Tina Bernstein remembers the Birmingham Church bombings in 1963 that killed four young school girls. She remembers the fear she felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“I remember nightmares of being separated from my family, unable to reach them,” the Beacon, New York, resident recalls. “In recent months, those nightmares have come back… they are nightmares of losing my children and granddaughter.”
When she learned about a caravan of concerned grandmothers heading to the Mexico border to deliver grandmotherly love to the migrant families there, she saw an opportunity to challenge this nightmare.
Grannies Respond/Abuelas Responden is a movement of grandmothers and their allies who have been similarly spurred to action by the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the southern border. Over six days, beginning July 31, their caravan will journey more than 2,000 miles, onboarding other “grannies” along the way. They will host rallies in strategic political districts in cities along the way to protest the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy for immigrants and asylum seekers.
Beginning with a rally in New York City, Grannies Respond will make stops in Reading and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Louisville, Kentucky; Montgomery, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Houston, Texas; before finally reaching a detainment facility in either McAllen or Brownsville, Texas.
“We wanted to do something to stand apart,” Dan Aymar-Blair, an organizer who is executive director and co-founder of The Article 20 Network, which advocates for the freedom of peaceful assembly. “We wanted to push the message that this was more than just left versus right. It’s beyond politics. It’s a matter of basic common sense and humanity and things that are deep, deep in our hearts, not our minds.”
Aymar-Blair said that after learning about the separation and detention of migrant families brought about by Trump’s new policy, a group of like-minded activists began talking about effective ways to respond. They quickly ruled out the traditional sign-waving demonstrations: “Nothing scares them more than people with idle hands.”
Someone suggested putting the idea of grandmotherly concern—and literally grandmothers—at the front of the movement. The idea of the cross-country journey spread in much the way other movements have, taking root on social media and growing from there.
“We need to support each other and tell the stories of why this is not OK.”
“It can be like a Richard Scarry book: anybody can come in any vehicle with us,” he said. “Bring their own bus, their own van, their own car,” he said. They are encouraging those coming from other parts of the country to start their own caravans and meet up at the final destination on Aug. 6.
“For us, in the beginning, this was just a bus full of grannies heading to the border. But there’s the potential, if we can make it go viral, for a lot of people to be part of it. That would be a pretty powerful summer protest.”
Bernstein said it took her a while to come around to the idea. She worried about it seeming like merely a “do-gooder” gesture.
But then the reality of what’s happening to families who fled violence in their home countries only to be separated or prosecuted as criminals once they got here, hit a raw nerve, she said. “As a secular Jew, it was instilled in me that my freedom isn’t guaranteed if other people aren’t free,” she said. “If I don’t stand up for others, who will stand up for me? That principle is very strong.
“I don’t want to feel that my only role is to support what someone else is doing. I have an activist role to play.”
So she’s riding down to the Texas border not just as an ally, but because she believes the future of her own grandchild and others she loves is inextricably linked to a diverse and interwoven fabric of people in this country.
Organizers envision the caravan growing along the way, as momentum builds with each new stop. “There are people all across the country who are outraged about what is happening. We need to support each other and tell the stories of why this is not OK,” Bernstein said.
“It’s not like our movement or what we’re doing will locate the kids that are missing,” she said. “The intention is to motivate more people…to reinforce the idea that what is happening is unjust and encourage them to support those working toward justice. I’m not sure we’ll be able to impact policies, but maybe we can make an impression on the people we meet along the way.”
She’s prepared to get arrested if that’s what it takes to make people pay attention.
The group is keeping a close eye on news coming from the border, with plans to shift and adjust to reflect changes unfolding there. Most of the six planned rallies are in political districts with important political races for the upcoming mid-term election or with detention centers—or both.
At the stop in Louisville, Kentucky, Aymar-Blair said, they plan “to give Mitch McConnell hell.” The Senate majority leader is from Louisville, and in recent weeks has been hounded by protesters there over the immigration policies.
A Spanish music teacher onboard the bus will teach demonstrators Spanish songs that they might sing outside the detainment facility once they reach the border so that migrants inside know they are there. “The more people come, the louder it will be and the more families will hear us.” Protesters recognize that the disruption could be jarring for children so the idea is still being developed.
Sharon Kutz-Mellem of Louisville has two grandsons who sometimes refer to her as the “grammanator” when she’s being tough on them. She plans to join the caravan when it gets to town.
She volunteers with the Kentucky Refugee Ministries, which helps resettle refugees. Until a year ago, she was a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving two small congregations in rural Indiana. One Sunday in August 2016, after delivering a message about justice and humility, Kutz-Mellem overheard a group of parishioners discussing where to get their Trump yard signs.
She heard a different calling. She retired early and left the church, losing her religion, she said, but not her faith. “I felt like I had failed to teach them the message that Jesus brought to this world, the one that wasn’t about building a wall but about welcoming the stranger, taking care of the sick and poor and widowed and visiting the prisoner; the Jesus who welcomed the little children instead of separating them from their parents and imprisoning them,” she said.
She’s not sure what will happen once she reaches the border, but she’s prepared to get arrested if that’s what it takes to make people pay attention.
“I’m not doing any more marches…I’ve done them all. I’m done,” she said. “We gotta step it up…we’re too deep into the fascism here. And if it means arresting a bunch of old people, fine. Whatever.”
Lornet Turnbull is the former civil liberties editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post. An award-winning enterprise reporter who's worked in media for more than 20 years, Lornet has covered everything from the auto industry and labor unions in Michigan, to real estate and statehouse politics in Ohio, to homelessness in Seattle, to refugee children in the West Bank, and sex workers in Mexico City. She speaks English.