Raising again their Raging voices

By: - August 5, 2020 12:20 pm

Members of the Raging Grannies of Madison walk from the federal courthouse to the state Capitol on Tuesday. “We call ourselves ‘Sisters in Sass,'” says Bonnie Block, who helped organize the demonstration. The quotations in captions throughout this photo series are hers. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

It had been months since they felt they could get together safely. But on Tuesday, Aug. 4, a dozen Raging Grannies decided they could wait no longer to once more raise their voices in song for peace and justice.

News of the federal incursion of militarized law enforcement agents in Portland, Ore., propelled them to action. “That just seemed like we had to do something,” says Bonnie Block, who helped convene Tuesday’s demonstration.

And so there they were:  a band of seasoned social activists, clad in colorful, loose, long frocks to mock stereotypes of “frumpy old people” in Block’s words — and masked to prevent the spread of germs —  gathered outside the federal courthouse in Madison just a few blocks from the state Capitol.

They brought along a clothes line, loops knotted in every 7 feet for participants to hold on to so that they maintained a safe distance from one another — like the masks, a concession to the COVID-19 pandemic. They hung signs from the clothesline with clothespins, and there was no ambiguity about their messages:

     “We Stand With Portland”

     “Black Lives Matter”

     “Feds Off City Streets”

     “Pull Up Your Shorts And Vote!”

Photo by Erik Gunn

In normal times, they are a singing group, with a repertoire of more than 170 songs, typically new words to old favorites, all of them with pointed messages about climate change, democracy reform, ending war, environmental justice, LGBTQ rights and more. In Madison, they formed in 2003 as part of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Madison chapter, but they’re part of a loose international movement that traces its roots back to peace activists in Victoria, British Columbia, in Canada in 1986.

Their growth in Madison may owe something to former Gov. Scott Walker, whose Act 10 in 2011 all but erased union rights for public employees. Not that either of them would see eye to eye.

“We almost doubled in size during the 2011 uprising,” says Block. “Because we were here a lot — we would sing, we would be in the Capitol,” joining the Solidarity Sing-Alongs in the rotunda. “A few of us did nonviolence training at night,” Block adds.

Until the pandemic, the group would regularly gather and sing at the Dane County Farmers’  Market on the Capitol Square. (The market on the Square is closed down for 2020, although farmers are offering other options including pickup and a test site at Willow Island.) They’ve worked with community activists getting out the vote and helped organize groups of Grannies elsewhere around the state, says Block.

“We’ve been feeling really badly because we can’t go [now],” says Block. “But we’ve not been singing since COVID hit. Because it’s a great way normally to spread germs.”

Even as protests sprang up, and persisted, around the state following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, they sat, reluctantly, on the sidelines.

Then came Portland.

“We really feel we have to make a statement, we have got to somehow not be silent,” says Block. “And we have to speak against violence. Because the majority of the protesters, especially the Black Lives movement, what they’re wanting is justice. And they have every right to it. And we need to somehow support that.”

Photo by Erik Gunn

They had planned not to sing on Tuesday — “Please Imagine Us Singing” was one of the signs they carried — but in the end they could not resist, masks and all. As they strolled up State Street toward the Capitol, they effortlessly sang (to the tune of “Glowworm”),

     Join with the raging, raging grannies

     Time to get up off your fannies

     The world needs folks to take a stand

      And that’s why we are grans!

“We just wanted to see if we could do this, and still feel safe,” Block says. “Given the turnout and the enthusiasm, I’m kind of thinking we probably are going to do it again. In fact, I hope regularly. Because I think it’s important for this voice to be heard and seen.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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