Sitting In, Getting Busted – III

The Women’s Liberation Center

1970 was drawing to a close when I got the call. A woman who I knew as a member of a radical feminist group summoned me to a meeting at their office. We were to gather on New Years Eve, wearing warm clothes and bringing sleeping bags if we had them. She wouldn’t say what action they were planning or where we’d be going.

A dozen women were in the office when I arrived. After a short pep talk, and without giving us any more information, the organizers led us out into the night.

A light snow drifted down on us as we marched eastward, single file, from the office in lower Manhattan. Other people might be having boisterous parties indoors, or gathering in Times Square to watch the ball drop, but East Fifth Street was very, very quiet.

Our guides led us to a building that had been a welfare center before the city stopped using it and let it fall into disrepair. It took up most of the block, if not all of it. Almost all the windows were broken. The organizers had picked the lock before we arrived and led us in. They had also hauled in a few propane heaters, but these were next to useless in that cavernous hall. Still, if you stayed close enough—but not so close that your bedroll caught fire—the heaters were better than nothing. The concrete floor felt like a frozen lake under my sleeping bag, and the wind moaned through the broken panes.

The plan, we were told, was to reclaim the property and turn it into a women’s center, with a focus on serving the poor—which was just about everyone who lived on the Lower East Side back then. The next day somebody brought in some clothes racks from a store that had gone out of business, and soon we had hung them with donated sweaters and other clothes. Word spread quickly. Within hours neighbors arrived to pick over the freebies. Other women came by to help, including a statuesque redhead who put herself to work sweeping up trash. Someone informed me that she was Marion Tanner, the wealthy aunt of Patrick Dennis, who was widely believed to be the model for his book Auntie Mame.

My place was just a few blocks north, so I decided to go home for a hot bath. Mikki, a young woman I’d been chatting with, asked if she could join me since she lived in Queens, a long subway ride away. I said sure.

The apartment—a tenement originally built for immigrants in the 19th Century—had a bathtub in the kitchen, with a cover of enameled tin. The cover served as a counter for meal preparation, and I took it off to bathe. The toilet was a closet so small my knees bumped against the door when I shut it, and I’m pretty short. The bedroom was just about big enough to hold my makeshift loft bed. Since I’m no carpenter, it creaked and swayed when I turned over. But with this addition I had room to shove a desk and chair underneath.

Somehow, after the bath, Mikki and I ended up in bed together. Later I learned that she’d had her eye on me for a while, but I was too dumb to notice. She was young but at 18, no longer jailbait (I was 26). She had short blonde hair, freckles, a quick mind, and a fiery spirit. From that night we were lovers for about nine months and are friends to this day.

We returned to the old welfare center in the morning. We had lots of work to do, with plans for free meals and a health clinic. Our plans hit a roadblock, however, when the police came in and arrested us. This time they didn’t run us around the city in paddy wagons, or fingerprint, strip search, and humiliate us. The building our leaders had picked for us to occupy just happened to be right across the street from the precinct house, so the cops simply escorted us over. And since the city had basically abandoned the building, they didn’t need to “teach us a lesson,” the way they had when we barricaded ourselves into the executive offices of Grove Press. After all, we weren’t trespassing on a rich man’s property.

We spent the afternoon with the arresting officers. One of them kept trying to get us to admit that we’d broken the law, but we avoided any confession of wrongdoing. Finally I asked, “Why are you bothering the women’s movement? You should be going after the Mafia instead of us.”

He gave me a disgusted look. “Listen, sister,” he said, “the government is the Mafia and the Mafia is the government. And the trouble with you”—he stabbed the air in my direction—“is you’re on the wrong side.”

An honest cop. I was impressed. They released us without charges.

*          *          *

We didn’t get to keep that old welfare center, which probably would have cost over a million dollars to repair. But the organizers negotiated with the city and were able to rent an unused fire house, in somewhat better shape, for $1 a year. It had a spiral staircase. We called it the Women’s Liberation Center, and we had it from 1972 to 1987. And in 2019 it was designated a historic landmark.

5 Responses to Sitting In, Getting Busted – III

  1. Connie O Byrne November 22, 2020 at 8:02 pm #

    What a fascinating piece of history. When I was living in Baltimore in an area really close to John’s Hopkins back in 1976 the People’s Free Medical Clinic was just two blocks away. There was also a women owned and operated bookstore right next door. The Clinic was run and staffed by community activists and the doctors donated their time. The doctor I almost always saw was Shelly Maggie’s child and I asked her once where her last name came from…she was honoring her mother Maggie. She also had been on the verge of graduating from medical school, but since she was one of many in the late 60s who had gone to Cuba and worked in the sugar cane fields, she was banned from ever holding a professional title.. The medical profession’s loss. The Clinic was also where I went for counseling and my therapist, Jane, later became my maid of honor when I remarried. I remember on the way to City Hall she quietly said “you can always change her mind” knowing I had been having second thoughts. I told her it was too late, I had already quit my job and given up the lease on my apartment because we were leaving for Kentucky the next day. The only God thing that came out of that choice was moving to the Louisville Metro are and then across the Ohio to New Albany, Indiana after I divorced him. And many friends at First Unitarian Church, starting a NOW chapter, and eventually coming out in 1983, becoming a part of a very vibrant Women’s community and also the area’s gay rights community. I now live in the Charlotte, NC area where that isn’t the case, not on the same scale. But things change, I’m 74, older and slower and live much more quietly. When a few much younger women would say “you really should get involved here, you were so active in Louisville”, is respond by saying it was time for the young ones to carry things forward…and they are.

  2. Martha Shelley November 22, 2020 at 10:30 pm #

    Sounds like you also had an exciting youth! I’ll be 77 next month and, just like you, live a lot more quietly than I used to. Nowadays, if I tried sleeping on the frozen floor of an abandoned building, I’d probably end up in one of the refrigerated compartments of a morgue.

  3. Connie O Byrne November 23, 2020 at 7:21 am #

    Oh do I ever remember the days of sleeping on floors, but not when I was mich younger. In what many of us called “the cabin days”, a group of us had the chance to get away from the “straight world”. many of us spent weekends at the cabin one of the women lived in (which her father owned) deep in the woods outside of town. She was a successful small business owner, but really didn’t want to live “in town”. This was in 1989-1991, and The Cabin basically became a woman only space, especially on weekends when we’d have our own local music festival, think Spring Solstice. The band Yer Girlfriend was our home grown group, made up of local women that many of us supported and followed (they even made it to the side stage of the Pride March in D.C.). How does that tie in with sleeping on hard floors? There were many Saturday nights when all of the rickety wicker sofas were spoken for and I was one of many who just wrapped up in blankets and slept on the floor on our own little private “festival” weekends. The other women, who were mostly younger than I was at 44, thought I was crazy and wondered why I didn’t just drive the eight miles into town and sleep in my own bed. I just didn’t want to miss any of those times. Crazy days, but also much missed.

    InMany of us also went to The Southern Women’s Music Festival every summer that at the time was held on private land outside of Athens, Georgia. The first one I went to was in 1985 with Cris Williamson as the main artist, but not by any means the only “big name” in Women’s Music in the 80s-90s. I even took my 13 year old daughter with me the following year (1986) when Cris was again the “mainstage” musician. That was the year her Blue Rider album was released and my daughter already knew all of the lyrics, just as I did. Melissa Etheridge was the headliner when the festival later moved to Chattanooga, TN in 1991. Her partner at the time was the Festival lead organizer.

    Coming out in 1983 in the Louisville, KY area could not have been a better time to be part of the burgeoning Gay Rights movement. We opened a gay community center, began having Pride Marches and Festivals every June, developed the Lamda Sports League (bowling, soccer, softball and volleyball leagues) and as we all became more political, started the Fairness Ordinance campaign that targeted the Louisville/Jefferson County area. The Fairness Ordinance was finally passed in 2002.

    Heady times to say the least, times worth remembering. A lot of incredible things all packed into about a 12 year period of time that basically ended when I entered into what would become a ten year relationship with someone who was very closeted. I’m sure I would have wound up being deeply involved in the Gay Rights Movement of the time if I hadn’t, but life takes us where we belong and I’ve become who I am because of the choices I made. Life is good, I’ve become the naturalist I wanted to be, as well as a passionate gardener and, of all things, a funky knitter. I raised my now 23 year old granddaughter after my daughter died and that has been a wild adventure in its own right.

  4. Connie O Byrne November 26, 2020 at 5:10 am #

    Happy Thanksgiving! And I’m giving thanks because your books arrived in yesterday’s mail!! I’d love to dive right in, but I still have a pair of fingerless gloves with flaps to knit and get in the mail by Monday…lol Nothing quiet like being under the gun to make me knit faster.

    I’m really looking forward to reading all three of your books. I know I’ll find them just as engrossing as your pieces of our history!

    Be well, stay healthy and travel in peace

    Connie Byrne

  5. Martha Shelley November 26, 2020 at 9:05 pm #

    Fingerless gloves–I’m impressed. My skills at needlework begin and end with sewing on a button.

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