Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Interviewed at her home in Santa Fe, NM, November 7, 2008.
E: Catherine, could you tell us a little bit about where you were in 1983 and how you heard about the peace camp?
C: I had been living in Provincetown and I had been working on a book project as a photographer and I met someone who started talking to me about the peace camps in Europe and telling me that I needed to go there and photograph. So when my lease was up in June- I was only in Provincetown temporarily – I decided to go to and photograph the peace camp movement in Europe. And that was the era when there were demonstrations of nine hundred thousand, a million people in major cities in Europe to keep the and Cruise (1) and Pershing (2) missiles from coming to Europe under Ronald Reagan. And, so I went and I traveled the length and breadth of Europe hitchhiking. I hitchhiked twice from the top of Scotland to the boot of Italy by myself in that summer, so strong was my resolve to help in any way I could to stop this nuclear missile system from happening. So I went from the top of Scotland to the women’s camp in Comiso (3). I have great pictures of all of that, really beautiful stuff. And when I came back, my friend Andrea Kirsh picked me up at the airport and we drove to Seneca. And I stayed there. And it was an extension of this photography project, that was also very personal, obviously, to photograph what was happening in America as well. I loved it so much I ended up staying until October. So that’s what happened, that’s what I was doing.
E: . And over that summer, did you participate in actions?
C: Oh, totally. Basically I was documenting, photographing. But then I took on the assignment of Food Coordinator for the whole summer which was unbelievable. (laughter) So, I was responsible for and went all over the area, all the counties there, collecting free food, free tofu, free soy milk, free zucchinis. You remember the zucchinis (shared laughter)? Keeping the kitchen marginally together, you know, getting the crew together for dinner every single day. We would go through what was there and we would decide what was going to happen and my thing was that I was actually trying to educate about food at the same time and keep the food simple and, kind of Zen-like. I remember one rule that we had was no more than three ingredients in any particular supper, so that things stayed simple and the idea was that if we nurtured, nourished, ourselves on the highest level, that our activism and our actions would really benefit the harvest that we were trying to reap, which it did in the end, actually. We were trying to infiltrate food combining information into it because you remember how chaotic it could become and I was there all the time trying to get it to be simple and organized and clean-all that stuff. So that was a huge main job that I did for the whole summer. I remember raising my hand in one of those early circles for who would like to be Food Coordinator and I remember my hand going up as if it was a puppet on a string (laughter). Who said that? (laughter) So I kind of stayed out of jail because I always had my camera with me. I did go over the fence and I remember at one point going over the fence and leaving my camera behind and getting arrested and spending a night or something like that in jail. I do remember that and handing my camera off to somebody and just going over the fence once and I was there for every action practically, up and down that road photographing. But I felt more like a support person, for the persons who were actually going over the fence all the time and I did a lot of support stuff food-wise, all that kind thing.
H: When you were doing your Europe tour and photographing, did you get involved with actions or coordinate things?
C: No, I didn’t do actions, I just photographed. I wasn’t coordinating any because I was moving around. I went to all the different women’s peace camps and there were many of them at that time and I traveled to all of them hitchhiking.
H: Prior to the Europe trip did you know that the peace camp at Seneca was in existence?
C: I knew it was being organized. I can’t remember where it first started, New York City? Do you remember?
H: Well the idea of it from what we’ve heard from women who talk about it is that the Pentagon actions were happening in ’80 and ’81 and they were very much germinating the idea.
C: I was involved in the Women’s Pentagon Actions (4). Yeah, definitely - surrounding the Pentagon, [making humming noise] making it disappear, and that kind of thing. [laughter] I was involved in that and I must have had an inkling because I was pretty plugged in at that time to all kinds of things and so I probably knew and I organized this trip to Europe – I think it was six weeks that I went to Europe and did this and then came back and, and had it all planned that I would be there for the opening of the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment and I was there for the first day.
H: And when you arrived did you have a sense of how long you planned to stay or what would happen next?
C: No idea.
H: The photographs that you took across Europe, how did they become a part of your life or other people’s lives, or what happened with them?
C: Well, I remember, especially after Seneca, I did presentations and slideshows and publishing and all kinds of things. I can’t quite remember all of it now, but it was a very fertile, very active time for me. A lot of attention, a lot of action, with my work. It was a great time. I can’t remember all of that, I have it all upstairs though [laughter].
E: And at what point did you put the book (5) together?
C: I put the book together with Cristina [Biaggi, see Herstory 053] that fall, 1984. The peace camp, ended in October 1983 and then we worked on this. Cristina and I were living together at the time and we worked on this that fall and then we went to Nicaragua in 1984. That was intense. That was incredible, too. So all that came out of Seneca. It just never stopped for me – then I went to South Africa and for 10 years I worked on issues in South Africa. I was living in NYC but back and forth.
E: Were there relationships that you made at the camp that continued over a period of time?
C: Definitely, definitely. I think I met Betsy Bauer at the peace camp and she remains today one of my best friends. Laura Flanders is still a good friend of mine. Can’t remember if I met Satway there or if I knew Satway before. Samoa, I met there. I saw her for a long time until she moved here and then had a child and I’ve talked to her on the phone but I haven’t actually seen her since then. It certainly was very bonding for me and Cristina. Cassandra White - any number of women that I still see, but now because there’ve been so many experiences since then, I’m not quite sure, you know, was it Seneca? Or was it post-Seneca?
E: Is there anything you remember which you had gotten specifically from Seneca? Did anything change as far as your thinking or awareness?
C: I think that I was already in such awareness but I think it really deepened my commitment, my awareness. I’d been an activist for a long time, really since I was 14 years old, through the Vietnam War, through the feminist movement, through the gay movement, through the peace movement, lots of different movements coalescing, but Seneca certainly was very, very special. It was all women. It made a commitment, I think, to maintain, to be an activist and to stay an activist. And it was just so much fun, I mean, where else would you want to be? You know, if you knew about it, where else would you possibly, could you possibly want [laughter] to be.
H: Aside from being women, what about it was special or fun?
C: Everyday it was just a complete malarkey, I mean, every day living in a community like that, and it was an anarchist community, would you say? It was just so much fun. I mean, every day, every minute, it was fun.
E: What made it work? It was such an anarchistic community and yet we managed to do consensus, basically resolve some heavy-duty issues like the flag issue. What do you suppose happened or made that magic?
C: I think it was a wave that had a time and was a moment. Just like right now, we’re having the same kind of experience of how is this possibly happening- the Barack Obama phenomenon. It just has risen in the cultural landscape and that’s what happened back then, too, and it’s hard to remember because it’s not happening on that level now for us. Now, it might be happening for those young people who are involved in the anti-globalization campaigns or the animal rights campaigns or some of the other campaigns that are really happening right now. I think it has partly to do with the time of our lives that it was happening. I was in my early 30’s when that was happening and I can’t imagine doing it now. I really can’t, because it really was quite chaotic [laughter], you know, I’m not sure I could handle it. I would if there was something that had to happen, I would surely be there…, but, it took a certain kind of energy, I think, which is youthful. Which I think is what’s happening in the globalization movement, now. I am completely supportive of the anti-globalization movement, but I have not been able to get actively involved – going to Seattle (6), going to the conferences in Europe and all that. And I probably would have been doing that if I were younger.
E: Do you think that home security has made it much more difficult to have any kind of a gathering and make the kind of difference that was made at Seneca? With the changes, the repression-well, I certainly feel that there’s a lot of repression now that we didn't have at that point.
C: I do, too. The police are much scarier now, however, I think we’ve turned a corner on that. We went down a very dark path where we were at risk of losing our democracy and we did lose pieces of it. I think people have woken up. I don’t think we’re going to let that happen again for a very long time until another generation kind of forgets. But I think this movement that I’ve just seen and have been involved with to elect Barack Obama has been a kind of taking back our country, our democracy, whatever you want to call it. Our freedom – we’ve taken it back - the only way it could have been taken back and that’s by the people. And it wasn’t in the street. It was online. It was in another world, another galaxy in cyberspace where the organizing happened so you didn’t have to go anywhere. It was so amazing. You could be completely involved and you didn’t have to go anywhere to do it. So, it’s another world. We didn’t have the Internet in 1983. Think of what Seneca would have been like had we had the Internet. We probably would have had a million people. Know what I remember? I have a great picture of Bella Abzug (7) in the closet making phone calls to the governor of New York State. I imagine the whole thing would have been so different. Somehow the Internet and our ability to communicate the way we can communicate now has conditioned our activism. Everybody knows this. I mean MoveOn.org can mobilize millions of people in a minute. So, it’s a whole different world but I think also that we’ve been in a real sort of scary fascist-y moment. It’s similar to the Reagan moment, in my opinion. It has been a similar moment with Bush. It’s been pushing in that same direction, you know, covert action but I think we’ve turned a corner, a big corner that goes back to the Reagan era. The work that we were doing in Seneca has led to this moment now. All that work we did in classism and racism and consensus process and talking to your enemy – do you remember talking to those people from Romulus and trying to discuss with them? That was amazing work that we did. I don’t remember the conversations but I remember the people. And I remember the resolve that I had, to be Gandhi. To meet these people, who really wanted to kill us and if they had their druthers, would have and meeting that energy with an open heart, with peace in mind, was huge. It was tremendous for me personally. I think it was for all of us who had to go up against them on a daily basis, which we did. I don’t really know what happened to those people, it would be interesting to interview some of them. There’s this one [looking through book], “Nuke ‘em ‘til they glow and then shoot them in the dark,” that’s what they said about us. Those people were serious. If we hadn’t had the police in between us, it would have been a very different story.
E: And strange that it wasn’t them that were arrested.
C: Well, that’s right, that goes on. The police are a part of the state - not for us. It’s a complicated subject, but, you know, in this case we were basically attacking a military installation…, the police were called out to keep us from doing that. [looking through book] I’m trying to find that incredible picture [man with gun at Waterloo incident]
H: Do you have many more photos that aren’t in there?
C: Oh yes, many, many, many.
E: We’ve collected quite a number of photos and, I don’t know if you know, but we have an online archive that we’re developing. Not only would the stuff be at Schlesinger but also available to all the young people who might be interested in generations to come because I do think that what we did there was like a volcano that erupted and that we took what we learned there back to our communities and cities and home bases and out of that things really changed.
C: I think it’s been part of it, it’s definitely part of it. There’s a piece in the NY Times today and this guy was on Charlie Rose. He’s a Harvard professor who either taught Obama or taught with Obama, and he talks about the linkage of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement going back to abolitionist days and he talks about that connection and he talks about how integral the women’s movement was to the election of Barack Obama.
E: A little piece that I just want to let you know... that things did eventually change in the community surrounding the encampment and that eventually we were called to the school to talk as community resources. And so things did over time change. I would love to hear interviews with lots of people to see what happened for them and what life was like on each side of the fence…Do you remember any discussion around shaking the fence or cutting the fence and what was okay to do or not do?
C: I remember discussions but I don’t remember any thing specific. I wouldn’t remember specifically. I remember there were LOTS of discussions [laughter] and part of being a photographer was sort of being able to stay out of that realm of things. That really wasn’t my realm, getting into all those discussions. It’s still not my realm. It’s not what I like to do. I don’t like to get into long, complicated, difficult discussions. I just like standing outside being a witness and photographing. That’s not how I would be best used and still to this day, it’s just not where I like to spend my energy. Getting attached to my position and then fighting whatever, even building consensus around it. I didn’t spend a lot of time engaged in those discussions. No, I stayed out of that part of it.
E: And aren’t we glad that we have lots of photographs [laughter] of those kinds of things that did go on ’cause there were women…
C: Yeah, and the passion of it all.
H: I’m curious about the time that you spent in Europe before you got to the encampment. Did you remember at the time, some differences between what you saw in Europe or what you brought from your experiences in Europe to Seneca encampment?
C: You know, Seneca was an American encampment, and it was American women, but the structure, the vibrancy, the rough and tumble of it, the commitment, on those levels it was the same. I did go to some peace camps that were mixed – men and women, and those were interesting, but it was the same sort of basic set-up. Seneca was modeled on Greenham Common (8). They all were modeled on Greenham Common because Greenham Common was the first. So all the other peace camps had a flavor that you first felt at Greenham, you know, that you felt at Seneca. The peace camp movement had a kind of identity, a flavor, a spirit.
H: Did you meet women from Europe or Greenham at Seneca?
C: Yeah, the first two women who crossed the line – which is really one of the great pictures, I think in this book [referring to her book], Becky and Cassandra were both from Greenham, and they were very young.
H: Can you describe, just for folks that don’t know what we’re talking about, what the line was and it's significance.
C: The line was crossed you got arrested.
H: And, it was scary to cross that line because you really didn’t know what was going to happen when you got arrested. They were the first and it was right then [referring to photograph on cover of book]. It was just after that moment-
C: …they went across a yellow line on the ground.
H: Was there something significant about the fact that they were Greenham women who did it?
C: I think so. They were brave. They were ready. They’d seen it. They had been there. They had done it already. It’s not as if the women from Seneca waited for them to cross the line. No. They went. It’s not as if there were women clamoring to go first [laughter]. No, they went first. They, took the step which allowed a lot of other steps to be taken. They did it because they were brave, maybe, at that moment. At the moment, they were the bravest, they were the first.
H: What was your personal understanding of non-violence in that time period?
C: I had been a student of non-violence, of Gandhi, since the civil rights movement. I was very young but I was still involved, and wanting more. I was involved in the Vietnam war demonstrations always as a nonviolent activist. When I was in college, there was a lot of activity going on. I started college in 1967 so, I was involved in a lot of activism and a lot of demonstrations, a lot of discussion of how it should go. And I always took the stand of nonviolence. I don’t know where exactly that came from, in me, it’s just where I stood. And during the Vietnam war demonstrations there was a lot of violence. On my college campus there was a lot of violence and a lot of trashing of property. It’s not that I condemned that stand, it just wasn’t my stand, and I remember during the demonstrations at my college, Stanford, there were lines of people throwing Molotov cocktails and screaming at the police and then the police were on the other side and they were beating on people and there was this group of us who would try to put ourselves in between the two and just stand there for nonviolence. For both sides because I believed Martin Luther King. That was my teacher. I felt that the ultimate change would come about through nonviolence, not through violence. And I didn’t want to participate in violence and I never have wanted to and I never have. I never have gone that route. It’s not that I condemned it, I don’t, it’s just people have their different paths, you know, in these kinds of conflicts. I mean, I spent ten years working in South Africa and I knew people who were getting killed and who were killing and I never condemned them for that because obviously in that situation, it would be a hard line to draw. What made the difference was the people who were bombing and sabotaging or the people who were standing in the Gandhian tradition of nonviolence. Mandela was not standing in the Gandhian tradition of nonviolence. He was part of the Spear of the Nation which was the violent wing of the African National Congress. That’s why he was in prison such a long time. You had people in both of those camps in South Africa and simply, my camp has always been the nonviolent camp, which is to say that I would not condemn what those people did. I supported, I supported not with my physical body because that would not work for me. I believe in nonviolence. I actually believe in it. I really believe in it. It might take longer, that’s why I love the Dali Lama, he’s never backed off of that, and he’s gotten a lot of criticism, from, from young people in Tibet, but he’s never backed down off of that. And I, that’s just where I am.
H: And did you find kinship among women that you met at Seneca?
C: Yeah. Sure, I think that was the main emphasis, certainly it was the main emphasis, you know, rabble-rousers, yes, but nonviolent, committed, dedicated to that Gandhian principal of nonviolence.
H: Do you remember any philosophical conflicts in terms of the things women talked about over and over again such as the painting of the water tower, that stands out in women’s minds? Some people thought that property damage was violence.
C: I don’t believe that property damage is violence. I think there’s quite a long way between property damage and hurting people, you know, and my self personally, I’ve never damaged property. I just don’t want to do that kind of damage, but I don’t know, situations sometimes really call for it. What made the difference in some of the things that I remember really making a difference in the Vietnam war movement were the bombing of the Bank of America in Santa Barbara, the burning down of the R.O.T.C. building on my own campus. Those kinds of things made a difference because people respond to that, but I personally just wouldn’t have the guts for it. It just wasn’t my thing, it wasn’t the people that I was surrounded by, we weren’t going there, weren’t doing that.
H: Being a young activist what kind of reaction or support or non-support did your family exhibit?
C: I don’t think they had a clue what I was doing. Not a clue. Well, I used to write long, heartfelt letters to them. My father was certainly an activist in his own right, not to the extent that I have been but he was certainly on my side. My mother, however, grew more and more on my side as things went on but I don’t think they had a clue. When I think about hitchhiking from the top of Scotland to the bottom of Italy, twice, by myself in one summer and the experiences that I had trying to do that, I think, how could I? The fact that I survived it is pretty incredible, but if my mother had had the slightest idea of what I was doing I just don’t have any idea what she would have done. She didn’t know, didn’t have a clue what I was up to. She didn’t approve of me, you know, basically, because I was gay.
E: Are you an only child?
C: No. I have a brother who died just last winter in an avalanche. I had a young sister who was quite an activist herself. She was at the Poor Peoples Campaign march (10) whenever that was, 1965 in Washington D.C., and she died when she was 18. And then, I just have me and my sister, both of my parents are dead. So everything is impermanent - the camp, my mother, your mother. It’s fascinating. Violence, I think is important. I think people who can do it, it obviously has a place in our universe because it’s so prevalent. I was the last person to be in Gandhi’s house in South Africa before it was destroyed in 1985 and that was a tremendous experience. That was after Seneca, so, you know, in a way Seneca was a proving ground. Seneca made me keep going in all this stuff. I’m trying to write a piece about this. The story of the Phoenix Settlement has been published, but my story of the Phoenix Settlement and being the last person to be in Gandhi’s house before it was destroyed, that’s a very powerful story of nonviolence, and the power of it. So, Seneca made me the activist, you know. Seneca was very important. Other things were too, and I wanted to go back also, right before Seneca in 1982 to one of the things that I did. I did the World Peace Walk with the Buddhist monks that went to NYC for the 2nd Special Session on Disarmament in 1982. So I walked 900 miles from Montreal to NYC chanting to support the 2nd Special Session on Disarmament. That was the largest gathering in America up until that point – a million people in Central Park. I don’t know if you remember that but there were five walks that converged and I was on one of those walks. So that was very important to me, to be with these Buddhist monks for that extended period of time walking and we did lots of actions, we did lots of things. We sat up one night at Graten overlooking the Trident submarines manufacturing plant. We did all night chanting in the rain and I saw that this was more powerful than those nuclear weapons that they were building. I just saw it as clear as day during that 24-hour, all-night chanting sitting in the rain in banana boxes with garbage bags keeping us dry. I just saw that it was more powerful and I think that confirmed my being a nonviolent activist. It started with 12 people in Montreal in a blizzard and it ended with 80 people in NYC. So we picked up people along the way and it only got bigger. We stopped in all these little towns and spoke and it was an organizing tool…the march itself. I had been a Buddhist, peripherally since the 70s. I began meditation practice in 1971, I took various teachings and various vows, percepts and all that, in the 70s. I took the Bodhisattva vow in 1980. That’s all about nonviolence, too.
E: For people who might not have any background or knowledge, could you speak just about what that vow is?
C: Well, the Bodhisattva vow basically says, I vow to return until all sentient beings are liberated. So, that means, that even if you as an individual become enlightened, in the Buddhist cosmology of reincarnation, that if you don’t really have to come back to this world of birth and death and suffering, that you will come anyway to help others. It’s a huge commitment. So that’s what it’s been about for me ever since then, well, how can I help? And sometimes that, “How can I help?”, is something like Seneca and sometimes that, “How can I help?” is going on a month-long meditation retreat, being as quiet and as silent as you can be, but my experience is that most Buddhists are quite good activists.
H: I’m curious about the time when you were at Seneca during that summer in ’83. Eminent deployment of Cruise of Pershing was going to happen in the fall of that year, give us your sense of what Europe’s sentiment was like. Was there a feeling that they could stop deployment with their protests? Was it something you believed could happen when you were at Seneca?
C: Yes. Absolutely. That’s what we were doing, you know, we were stopping it. We didn’t stop it, unfortunately. We probably stopped some of it, but we had to do what we had to do. We had to try and we did, I mean, Greenham Common is now a Commons again. Seneca is closed. I don’t quite know where everything goes now – the military industrial complex is huge, it’s enormous, but I’m feeling, this is a long-term process. What we did in Seneca is manifesting now and into the future. It wasn’t one summer, it was a trajectory that is still manifesting now in the election of a peace candidate for president of this country. He voted against the Iraq war. We have never had that especially in a time of war, to elect a candidate who is so clearly an anti-war candidate and maybe even more so than we can imagine, but I really feel that he is gonna stop all this nonsense. Not by himself, but I think the time is now. This people's movement is a movement through time. That was a moment of the movement through time but it is continuing in the hearts and minds of the generation that is following us.
H: Any feelings once those missiles were deployed?
C: Europeans were terrified, don’t you remember? We were absolutely terrified. What was how many minutes to midnight? We were on the brink of nuclear war, and I think we felt that and that’s why hundreds of thousands, 900 thousand, a million, 800 thousand in every major city in Europe that summer, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated. We had to do our part over here.
E: Do you think the European populations were more aware of it?
C: Yes, because they were coming to them. How would you feel if the country of France tried to put one here? I think we wouldn’t allow it. And they tried everything they could to not allow it and it’s still going on. This whole Soviet Union, the Cold War, all of that is still playing itself out. It’s not over. This whole event that just happened in Georgia, it’s the same struggle, the same fight. We’re still involved in the same struggles, the putting of a missile defense in Poland and that whole thing, that whole checkmate thing, it’s still going on but there’s always hope. Hope springs eternal. I’m an eternal optimist. I will not die until we have removed [laughter] the nuclear missiles from our world. I [laughter] can’t go. Think of the women, think of what’s happening with the black people now. People who grew up in the 50s and are seeing what they’re seeing now, that didn’t happen overnight. So, you know, it’s a process. But in my mind, we are all intended to live in peace and we just have to get there and it takes a while. And finding peace in yourself, I mean, you have lifetime, all right, of trying to get there. I have a lifetime of trying to get there, Hershe has a lifetime of trying to get there. Okay, how far have we gotten so far? We still have a ways to go and it’s not easy. Lifetimes and lifetimes. I think that’s why the Dali Lama isn’t really so upset about the whole situation because he knows from such a deep, spiritual place what it takes. Think of Lucretia Mott(9). We were just there at that wonderful museum, with her great, great granddaughter who is still working, it’s, it’s almost as if she is Lucretia, and it’s still going on through her and the work that she’s doing. The issues, they are the same but yet they are different. And it’s incremental, it’s little by little, step by step.
H: Tell us a little bit about that trip.
C: Oh, it was great. I was going to say I went with Lucretia, [laughter]. I went with Eydie and Cristina, an other really great activist and friend, a wonderful, spiritual practitioner from the Bay-area. And we all were just weeping, it was so beautiful, that document that was drafted there in Seneca Falls, in the 1840s or 60s, I can’t remember but, it was just so powerful to think of women, coming together and Susan B. Anthony’s house and drafting this and writing it up, no typewriters, no computers, no nothing, writing it out. It was so poetic and so profound and beautiful and spiritual and so true. So absolutely true!
E: Yeah, one of the things I find amazing is just how the women traveled to be together to do it and the distances between Rochester and Seneca Falls.
C: Yes! horse carts! horse carts! This is fun!
H: This is great. It’s our favorite thing in the world.
C: Yeah, I can imagine.
H: This is our, you’re our 100th, our 100th interview.
C: Woah. That’s great, that’s great!
H: We’ve got a long way to go, Estelle. [Estelle laughter]
C: I’ll never forget when that bus came from Minneapolis, do you remember that one? I think that one of the things that was so great about it is that it was so present a moment, it was so in the now. I mean, there was absolutely no other time or place, it wa a total present, now moment. Every moment of it was.
E: Right. I remember those women getting off the bus just unloading their own stoves and stuff and yet we were cooking on the open fires. But wait, we’ll get to that [laughter], let’s go back and finish seneca Falls.
H: So you were at the museum and you said, let’s do a road trip.
C: Yeah, let’s go on a road trip because Eydie was with us. Being with Eydie is really like being with Lucretia Mott, for me, t’s so powerful to be with her because of the palpable presence. Lucretia Mott was a Quaker and Eydie was raised as a Quaker and she still speaks to her. She’s one of the people who for me, embodies nonviolence in such a profound way. And she still speaks with her family in ‘thee’ and ‘thine.’ She’s a great teacher of mine, Eydie is. I want to acknowledge her. She wasn’t at Seneca but she surely would’ve been. She was on the West coast, so she didn’t really know about it . We left Ithaca that morning by car and we were going for the whole day.
We were going to the museum and to the Seneca peace camp. When we were at the peace camp we never went to the museum and we never went to Seneca Falls, and it was called the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp, even though it was in Romulus. So, I just had never gone to this museum and so the motivation of the museum being there, Eydie being with us, we were just really, high energy wanting to do this. Eydie and I have been kind of on a Lucretia Mott thing because I actually go to Nantucket in the summer, I have a lot of family that convene there in the summer and Eydie has been coming to visit me in Nantucket and so we’ve done the whole Lucretia Mott historical tour of Nantucket together and you look at Lucretia Mott and you look at Eydie and they just look exactly alike. So it’s just something for me to be, it, it’s almost as if I was present then and now I’m present now and some of the same people who were there then are here now and we’re all still doing it together and we’ve been doing it ever since it started. There was this moment at Greenham that I will never forget, one of the powerful moments, really, of my life. This was after thirty thousand women had surrounded the 7-mile perimeter of Greenham Common in December of 1983 - I went to Greenham twice, once before Seneca and once after. And this was in December and it was snowing. Thirty thousand women surrounded the fence and they had pots and pans and they started first with silence for about a half an hour. Utter silence of thirty thousand women and then they started banging the pots and pans, until it just became this cacophony. The police were on the inside of the fence and all, running around. They were just crazy, they were so terrified of what we might do. And then the women started shaking the fence, just taking it down and it was quite a bloody battle. Women were dragged through barbed wire by their hair and arrested and it was awful, but it was incredibly powerful. And late that night, we were camped in the woods all bundled up, the snow falling, and there was a, group of women fire jugglers in a big circle of stones, juggling fire in the middle of this circle, lots of women around having tea, totally exhausted. And there was a woman playing a clarinet, music from the ghetto and I just got this vision, but it was partly just awareness and knowing that we had been doing this forever. Centuries, centuries with the same women, just a new incarnation but that we had been fighting this kind of oppression, this kind of thing for these centuries and we’ve been in the same circles and the same music and the songs …and everything was the same. We’ve been here before, we’ll be here again. It’s us again [laughter], you know.
H: [reciting song lyric] “We are the old women, we are the new women…we are the same women…
H, E and C: “…stronger than before.”
C: I’ve had many, many, many, many experiences of why I’m doing what I’m doing now, how I got here from centuries, millennia, forever.
C: We went to the peace camp, it was, you know, very bedraggled. It was gone but you could still feel the energy but also the reality of impermanence ‘cause it is a strong memory for me. So to go there and have it be completely dissembled, you know, it’s like, there was that little outhouse? That was there and some of the drawings were still on it and there was some graffiti that was still there but it was, it was very pentimento, you know, it was very substrata but it was still kind of hovering there and you could feel it and I thought, well, why didn’t the guy paint the place, why is anything still here? But it’s still there. And then going down to the base, you know, where we walked so many times and the gate being open and we could just drive in and it was just a complete shambles. The water tower still there and everything’s there. And we spent all that time at that gate [laughter], going over it, going under it, going through it, rattling it, doing everything and it’s gone. It was very curious to go back. What it sets off in you.
H: Did you walk on the land at the encampment?
C: Yeah, we did. We walked on the land. I didn’t go all the way back down because it was kind of, it was a little bit spooky. It was a little bit okay, that was then, this is now. But it was interesting. It was fun and I was with some really strong women, really good women, so it was cool, it was great. And the beauty of the area where we were, I mean, the beauty of the lake. I remember so many times of taking off at the end of the day and getting into somebody’s car or truck and going down to the lake and going swimming. That was one of my favorite things. I think I might have done that every day.
H: I had a question about the book. You spoke about you and Cristina working on it. Is that what you envisioned, what the product is? Is that how you wanted it to be. Are you happy with what happened?
C: That’s just the way it ended up, it could have been something more, it could have been something less, but that’s what happened. That’s how it ended up. I was very pleased. And I still look at it and I go, wow, this is great, this is terrific. Really it’s great. It’s a great little piece.
H: Is it something that you thought you would do as you were taking photographs?
C: No, no. It was Cristina who helped me, financially to do that. It wouldn’t have happened without her.
H: And how many copies?
C: A thousand, we made a thousand.
H: And what happened with them?
C: They’re all gone. I have maybe this one, I have maybe a few left. They’ve all been disseminated. They’re all out there somewhere.
C: You know, I felt badly at the time that I didn’t do it more collaboratively, but it just wasn’t what the energy was, you know.
H: Collaboratively, what do you mean?
C: Other people’s pictures, working on it with other people, but it just wasn’t one of my it’s like that thing of, I don’t really to be in the large group discussion thing. I’m not particularly really a collaborative person, you know. I’m more of a solo operator.
H: Were your photographs used during the time or in later years? What about photographs you took in other projects?
C: Oh yeah, tons of stuff. I think it’s gone out far and wide, that photography just last year – well, I’ll get it for you when we’re done. I’ll show you some. Yeah, very, kind of nice. There it is again [laughter].
E: Is there anything else that you remember?
C: I think I’ve said it all. It was a great moment for anyone who got there. It was an initiation, a confirmation, a moment. I’m sure the people who were in Selma feel that way, of course they do. People who were in Seattle, people who were at the moratorium in 1969, Washington, all these moments strung together. Where were you for those kinds of moments? What did you participate in? What are the events, the act, the activisms that we participated in that makes the life, a life? That is one piece of it for me, for sure. It seems really tiny now, in the context of this moment, but at the moment, it was everything. I bet every woman who ever heard about it wanted to be there, wanted to get there. Every person that I know who was there, we still talk about it. Of course, it was a great moment and we have conversations, gatherings of people, dinner parties or whatever where it comes up and people will go," oh, what was that" and then we’ll talk, we’ll talk about what it was. So it still lives, it definitely lives.
H: I have a question. You spoke early on about how race and class and the different things that we tried to address as a community…how do you know that we were addressing, for instance, race? what at the time happened?
C: Weren’t we constantly talking about it? That’s my recollection, that we were constantly engaged in all those –isms, struggles and conversations although, you know, as I said earlier, it wasn’t really my thing to be so involved in the discussions, but I just remember at that period in my life, generally, that was a huge discussion. The class work, the race work, I was doing a lot of that at that time, not just at Seneca but it was part of the mix of the struggle.
H: And do you remember women of color in the time that you were there being a part of what was happening there?
C: Well, the only woman of color I remember is Turtle Bear. Now I’m sure, I don’t. I have that wonderful picture [looking through book], there’s so many pictures that are color pictures that might not have ended up in this.
H: Those were all photographs that you took in black and white?
C: Yeah. But that ended. The digital age was not in place then, so I didn’t start shooting color until I was in South Africa and one of my cameras broke and I had to decide, because I was shooting color and black and white, what’s it going to be, am I going to shoot this story in color or am I going to shoot it in black and white? And I chose to shoot it in color, and that was the first time that I had just dedicated myself to color. Before that I was always shooting with two cameras. black and white and color. So all these are original black and white negatives. One of my favorite pictures is in the slide show that I have. I don’t know if it’s been dissembled or not.
H: Would you be open to us digitizing some of the stuff for the project?
C: Yeah, I’d love it. I’d like to do it, I’m in the process now, which is just completely overwhelming, of digitizing everything. And I haven’t gotten to this yet, I’ve barely gotten anywhere, ‘cause it’s not easy, definitely it’s not easy.
H: Well, it would be incredible to have those photos be part of the web collection, project so folks would be able to see them.
C: Yeah. It’s so hard to go back. It’s been a few years now, really, that I’ve been trying to make an effort to digitize old, old bodies of work.
H: That’s what we’re here for! It’s our pride and joy, we’ve done that for folks from peace camp.
C: Well, that would be cool. But it means going in there and finding the work and you know even that is like, god, it’s so overwhelming, I mean, when you think of what I’ve done between then and now it’s a lot, so it’s hard to go back to that.
H: I'll hold your hand one day. Since there’s no time limit, it’s not so bad.
C: Yeah, yeah. Okay. [laughter]
H: So are you up to going back to the story of Gandhi’s house?
C: Oh yeah, you want me to go to that? Okay. Well, it’s a little bit of a long story. I can show you pictures of this later, also. I went in 1985 to Nairobi, to the women’s conference in Nairobi and when I was there I met all these incredible South Africans who had come via underground railroad ‘cause they weren’t citizens in South Africa, at that time. So they didn’t have passports. So they had come through this underground network in Africa to Nairobi and they were the most incredible, powerful women I had ever met in my life. So I decided after the conference that I would go to South Africa and put myself in service with these women and their struggle. And I went alone, flew down to Johannesburg. I had one name that these women had given to me that was the first person you should contact. Her name was Helen Joseph. She was a white woman who was known as one of the mothers of liberation in South Africa. It was with her that Nelson and Winnie Mandela left their children when they were on the road or in jail. So, I called her and immediately got in with the underground which at that time was all the banned people of Africa. That was the era when everyone was banned. So through her I got connected really fast and she would tell me where to go and what to do, who to talk with, street corners. I would go to these gatherings where Gandhi’s granddaughter was. She was a good friend of Helen’s. I ended up staying with Helen thereafter, whenever I was in South Africa, I stayed with Helen until she died. She was the first person that Nelson Mandela went to visit when he came out of prison. So, she told me to get in touch with this young man, a white guy, who had been part of the anti-war, anti-conscription campaign in South Africa and had spent two years in prison for refusing to serve in South Africa. So I called him. His name was Richard Steele. And he was in Durban and I called him to arrange an interview and to photograph. So I went down to Durban and when I got there, we went into his office and, and had barely started the interview when a phone call came in and I could see that he was visibly getting extremely upset with the phone call. He put down the phone and said, “I’m sorry, I have to go, there’s a problem where I live.” And I think I knew, I must have known he lived in the Phoenix Settlement which is the community that Gandhi created when he was a lawyer in South Africa in 1904 and this is where he had his first experiences of racism because he was considered a person of color in South Africa whereas in India he was just an Indian, you know. And he was very well educated, but he was thrown off the train for sitting in the white compartment in South Africa. So he attributes his experiences in South Africa with the development of his philosophy of nonviolence civil disobedience. While he was in South Africa he did lots of things but one of the things he did is create the Phoenix Settlement which was an interracial community in South Africa in the 1900s which is really radical, and a newspaper and all kinds of things went on from there and it was just this little community that still existed in 1985 and was still a community dedicated to people of mixed races, living together. So, the Phoenix Settlement was on the verge of being attacked by INKATHA – the black group that the United States and other western countries was trying to support as an antidote to the ANC, the African National Congress, in the struggle in South Africa. It was sort of like the Contras, a puppet type of situation where they were paying them and they were fighting the ANC, it was the internecine divide and conquer tactic. But everyone in South Africa knew this, everyone knew that U.S. money and British money was in INKATHA. So, when we got to Phoenix Settlement, he said, “Would you like to come with me. I have to go, would you like to come?” I said, “Of course I’d like to come,” I knew this was Gandhi’s settlement. So we went and when we got there, the place was in chaos, people loading up trucks, a sense of frantic, intensity. As soon as we got there, he said, “Here are the keys to Gandhi’s house, you can go and hang out there if you like.” His girlfriend was there, they were trying to pack up the house. INKATHA was coming to destroy the place because they were keeping 66 black, refugees in the old printing press and so just picture this chaos. The Phoenix Settlement is on a little hillside - and down below smoke, fire, just everything is in a turmoil, which was often the case in South Africa at that time, a lot of violence, a lot of killing, a lot of scary stuff. So, I had already been there for a while and I sort of knew. So I take the keys and I go down to Gandhi’s little tiny house and I go inside and it’s like a monostary inside, it’s like a meditation home. It’s a completely empty room with just the pictures of Gandhi’s teachers on the altar. The presence of it was just unbelievable, to walk into this room. And then there was one other small room that was the library that had books and papers and stuff like that. So, I, photographer that I am, meditator that I am, nonviolent activist in the spirit of Gandhi that I am, I feel like I have walked into... I can’t even say what it was, it was so powerful. So I opened all the windows and the first thing I did was I meditated and then I asked why, in the meditation I asked the spirit of Gandhi to come to me, enter me, live in me. And all the windows are open and I’m photographing inside the house and then all of a sudden I see three black men with machine guns running past the window and all of a sudden I am in terror, terror, terror in my body. And then I see out of another window one of those big tanks, that were called Hippos, come crashing through with the South African Defense Force and all of them jumping out with all their guns at the ready. And then, I hear Richard screaming my name and I’m just filled with terror. I think that I am going to die, in the crossfire, whatever this is that is going on, it’s real scary. So, I hear him screaming my name and really what I want to do in that moment is go into the library and cover myself with books and hide, but instead, I feel this, this, this surge coming, coming through my body and I grab my camera bag and it’s just like pushing myself through a steel door... that’s what it felt like at the moment and that’s what I remember it as, that I pushed my body through a steel door to go through that fear in me to the voice that was calling me. So, I run, I run toward it and I’m just sure I’m going to be killed. And I run up to it, I run up to where the voice was and as I get there, all the guns come down, everybody puts their guns down because I am a foreign journalist. The whole situation goes... because I am a foreign journalist, that’s the only reason that it didn’t turn into a conflagration at that moment and it just was like the most bizarre sensation of this intense, intense fear, all this potential for violence. Moments before I had been asking the spirit of Gandhi to come through me. That night, that house was completely demolished, completely demolished by hand, to rubble. So, then I went back about a week later with this guy who was just this really, very beautiful tall Danish Dan Rather of Denmark, Peter Jennings of Denmark. We went there together and saw the destruction. It was just completely the whole place was demolished. And we stood, he and I, in the rubble and cried, and as I was weeping, I looked down and in all the rubble was ‘Ohm.’ And I reached down and I pulled up this paper – and I’ll show it to you, I have it still – and as, as we were crying and I look down and ‘Ohm’ is between my feet and I pull it up and on the one side it’s Sanskrit, on the other side it’s typed out in English and my eyes fall upon ‘a true human being is not attached to the things of this world.’ Just like that, it’s gone. So that was the story. And from then on I have had this experience, this feeling of being able to go through any kind of fear, that I know what that is like. That’s what happened. And then I really felt like I knew what Gandhi meant to be a pacifist, the power of it. That’s what I felt, that’s what I remember, because when I went into that situation, all the guns just went down. Not that I walked peacefully into it, I didn’t, I ran into it terrified. And I didn’t really know what was happening, and Richard told me later that the reason that he had called to me was because I was a foreign journalist,, and somehow he felt that that could diffuse the situation of these 68 people who were surrounded, INKATHA and situations like that were happening all the time in South Africa. People were being killed everyday in situations like that.
And that story about the Phoenix Settlement and how it was destroyed has been published but not the story about me but I’ve been just in the last year or so, trying to write the story more for the spiritual community, you know…of what, what it means to go through fear because on a retreat, any kind of a meditation retreat you have, that’s the kind of thing you have to go through. And Richard, he spent two years in jail, for his nonviolent resistance. Before the incident he'd refused to go into the service and was a big hero. At that time, young white men,18-year-olds were grappling with the whole situation.
E: I remember one of your scarves, an early action around on the truck gate side. A group of us had gone to do an action and we got hemmed in by the by the Sheriff. We said we were there to do a Wiccan ritual. We had a candle that he blew it out and it came back on and he blew it out and it came back on, again. And he called into the base and finally we sat down it was very, very scary for a while and then eventually we made a little fire and burned all the lists of the names. I was doing support and I remember very distinctly and at some point that you got up and decided to dance with a large scarf. The two of us playing with it was like testing.
C: I know, that whole thing, believing in our power, believing in our witchy power that was powerful.
E: We really used it and when we saw those trucks come we began to wail and it was so powerful, it just stopped them in their tracks. They must have been 15 feet away and they were standing there with their guns as terrified as we originally were, of what might happen then. But we got braver and braver.
H: Was that witch ritual thing a part of your life prior to coming to the camp? Did you already know you were…
C: Um-huh. I’d been working with a group of women in NY, I mean, many of whom were, were there at Seneca. Shatzi, do you remember her? All these guys [referring to book] We used to do these really intense Native American peyote rituals called The Road of Life [referring to photograph in book] This is the group that sat down that day, [Waterloo] and a lot of them are these women, these women – this one, I can’t remember any of their names now though, this one, this one, that one.
H: So these were all women that you were already circling with in New York City as part of a group?
C: On the cross quarters, on the solstices and equinoxes, we did this incredibly powerful ritual. Unbelievable. But we broke up over the class and race stuff. We could not make it as a group over that stuff. And that’s been my experience with every group I’ve tried to do the class and race stuff with, can’t do it, can’t finish it, can’t complete it. You know, maybe now, but now I don’t do it anymore ’cause it was just too painful. It’s not that I have closed off from the work, it’s just that wasn’t a way to do the work. It didn’t work. I mean, it worked to a degree but then every time, the group broke up.
H: You were all a part of the Pentagon action so that idea of raising energy and the ritual of change and protesting that was happening then, but you don’t have any memories of that kind of stuff happening at Seneca? When Estelle spoke about it, it was familiar to you?
C: I know we did that all the time I just don’t have specific memories of it. I mean, I was totally into it, I still am into it. You know it works. You know it’s part of ,a piece of the power, it’s a piece of how we work or how we work together. As a matter of fact I just heard of something where pots and pans were involved, somewhere in the world. I just read where women and pots and pans were involved, and I went, “ Yeah!” [laughter]
E: Yeah, I was at a place where the altars in the four directions were done with purses, women’s purses in different colors and all these wonderful things were in the purses and hanging out of purses.
C: I think that was one of the most incredible, I mean, the art that came out, all that fence work, the art on the fences. I have tons more photography than is in here [referring to book] of it all. That was just incredible, how that fence got decorated all the time – the weaving and the sewing.... “We are the flow [singing] and we are the ebb, [Estelle and Hershe joining in] we are the weavers, we are the web.” We are the web. And we are the ebb, I mean, all that stuff.
E: Yeah, and that was before there was a web, I mean that was one of the symbols that we had of tying ourselves all together and how everything was connected I mean that we were using that long before…
C: I feel certainly that that is part of the manifesting process that resulted in the World Wide Web. Part of the manifestation process came out of the energetic field and created this physical reality. You know, of the World Wide Web that has enhanced our work enormously. You know, not just us – we, but you know, all over the world this energy, energy, energy you know.
E: I was just thinking how, when we started, how determined we were to make an online archive, that we wanted for people to have access, that it was wonderful to have stuff at the Schlesinger but that we didn’t know then that that was going to happen. But we wanted women credited with the peace work and the energy that they put into the world and that that was a phenomenon that was really noteworthy and we were going to make it so.
C: Oh, extremely important and yes, women are always diminished unfortunately but to hear this guy on Charlie Rose talking about the Women’s Movement, a few nights ago and then the piece, his editorial in the NY Times is very similar to what he was talking about. He really, really, really acknowledges the feminist movement in bringing Barack Obama to where he is now. So.
H: Do you remember coming to NY city in ’85 and being a part of songs for the Peace Camp Sings tape that Sorrell Hays(Hays, see Herstory 061) and Marilyn Ries(Ries, see Herstory 062) made? You were in the group, there were about eight of us - Twilight, you, me, Helen, Becky we sang on that tape – you never saw the Peace Camp Sings tape? [Catherine shakes her head, no] Ever in your life?!? Your voice is definitely on it.
C: I still sing some of those songs.
H: Like what? Prove it!
C: [singing] “We who believe in freedom cannot rest, oh no, [Estelle and Hershe joining in] we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. Until the killing of a black man, black mother’s son is as important as the killing of a white man, white mother’s son. We who believe in freedom cannot rest, oh no, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. I am a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard, at times I can be quite difficult, I bow to no man’s word. We who believe in freedom cannot rest, oh no, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” I have a vision of Sweet Honey singing it at the inauguration of Barack Obama. Wouldn’t that be great?
1. Cruise missiles - guided missiles that carries an explosive payload and uses a lifting wing and a propulsion system, usually a jet engine, to allow sustained flight; it is essentially a flying bomb.
2. Pershing missiles - a family of solid-fueled two-stage medium-range ballistic missiles designed and built by Martin Marietta to replace the PGM-11 Redstone missile as the United States Army's primary theater-level weapon. The Pershing systems lasted over 30 years from the first test version in 1960 through final elimination in 1991. It was named for General John J. Pershing. The systems were managed by the U.S. Army Missile Command (MICOM) and deployed by the Field Artillery Branch.
3. Comiso Womens Peace Camp - located at the Comiso Air Base in the Province of Ragusa in Sicily. The United States Air Force deployed ground launched cruise missiles (GLCM) to Comiso Air Base in June 1983. This missiles were eventually dismantled after the Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed by the former Soviet Union and the United States on December 8, 1987. The last 16 GLCMs left Comiso Air Base in 1991.
4. Women’s Pentagon Action - a nonviolent, direct action in which 2000 women blocked three entrances to the Pentagon on Nov. 16, 17, 1981 to call an end to the nuclear arms race. 143 were arrested. A second Women’s Pentagon Action took place November 15-16, 1982.
5. We Are the Web: The Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice - a photography book featuring Catherine Allport's photographs of the Seneca Women's Peace Camp in 1983. Published in 1984 by Catherine Allport and Cristina Biaggi.
6. WTO Battle of Seattle- protests surrounding the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference in November 1999 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle, Washington. The negotiations were quickly overshadowed by massive and controversial street protests in what became the second phase of the anti-globalization movement in the United States. The scale of the demonstrations — even the lowest estimates put the crowd at over 40,000 — dwarfed any previous demonstration in the United States against a world meeting of any of the organizations generally associated with economic globalization (the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or the World Bank).
7. Bella Abzug - a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing her district in Manhattan, NY from 1971 to 1977. Bella visited the Seneca peace camp in August 1983. An avid and outspoken feminist, she was one of the first members of Congress to support gay rights, introducing the first federal gay rights bill, known as the Equality Act of 1974.
8. Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp – an ongoing nonviolent protest outside the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common in England, 1981-2000. On August 28, 1981, 40 women marched 110 miles to the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common, the proposed site of 96 U.S. cruise missiles. Eight days later, four women chained themselves to the air base fence. From this direct action a women’s peace camp was born. On March 21, 1982, 10,000 people demonstrated at the base. 250 women engaged in a 24-hour blockade – 34 were arrested. On December 12, 1982, 300,000 women linked hands to embrace the 9-mile fence encircling the base. Although the last of U.S.’s 96 cruise missile were removed in 1991, women stayed on at Greenham until 2000 to ensure that the base was closed down. In March of 1997, the land was purchased by the Greenham Common Trust and returned to a variety of civilian uses.
9. Poor People's March- part of the Poor People's Campaign organized by Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Southern Christina Leadership Conference(SCLC) in 1968 to address issues of economic justice. The march originated in Marks, Mississippi and crisscrossed the country assembling, in Dr. King's words, "a multiracial army of the poor" that would descend on Washington engaging, if need be, in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol — until Congress enacted a poor people's bill of rights. Prior to the completion of the the campaign, Martin Luther King, Jr.(Jan. 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968) was assassinated.
10. Lucretia Mott (Jan. 3 1793 - Nov. 11, 1880) - an American Quaker minister, abolitionist, social reformer and proponent of women's rights credited as the first American "feminist" but was, more accurately, the initiator of women's political advocacy.
Posted by hershe Michele at Tuesday, December 16, 2008