Raging Gracefully 

Days in the life of Sunset Hall

Thursday, Apr 17 2003
Photos by Max S. Gerber

As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.

-Shakespeare, King Lear

In the blazing midafternoon sun, a few months before American bombs and missiles would rain down on Iraq, about a thousand people gather on the western edge of MacArthur Park. Paddle-boats trickle across the lake behind them. The crowd focuses on a truck-bed platform stationed in the middle of Park View Street that is adorned with banners for radio station KPFK, the Coalition for World Peace, Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice, and a massive paper fresco of a white dove soaring over a blue-green planet.

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As Aztec dancers with iridescent plumage cavort in front of the platform, a dozen bored LAPD officers lean lazily against their patrol cars across the street, casually watching the tan-and-white Sunset Hall van pull up to the curb next to the crowd. The driver leaps out, rolls the side door open, releases a fold-down ramp and assists in the tentative emergence of five octogenarian women — three by their own power, one with the help of a walker, and their leader, Irja Lloyd, in a wheelchair. On Irja’s lap rests a small stack of placards that they created from poster board. Irja’s displays the words: “Speak Your Peace.”

The crowd parts for the procession of elders ambling to a shady spot beneath a pepper tree. The driver unstacks four plastic garden chairs and distributes bottled water. Press photographers snap the quintet. These women, probably the oldest living career protesters in the city, make up the public face of Sunset Hall, an assisted-care facility for aging lefties that’s located near Hoover Street at 2830 Francis Ave., just two blocks from the park.

The glare of the slowly setting sun starts tormenting the crowd. Betty Weiss, Sunset Hall’s newest resident, shields her eyes with a copy of the communist newspaper The People’s World Weekly and stares at Ed Asner on the podium.

Phil Way (foreground) with staff

“My God, my God, even Henry Kissinger is against this war!” Asner barks.

A crescendo of laughter and applause erupts from the crowd, but the oldsters sit quietly — the eye of the storm. Betty fans herself with her newspaper while a folk singer croons “Stop Killing in Our Name” — the singer’s substitute for “We Shall Overcome.”

Later, on the corner of Park View and Wilshire, somebody tugs on my arm. It’s Betty, staring up at me with imploring blue eyes that are starting to well with tears: “Can you take me home?”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m all dizzy. I don’t know where I am,” she says in a panic.

“You’re at a peace rally.”

“How did I get here?! I’m all dizzy!”

“It’s all right; we’ll get you home.”

“Is it far from here?” Betty asks.

“Five minutes.”

“Oh my God. Oh my God . . . How did I get to this place?”

Left to right: Luba, Betty and Pauline

If the jagged splinters of the progressive movement have any glue holding them together, it might be described as the historic attempt to stand up for people on the margins of power. This rally is flush with that sentiment. It’s a noble one that has littered history with quixotic and ultimately tragic quests, from the Paris Commune to the Zapatistas. It’s also the one that has fueled the journey of many a Sunset Hall resident.

A couple of decades after marching on behalf of garment workers in 1930s New York and Chicago, defying union-busting Pinkerton police, some Sunset Hall residents were hounded west by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunts, which reduced their lives to shambles. (Irja was, in fact, jailed during an anti-McCarthy protest.) Since the ’60s — when they marched with Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. and joined in the protests that helped bring about the end of the Vietnam War — many of Sunset Hall’s residents have felt the force of their political convictions erode with the nation’s rightward drift.

As recently as two years ago, apart from trying to free Mumia, Sunset Hall’s oldsters were conducting get-out-the-vote campaigns in a futile attempt to halt the Bush ascendancy. A smattering of the still able-bodied was being driven to rallies on behalf of L.A.’s impoverished bus riders, janitors and a new generation of immigrant garment workers — generally joined by crowds in the dozens or, on a good day, in the low hundreds.

“A few honk their endorsement, but mostly they just go on about their business — they don’t seem to care,” reflected Irja, then 81, during a van ride back to Sunset Hall after the rally.

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