) endowed their demonstrations with disproportionate publicity.
And, when they figured that the spotlight was dimming, they borrowed the playbook of other groups like the Raging Grannies, an international network of protest groups, and resorted to more militant tactics. Twice they got themselves arrested when they decided not just to stand there but to do something more emphatic, in those cases staging sit-downs.
By late 2012, though, the weekly gathering had dwindled to fewer than a dozen. By then, past 80 and with Barack Obama, a more sympathetic president, in the White House, Ms. Wile decided to call it quits.
“It’s a relief not to have to stand there for an hour any longer,” she told The New York Times. “Old bones do not take too well to such activity.”
Born Joan Meltzer on July 17, 1931, in Rochester, she was the daughter of Louis and Janet Louise Meltzer. Her mother was an advertising executive; her father was a cellist who became a television writer.
A grandmother had been a suffragist, and an uncle had been an economic adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
At 16, Joan enrolled in the University of Chicago, which she attended for three years. She married Herb Wasserman, a drummer. Their marriage ended in divorce.
In addition to their son, she is survived by a daughter, Diana Wasserman Dianuzzo; two half sisters, Bonnie Richter and Paula Wolfe; and, yes, five grandchildren. Just after she died, a great-granddaughter was born.
Adopting her mother’s original surname for professional reasons, Ms. Wile worked as a singer, composer and lyricist. (With Don Elliott, she wrote the music and lyrics to several songs in the 1975 film “The Happy Hooker.”) She also acted in Off Broadway and regional theater and later supported herself by proofreading legal documents.
As a divorced single mother pursuing a career, Ms. Wile acknowledged in her book “Grandmothers Against the War: Getting Off Our Fannies & Standing Up for Peace” (2008) that she had been relatively unconcerned about the Vietnam War.
“I was then what I find so reprehensible about people now,” she wrote. “Apathetic.”
She first took action against the war in Iraq in November 2003, about eight months after it started, when she organized a rally protesting what she saw as the United States’ open-ended military involvement there. Soon she began the weekly protests, which included songs, speeches and signs. When the grandmothers needed a stimulus, they got more aggressive.
In 2006, armed with a bucket of cookies, Ms. Wile was one of 18 women, aged 59 to 91, who tried to enlist at the Times Square armed forces recruiting station. When they were rebuffed, they staged a sit-in outside. They were gingerly handcuffed, jailed for more than four hours and charged with disorderly conduct, which carried a 15-day sentence.
A six-day nonjury trial ensued in Manhattan Criminal Court, during which Norman Siegel, the civil liberties lawyer, pointed out that no one had been blocked from entering the recruiting station because the only people who had wanted to enlist that afternoon were the protesters themselves, and they were barred.
At the trial, some defendants recited their résumés of participation in previous protests dating to the spy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the early 1950s. When queried about her age, one defendant took the Fifth Amendment. Another was asked if, in trying to enlist, she was actually prepared to go to war.
“Yes,” the woman replied. “I was totally prepared. I had just recently gotten divorced.”
Ms. Wile was responsible for what seemed to a “Perry Mason”-like moment, when she suddenly produced a police permit for a demonstration. A prosecutor pointed out, however, that the permit was for a protest in Duffy Square, several blocks north of the recruiting station.
Still, on the grounds that the grandmothers were obstructing neither the door to the enlistment site nor justice, Judge Neil E. Ross found the defendants not guilty.
In 2009, some of the same women were arrested again in Times Square protesting the Obama administration’s decision to keep American troops in Iraq and to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Prosecutors dropped the charges.
The weekly protests ended in 2012.
“But I think we helped jump start the anti-Iraq war movement here in the city,” Ms. Wile said. “We threw some seeds in the air, and maybe they landed somewhere and sprouted.”
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