"I'm a nice old lady. I have salt and pepper in my hair. And I would fight ferociously against anybody who would limit my ability to do something just because I'm sixty-four years old." The Gray Panthers are a pan-generational organization promoting senior citizen rights, but also campaigning for issues such as peace, health care, and workers rights. When Judy Lear joined the NYC network , she revitalized the whole organization. She's led protests, gone to UN meetings, and even gotten arrested. Gothamist sat down with this civil leader to learn more the Gray Panthers and their various endeavours.
When you got involved with the Gray Panthers New York chapter, you sort of rejuvenated the whole organization.
Yeah. For a while the New York City network was literally and figuratively almost dead. The members had aged, and they were no longer in their fifties and sixties but more seventies and eighties, and I kept saying, "I'd like to go to a meeting." My friend Joan Davis, who is also a part of the United Nations team with me, said, "Judy, I don't think they have meetings." So I called a meeting in my New York apartment. So, we sent out letters and made telephone calls and we probably had about twenty people jammed into a my apartment. At the time we said, "Is this something that we would be able to continue? Are the Gray Panthers still viable?" And it seemed to me that it was a good time for older people to give voice because there are so many issues that are affecting older people, and affect young people, and we need to have our voices heard a little bit louder.
So, what are some of the things that the Gray Panthers do?
We have monthly happenings starting in September and going through June. This last year, in February, for example, we were working on changes to the New York City building code. We put out some position papers that I thought were extremely effective, and sent them to our council members, our representatives, and senators. We dealt with three areas, and these became the priority for the year. One was peace. That was the international thrust. We've been against the action in Iraq. A small handful of us marched when the Republicans had their convention here. The second issue, on a national level, is Medicare and our health system and how we're paying for it. And then on a local level, we've dealt with housing issue, specifically disabilities and the New York City building code. We also lend our name and support to like-minded organizations such as the Peace Action, Grannies Against the War, Raging Grannies, Code Pink.
Do you think that people's perception of the elderly has improved in recent years?
I think that it has become more positive. People are living longer and are more healthy. Our perception of what an older person is has started to change. I'm sixty-four years old, and you're going to say oh my goodness, by your voice it doesn't sound like you're sixty-four. Well, I don't know what a sixty-four year old voice sounds like, but I've gotten that more and more often. I mean, I'm a nice old lady. I have salt and pepper in my hair. And I would fight ferociously against anybody who would limit my ability to do something just because I'm sixty-four years old.
Have you ever been arrested for protesting?
I'd heard of this action where grandmothers went to recruiting stations and offered to enlist in the army so that young people could come home. And I said that's for me. I said with the Gray Panthers, I needed to go to my board. Whether the Gray Panthers said yes or no, I would do it on a personal level. Well, my board said absolutely! Judy, this is exactly what we would do. This is exactly what Maggie Kuhn did in the 1970s for the Vietnam War. At that meeting they said, not only do we want groups to come and support us on October 17th, but we want a few people who would be willing to be arrested. And I said yes, I would be willing. So there we all were on October 17th, and we did our chanting and we did our demonstration, and then a group of us went and one of the ladies knocked on the door at the recruitment center at Times Square, and they locked the door on us. And we turned around, and we proceeded to read our statement about how we thought this was an unjust, immoral war, and that it was our patriotic duty that we would enlist so that young people could come back. We had lived nice, good long lives, and before they were maimed and killed. At which point the police were there and said, we'd like you to break up, and could you move, at which point we all sat down and said, we insist to enlist! And they arrested us.
There were eighteen of us arrested, and they put us in those little plastic handcuffs and put us into vans and took us over to a precinct. We were two to a cell, except for the people who couldn't walk upstairs, so the people who were in walkers or were legally blind were downstairs in one holding area. And my cell mate, a wonderful woman who is a retired United Nations peace worker, needless to say we had a lot to talk about. We were held in jail for five hours, and then we had to go to court. And we ended up going to court four times. First we went to the community court, and that judge was a woman and she bumped us up to criminal court. That judge had us come back a second time, and he sent us to have a trial. We had a six-day trial. All eighteen of us gave testimony, all the arresting officers. And at the end, the judge found us not guilty.
Is New York a good place to live if you're elderly?
I think New York is really a wonderful place for older people. You can live in your own apartment, and within a very small radius, you will have everything you need- your grocery store, drug store, etc. And ever restaurant in your vicinity and probably farther can deliver to you. So I think that being an older person and perhaps not fully able, New York is excellent. I'm talking about Manhattan, but I think that it's probably fairly convenient also in the other boroughs, but certainly in Manhattan. There's also so much to do here. You could go out absolutely every night, and it wouldn't have to be financially because there are so many things that are free. The medical treatment is excellent and you can even have at home health aides. Plus, that old stereotype of a New Yorker, you know, somebody killing somebody next to you and nobody trying to stop them: wrong! Ever since 9/11, I think that New Yorkers have become so incredibly nice, so incredibly helpful. The only downside is the economics. Very, very costly here. And even for the costliness, if one really doesn't have enough money, there are also programs. I can't believe the number of programs that are available for people who are in a low income situation, be it in housing, or health, or what have you.
If you had to choose, what would be your strangest NYC moment?
The blackout/brownout in the summer of 2002. I was at the United Nations, so that's 42nd and 1st, and at the time I was living way up at 110th on the West side and Broadway, and I had to walk from one place to the other. As I walked, I saw people were really kind and nobody was taking advantage of anybody. People were out on the street directing traffic, they had their car radios on so you could listen to the news, there were stores selling food for pennies, and they were giving away water. I was absolutely amazed at that. Then I got to my apartment, and by that time it really was quite dark, and I lived somewhere around the tenth floor. I had to go up the stairwell and there weren't and emergency lights, but people had opened the doors to the hallways and their own apartments so as you walked up the stairs you had some kind of light. And then when it got darker, people had candles. And the fact that relatively nothing bad happened was just awesome to me.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York City?
I would like to reduce the traffic and the noise pollution. I think it's gotten over the top. I also think we would talk about having lights longer, the walk signs, so that people who had to walk slowly could get across easier. But, in general, the noise pollution and the automobile traffic is a big issue for urban areas all around the world, and we need to improve the subway systems, we need to improve our bus system, maybe even start doing something else in the area.
Lastly, which New Yorker do you admire most?
For me, on a very personal level, it is a woman named Helen Hamlin. Helen is going to be eighty-five this year, and she was the chair of the United Nations committee on aging when I first came. She has been my mentor, my supporter, my introduction to so many things. We go to the theater together, we go to museums together, and we go to concerts together. She was the one who suggested that I might want to participate in the Gray Panthers. She is very involved in a number of the aging organizations and is very intelligent. And I still can't walk as fast as she does. She just speeds down these sidewalks and in and out of people, so I'm always running to catch up to her, and she just says, "Judy, I'm a New Yorker."
To learn more about The Gray Panthers, visit GrayPanthers.org.