This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
One of my interests this week during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia is to ask as many people as I can, women especially, how they feel about the history-making prospect of electing a female president.
Around 2 p.m. on Monday, smack in the middle of a cacophony of Bernie Sanders supporters and activists, I ran into Dianne Feeley of Detroit.
She was holding up a picture of Berta Caceres, the Honduran human rights and environmental activist who was murdered in March 2016. “Justice for Berta” is a fervent cause because the government and military that repressed her – and some suspect assassinated her – was supported by the United States, and by Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, although Berta was killed long after Clinton left office.
Feeley, 76, a retired auto worker, is a diehard Bernie supporter, even though, she conceded, she never thought he could actually win. The lifelong activist explained that she believes it doesn’t much matter who is president – she is certain that only grassroots movements bring about lasting change.
“I’ve lived through Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton. … Who was president didn’t have much impact on our lives,” she said while handing out invitations to a Socialist Convergence to other protesters and bystanders. “What stopped the Vietnam War, brought about Roe v. Wade – these things happen due to movements, not who’s president.”
She does find it “shocking” to hear how GOP candidate Donald Trump is playing into people’s fears and playing so fast and loose with facts. She was particularly amazed when Trump said that “everything” will change on the day he’s elected.
“That’s crazy,” she said.
This shock is tied to her conviction that no one person, not even a president, not even Donald Trump, can wave a magic wand and reverse the forces of structural racism, corporatist power, and other deeply embedded social, political and economic realities – even if he were inclined to, which he is not.
“We need to do more than elect a president. We need to build up from the bottom, have local committees make budget decisions.”
Born in San Francisco, Feeley worked in auto plants in New Jersey and in Detroit, where she still lives. She knew that Philadelphia’s school district, like Detroit’s, was taken over by the state – without much beneficial effect. Without being asked, she scoffed at the idea that charter schools can save urban education.
Her first protest was in 1960, against the House Un-American Activities Committee. She said that, at 20, she was still living at home and didn’t tell her mother she was going. Since then, she has been arrested at least a dozen times, she estimates, including with 400 other people in 1965 in Washington, D.C., during the Assembly of Unrepresented People, an early peace protest against Vietnam that featured peace and civil rights leaders like Dave Dellinger and Bob Moses.
Feeley said she was radicalized in the Catholic Worker movement, a pacifist effort that worked to aid the poor. She once lived next door to the movement’s leader and inspiration, Dorothy Day. She remembers Day recounting how she was arrested with other women’s suffragists picketing in front of the White House during World War I.
Feeley, as you might have figured out by now, has never been a Hillary fan, and holds it against her that the health plan she proposed as first lady didn’t include a single-payer option.
“The problem is that you never get rid of the corporations,” she said. “I’m lucky, I have insurance through the company I worked for and I have Medicare. But many other people don’t have anything.”
So, she personally knew someone who went to jail so women could have the right to vote. Does the possibility of having a woman president play into her thinking at all? Feeley had a good comeback.
“That’s why I plan to vote for [Green Party candidate] Jill Stein.”