A protester for the ages

Western Mass. activist, 91, holds tight to liberal causes
Frances Crowe’s first arrest was as a Vietnam War protester in 1972, in Chicopee. “I have a vision of a better world,” she said. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  September 13, 2010

NORTHAMPTON -- Authorities dragged the short woman with white hair out of her congressman's Springfield office while she protested the Iraq war. She spent a month in federal prison after painting ``Thou shalt not kill'' on missile tubes of nuclear submarines in Connecticut. She has been arrested nine times for trespassing at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
When asked how often she has been hauled away for acts of civil disobedience, Frances Crowe responds with a smile: ``Not enough.''
At age 91, and less than a month after her latest arrest, the veteran protester - who favors socks with sandals, thick glasses, and oversized pins with bold-lettered messages - has no plans to stop agitating.
``At my age, I think I get to pull some rank,'' she said at her home, which has a wreath shaped in a peace symbol beside the front door and has become an antiwar headquarters for a handful of fellow grizzled militants for peace. ``I sense that arresting officers are a little more careful with us. They don't want me to have a heart attack, I guess.''
After years at barricades, protesting everything from nu clear war to global warming, the spry grandmother remains part of the vanguard of antiestablishment movements. She is among an aging group of liberal dissidents in this western Massachusetts city who honed their organizing skills during the '60s and '70s and remain as committed as ever to increasingly diverse causes, from seeking solar power for downtown Northampton lighting to pressing city councilors to pass a resolution urging Congress to stop financing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Crowe and her associates - some of whom are her senior - see themselves as the liberal answer to the Tea Party, a cri de coeur against the military-industrial complex, the marrow of Massachusetts' reputation as a redoubt of leftists.
More than anything, they hope their longevity inspires others to follow their rabble-rousing path, especially their peers.
``People my age have been lulled into the idea that they shouldn't take risks, that they should stay comfortable and take the easy way,'' Crowe said. ``But we've lived our lives, and we have nothing to lose - no kids or jobs to worry about. I say to them, `Have some fun. Get out there and join the community of people acting on their beliefs!' ''
In addition to protesting war, Crowe and the others organize a weekly film series off Main Street, featuring titles such as ``Harvest of Grief'' and ``Enemies of Happiness.'' They insist on eating local foods, canning and drying their own fruits and vegetables, and taking public transportation when walking or biking doesn't make sense.
The only time Crowe uses her bumper-sticker-covered car is to take her bottles to a recycling facility.
Among her acolytes is Phyllis Rodin, 95, who cruises around Northampton in a motorized wheelchair, usually wearing a large cap covered with antiwar pins. On a recent afternoon, she carried a weathered sign that read, ``War is not the Answer.''
``I was recruited years ago by Frances, and we do our best to raise awareness about the injustices in our society,'' she said. ``People ask me why I carry this sign, and I say, `I do what I can. I can carry a sign to protest the war,' and so I do.''
One of Crowe's enduring efforts is to shutter the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a 38-year-old facility that generates about a third of Vermont's electricity. To do so, she helped assemble a team of mainly older women who call themselves the Shut It Down Affinity Group.
Hattie Nestel, 71, describes herself as a coconspirator and said she has been arrested nearly as often as Crowe.
Crowe says she has been taken away in handcuffs dozens of times, though she has lost the exact count, including at the White House, the Pentagon, and a nuclear test site in Nevada.
They consider themselves among the country's leading voices against nuclear power, and they have repeatedly tried to breach security at the Vermont facility, sometimes padlocking themselves across the entrance.
``Frances inspires us, because she has no fear,'' Nestel said. ``At this point, she's not worried about getting a felony on her record.''
Added Paki Wieland, 66, who lives next to Crowe and has been something of a lieutenant in organizing their protests: ``We have a solidarity of sisterhood. Frances has a way of challenging us to look at how we live our own lives.''
The rebellious women insist they're disappointed that every time police usher them into their squad cars for trespassing at Vermont Yankee, the charges get dropped. They say they would be happy to pad their criminal records, so long as they get a day in court to publicize their case against the plant, which they think could make much of New England uninhabitable in the event of an accident.
Officials at the plant say Crowe's group is a security threat, but they leave it to authorities to decide whether to prosecute.
Vermont State Police say the women are a nuisance, but unfailingly polite and respectful. Sergeant Mike Sorenson said his troopers no longer cuff the women.
``They go to get arrested,'' he said. ``We understand their rights, but they're a drain on our resources. We're understaffed as it is, and when we're called down, it means we can't respond to real emergencies.''
In Northampton, Crowe has become an emblem of the city, a venerable malcontent among a legion of local gadflies and idealists.
``She's the ultimate liberal - a real icon of our community and a wonderful woman,'' said Russell Sienkiewicz, chief of the Northampton police. ``She's very dedicated to many causes - peace, environmental issues, prisoners' rights. The fact that she's still putting herself out there says something about her and her beliefs.''
On a recent afternoon at the small home where she has lived for 33 years, Crowe shows the trove of activist memorabilia she has amassed over the years.
Tributes to Mohandas Gandhi and Sojourner Truth are among piles of leftist literature, lawn signs protesting the war, and newspaper clippings and photos of her arrests. On every wall, posters blare slogans such as ``People Need Water, Not Weapons.''
She says her views took root after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan in World War II, when she was 26. A lapsed Catholic and one of four girls who grew up in a small town in Missouri, she met her late husband in college. They became Quakers and raised three children in Northampton.
They were increasingly involved in the budding antinuclear movement in the 1950s, and their first action involved blocking the sale of milk from cows they believed were contaminated from nuclear testing.
Crowe's first arrest came in 1972 at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, where she and friends wore conical hats and read Vietnamese women's poetry to protest the Vietnam War.
Her proudest moment? Installing a large antenna in her backyard to bring the radio program ``Democracy Now!'' to Northampton. She kept the antenna in use until pressuring a local public radio station to air the broadcast by launching a campaign to sap its money-raising efforts.
Her son Tom, an orthopedic surgeon in Maine, said neither he nor his siblings ever worried about their mother. He doesn't always agree with her politics, but he respects her tenacity.
``I think the world needs uncompromising idealists,'' he said. ``She's willing to take risks that the rest of us aren't willing to take, and that helps make the rest of us more aware.''
When asked whether she has any regrets about supporting some regimes that have been responsible for bloodshed and where dissidents often spend years behind bars, she said hindsight is unhelpful and thinks, overall, she has taken the right positions.
``I have a vision of a better world,'' she said, ``where people can live cooperatively, without violence, and that we would be able to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and provide shelter for people if we weren't spending so much money on war. ``I'm looking for a simpler society.
``There are still so many problems in society, and as long as I have energy, I'm going to keep at it,'' she said.
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com