The council doesn't have time to listen to your talk about driving classes, cribbage, or what's on TV. They have an agenda, and they work harder and more vigilantly at it than activist groups whose members walk without canes. They are a standard presence at every march and rally in Seattle, bundled up in head scarves and Sunday hats, often being carted away by cops while wearing bright orange T-shirts with "Shame!" printed on them. At rallies for issues with almost no implications for senior citizens -- say, the protest against police brutality last fall -- they turn out in huge numbers. They scream and speechify.
The group's parent organization -- the National Council of Senior Citizens -- was formed by retired union members who came together in the '60s when labor was struggling to get Medicare. The national organization doesn't characterize itself as radical, but Seattle's 350-member branch sure does. Their digs in the Seattle Labor Temple, piled high with paper and stinking of stale decaf, is about the only place you can hear un-watered down, un-jaded, fierce political talk around here. The old folks come from a radical, uncompromising tradition, foreign to activists of a younger age. Will Parry, the group's 79-year-old president, heard Eugene Debs speak, and still talks like him. "Socialism is inevitable in this country, and it won't be shoved down anyone's throat except the bosses," he says in casual conversation.
At any and every event, Parry can be found clad in a suit, scribbling furiously in a reporter's notebook. He sends the organization's newsletter, Senior News ("a strong cup of tea," says Parry), which features screaming headlines like "When Will We Stop Building Prisons?" to every politician in the area. In person, he's quite subdued, a perfect foil for his 78-year-old wife Louise, who can at any time of day, at a moment's notice, be moved to scream about the struggle, fist pumping in the air, absolutely not taking no for an answer!
Louise and Will Parry, who proudly report that they were born the year after the country's only general strike took place in Seattle, met working on a political campaign for Hugh Delacey, who was running for Congress in what's now Jim McDermott's district. Their political consciousness was raised by the suffering borne of the Depression, as well as the way many progressive social programs ended with the war. WWII necessitated 24-hour health care and workplace integration for women and minorities. Louise, for instance, enjoyed her job as a welder, but that only lasted while the men were away. Then it was back to "every grungy women's job: phone operator, garment worker, secretary."
"Everything changed," she says. "Shipyards that had been integrated went back to being racist, and there was a big Republican sweep in 1946, much like the one in 1994."
Talking to Will and Louise Parry, one gets a sense of the cyclical nature of politics. They have trouble separating the battles; was Will arrested after protesting the state house un-American activities hearing in 1948? No, he was merely kicked out of the chambers by "that narrow-minded little bastard from Spokane." He was arrested when picketing the home of a South African consulate officer ("so-called" arrested, Louise corrects him).
Although the details have faded, the indignation hasn't. They are still furious about battles that have long since come and gone -- the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited the power of unions; the effort to repeal the sales tax on food -- just as they are about the collapsing of welfare programs and a lack of child care. They are still furious because they see all of this as one ongoing, all-encompassing battle, and unlike many activists half their age, this idea does not exhaust them or burn them out.
"We do tire more physically," Will says, "but that's it." Only two things deter PSCSC: Metro has cut van service, which one member suggests may be part of a conspiracy by city government to prevent radical senior citizens from getting to their planning meetings and protests; and, Will adds, "a smaller and smaller group of people are able to be active to go out at night, to stand in freezing winter picket lines. Our members have a rich history of struggle, but they're just too damn old." He's not had much success in his efforts to "replenish the ranks with 60-70-year-olds."
When the rapidly aging baby-boomer population hits 65, our nation will be dominated by their needs and agenda. Many predict that this will mean a resource drain on programs for everyone else, including kids. But the PSCSC flies in the face of assumptions about the way seniors use their political clout -- they protest, write letters, and generally invest time and energy in issues that have little impact on them. Why battle against police brutality and salmon extinction, rather than concentrating on social security, quieter streets, and Medicare?
Louise nearly leaps over the table. "Everything affects everyone! I walked down the street yesterday and a man was lying in the street, and we all stopped and rolled him out of the line of a bus! Things are always going on!"
Mabel Belka, 89, cuts her off. "I have to read the papers, the ones that are good anyway," she says. "I have to stay involved and stay aware of how much there is to do."
"Lots of people, my friends, are not into the struggle, and I feel sorry for them in a way," Louise says. "I get these mailings from the American University Women saying there will be a weaving class or bridge on Thursday." She shrugs, "It's wonderful and nice that people can amuse themselves, but life has a point to it."