A Seasoned Practitioner of the Protest : Behavior: From the Vietnam to the Persian Gulf wars, Jeanie Bernstein has spent much of her 67 years carrying a sign. ‘After all these years, I’m still not used to it,’ she admits.
She’s the woman who has been standing outside the Federal Building in Santa Ana for the last two weeks, holding a “No Blood for Oil” sign and deflecting the insults hurled by passing motorists.
“We do support our troops!” she steadfastly insists when they honk and shout. “We want them home alive!”
Twenty years ago, she marched against the Vietnam War alongside college students her children’s age. She toted “Impeach Nixon” signs, then “Stop the Arms Race” signs, then “Save the Ozone Layer” pleas.
With the doggedness that others pour into climbing the corporate ladder, Jeanie Bernstein has spent the better part of her 67 years fervently promoting liberal causes.
She’s never held a high-powered job, never run for political office. She’s just another face in the crowd--albeit a small crowd, this hodgepodge of activists now gathering on street corners to decry the Middle East war.
Every weekday since the allied forces in Saudi Arabia attacked Iraq, Bernstein has driven her ’76 Chevrolet pickup--plastered with save-the-planet slogans--from her Laguna Beach home to Santa Ana. There, she and two or three dozen like-minded buddies congregate outside the Federal Building and take on Saddam Hussein, George Bush and the whole wide world.
“I always feel a little ridiculous standing around holding up a sign,” she admitted. “After all these years, I’m still not used to it. Our culture overwhelmingly disapproves of people deliberately making themselves conspicuous.”
The morning after the war began, Bernstein got herself arrested. “I felt I had to do something that would separate me as far as I could be separated from that government,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at the Federal Building.
She and eight other protesters locked hands across Santa Ana Boulevard to block traffic and attract police officers.
“It was not a fun experience,” she said. “I have arthritis; the handcuffs hurt.”
Bernstein was released from jail that afternoon and went right back to the picket line the next day--though on that particular morning, she did not aim to be arrested.
Instead, she just hung out, brandishing an “Impeach Bush” sign that on the other side--from an earlier demonstration--read “Housing Now.” Cars honked both their accord and disapproval.
“You look to see how many fingers they show through the window,” explained one of the protesters. “If they put up two fingers, that means they support you; if they put up one, it’s a different story.”
The patchwork of protesters on one unseasonably warm morning covered a range of ages and styles. There were longhaired men in their 40s who looked as if they belonged to the ‘60s and short-haired men in their 20s who looked as if they belonged to the ‘80s. There were gray-haired women in polyester pantsuits.
And there was Bernstein--a striking woman with dangling earrings, bluejeans jacket, peace sign necklace, lace-up boots. She begs for the hackneyed description “old hippie.”
Bernstein stood off in her own little clique with two longtime friends, Irene Bland and Rosalie Abrams. The women have known each other through their political activities for about 30 years. They gabbed familiarly, but their chat was not small talk. It was weighty talk--highly articulate and passionate.
“We don’t have enough money to educate our own children, and we’re over there killing Iraqi children,” said Bland, a music teacher.
“This is a war of the rich against the poor, and the poor Americans are going to pay for it with their lives,” added Abrams, holding a sign that said, “War Is Good Business--Invest Your Son or Daughter.”
As one observes these practiced protesters--clearly dedicated, sincere and, at least on the Middle East issue, expressing concerns that many Americans have felt during the past six months--you have to wonder: Why? What is the point? Why spend their days attending meetings and hovering together outside government buildings with people who already agree with them? Why endure verbal assaults from people who don’t agree with them and never will?
“You can’t just give up hope.” Bernstein said. “You’ve got to believe that you can make a difference. And I do believe that the peace movement during Vietnam had a lot to do with bringing that war to an end. I do believe that the massive anti-nuclear weapon protests by people like me in Europe and the United States helped bring (Soviet President Mikhail S.) Gorbachev and (former President Ronald) Reagan to the table.”
Almost everyone harbors heartfelt opinions about some social issue, whether it is abortion or censorship or the environment. But taking a personal statement to the streets, Bernstein noted, “is a very difficult step.”
“My husband of 17 years (they were divorced in the early ‘60s) and I saw eye to eye politically; he had strong beliefs, but whatever it is that makes someone pick up a sign just didn’t come to him,” Bernstein said. “It’s hard to put your finger on what moves someone from sympathy to action, from conviction to the willingness to risk ridicule. Maybe we’re born with it.”
Even as a child, Bernstein said, she asked herself the question: “Why was I born? Why am I allowed the ecstasy of existence? What is demanded of me? How can I use my life to perpetuate and revere all life?”
As she has grown older, Bernstein has become less self-conscious and guarded about her political activism. “I no longer have to worry about what effect this might have on my children. Back in my PTA days, that was a constant concern: What will others think? What will the neighbors think?
“I’ve lived long enough that I am pretty sure of myself. And if carrying signs can somehow help bring this (war) to a conclusion sooner rather than later, well, then I must take action.”
She was at home now, in between a morning demonstration and an evening rally, curled up with a cup of tea in her living-room chair. Guests bustled in and out: two friends had just departed, and her pregnant daughter and son-in-law, visiting from out of town, were making lunch in the kitchen.
Her sunny house is surrounded by trees and plants; the ocean glistens through the westward-facing window. But first you notice the adjacent wall--a colorful mural painted by her late boyfriend. It is a mass of surrealistic nudes with peace signs floating among them. One of her daughters, then a teen-ager, was embarrassed by it initially, Bernstein recalled with a laugh, and refused to bring friends over.
The boyfriend was Peter Carr, a popular professor at Cal State Long Beach who died of a heart attack 10 years ago. He moved in with Bernstein in 1966, a few years after her divorce. In a reversal of parent-child roles, her youngest daughter frowned upon the living arrangement.
“She was our rebel,” Bernstein said, lending the word untraditional meaning. “She was the one who read Cosmopolitan magazine and totally disapproved of the counterculture movement.”
Carr and Bernstein never wed, she said, because “we were too romantic to get married.”
“He’d had an unhappy marriage, I’d had an unhappy marriage. We thought that contracts don’t make a happy union. Though from time to time we did think about getting engaged.”
Her roots in pacifism go back to her youth when she was berated for being a Jew. Later, she became angered at the derogatory labels that Americans applied to the Japanese during World War II.
“I knew it was wrong to condemn whole ethnic groups,” Bernstein said. “All during the Cold War, we were told that the Russians were an evil empire--you can’t reason with them, they don’t think and feel like we do. And now we’re doing it again with the Iraqis. How can we be led down that path of lies over and over again?”
Her soft, soothing voice occasionally cracked with passion. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that before the first bomb was dropped (on Iraq), the majority of the American people wanted to give sanctions more time to work,” she said. “But now people are afraid to appear unpatriotic.”
Jewish Americans such as herself were forced into an emotional conflict when President Bush kicked off the military conflict, Bernstein said: “Once you hear that missiles are being launched at Israel, and you have friends and relatives there, you want those missile launchers destroyed. It’s a terrible, painful, anguished dilemma.”
She has had a good life, she concedes. Four children, to whom she has remained close. One grandchild and another on the way. A husband who provided a comfortable income. A boyfriend who was her soul mate.
But in moments of frustration, the Middle East war causes her to question the purpose of devoting that life to the peace movement.
“I just feel wrenched that, in spite of the fact that this country didn’t want to go to war, our leaders took us to war. What was it for--those years of demonstrating against Vietnam and against the arms race? What was it all for, my life?”
As the latest in her stream of visitors prepared to depart, Bernstein closed with a request:
“Please don’t make me sound like some kooky radical.”