Gray Panthers of Metropolitan Washington: Twenty Five Years of Struggle
In April 1973, three years after Maggie Kuhn and friends started the organization that became Gray Panthers, Janet Neuman spearheaded the founding of the Gray Panthers of Metropolitan Washington Network(GPMW). First located at All Souls Church, the Network later shared the use of space and office equipment at 2000 P street with the Retired Professional Action Group. Meetings were held at the Friends Meeting House and the Public Citizens Visitors Center, with the Washington Peace Center providing support. In 1975, the Calvary Baptist Church offered affordable space in the Abernethy Building, and the Network has maintained a fruitful presence here until the present day.
The issues dealt with then still have a familiar ring-- health issues, housing, mass transportation, reforms in the Social Security system, court reform, corporate responsibility, and political action. Larger issues included war and peace, poverty, hunger, repression, racial inequity, and judicial and penal reform. The old and the young were the particular focus of Gray Panther attention, as they were considered to be the least powerful and the most vulnerable. Also, for many years GPMW was the sole Gray Panther presence in Washington, D.C., and played an important role in representing the national Gray Panthers on Capitol Hill. GPMW has since more than fulfilled the initial expectations of this very ambitious program.
GPMW's very first action led to the availability of free checking accounts for older citizens at a number of area banks. Next they tackled rent control. After the Initiative and Referendum Bill of Julius Hobson, a founder of the Statehood Party, was passed by the City Council with GP help, a successful Rent Control Initiative was voted in. Although the original Rent Control bill has been weakened over the years, Gray Panthers have successfully supported rent control against numerous attempts over the years to eliminate it. And, from the earliest years, GPMW has worked wholeheartedly to support Statehood for the District of Columbia.
A Housing Task Force was formed quite early, and Gray Panthers helped establish a Citywide Housing Coalition. Early Gray Panther action led to the restoration of air conditioning in public housing units without it during the intense summer heat. Gray Panthers were early supporters of the Community for Creative Non-Violence which still maintains the nation's largest homeless shelter. Over the years, GPMW brought public attention to deplorable conditions in public housing, especially housing for the elderly. They successfully lobbied for a Condominium Conversion Bill protecting tenants' rights. Over the years, the Gray Panthers have developed a special relationship with Campbell Heights, and the Anti-Poverty Task Force was centered there. Gray Panthers worked with activists at Regency House, and advocated for fair election of the the Resident Tenant's Council which resulted in the election of a reform slate. Gray Panthers is now working in coalition to restore the Tenants' Assistance Program(TAP), and is concerned about the abrogation and expiration of Section 8 contracts. Replacement vouchers being offered do not necessarily cover the difference between what the tenants had been paying and the new increased rent, and are not guaranteed to be reissued.
As early as 1974, the Gray Panthers urged Mayor Walter Washington to set up a Commission on Aging, which ultimately resulted in the current Agency On Aging. After testimony from Gray Panthers, the City Council agreed to add $15 to Supplemental Security Income benefits (it has since been rescinded). At one point, Gray Panthers helped prevent a cut in Food Stamps. The (continued) Social Security Task Force has seen steady activity. In cooperation with the Gray Panthers of Montgomery and Prince Georges County (both offshoots of GPMW), weekly White House rallies supported Social Security and protested cuts. A symposium on the Future of Social Security was sponsored recently by the University of the District of Columbia and GPMW.
Health care is an important issue to the Gray Panthers, and the GPMW Health Task Force supports universal health care. One year to protest cuts in the D.C. health care budget, a "Doomsday Clock" was set up outside the District Building and was stopped only when the cuts were restored. With the Health Equal Access League, GPMW opposed the closing of Capitol Hill Hospital, and successfully fought removal of 40,000 people from the Medicaid rolls. An important early work was a Medicare Assignment Guide, which for the first time provided information about Medicare assignment acceptance by local physicians. Gray Panthers, with the support of good friends John Wilson and Dave Clarke, helped pass the Family and Medical Leave Act. GPMW also helped pass a bill to protect the charitable assets of non-profit hospitals taken over by for-profit groups, ensuring that poor patients care for at least five years after the takeover.
The rights of elders, children and youth, and the mentally ill have always concerned Gray Panthers. The Kincare Coalition, improved laws enabling grandparents taking care of grandchildren(but not their legal guardians) to obtain health care and other services. Through the efforts of the Coalition for Financial Accountability, Aid For Dependent Children (AFDC) was increased by tying the payments to increases in the Consumer Price Index. Gray Panthers lobbied Congress to fund the Domestic Partnership Bill passed by the City Council. GPMW has also joined the DC Immigrants Coalition which works for the human rights and dignity of the immigrant community. The Stand for Children Rally was actively supported by GPMW, and members helped Stand for Children and City of Hope build a playground in Anacostia. The Stop the Violence and Save the Children campaign was also supported by GPMW. Gray Panthers temporarily turned into Green Panthers when they planted azaleas at the Sursum Corda Housing Development, and Christmas toys were collected for the children there.
Peace, Justice & Environment
The GPMW Peace, Justice and Environmental Action Task Force has long been active in coalitions, and helped organize numerous demonstrations such as the 1983 Peace, Jobs, and Justice rally, and the Save Our Cities rally. Signatures were collected for Proposition 1 to abolish nuclear weapons, bring about disarmament and support economic conversion. Every year GPMW protests the Arms Bazaar. Actions against U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada, El Salvador and elsewhere were initiated. The blockade and sanctions against Cuba were opposed. The annual Hiroshima/Nagasaki Commemoration was initiated by the Gray Panthers. Toys of Peace (TOP) demonstrations take place each December to combat war toys and toys encouraging violence. Earth Day activities were endorsed, and Task Force members, authored a map and large data base pinpointing radiation sources in the United States and nearby waters. The death penalty, anti-racism, the criminal justice system, and human rights are other areas of GPMW activism.
Jobs, Justice and Dignity
Actions supporting union organizing began early for GPMW. The Justice for Janitors Campaign started by the Service Employees International Union Local 82, and continued until their successful conclusion earlier this year, was actively supported by Gray Panthers. The Parking Lot (continued) Attendants and Service Employees Union, Local 25, an offshoot of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union attracted the involvement of the Gray Panthers, and these actions too have shown some success. The Gray Panthers joined in objecting to the use of contract employees instead of Washington Gas employees. GPMW worked to defeat the Noise Control Amendment, aimed at stifling union activity. Although the bill eventually passed, it was modified in some favorable ways. Recently, the Living Wage Coalition in Northern Virginia drew the support of the Gray Panthers, and GPMW joined UNITE, an Anti-Sweatshop coalition. The Strawberry Workers of the United Farm Workers (UFW) were supported by an action which drew the support of all the Magruders Grocery Stores in the Washington area.
The Public Utilities Task Force members have spoken regularly at Public Service Commission hearings, generally opposing requested rate increase by PEPCO, Bell Atlantic, and Washington Gas. the generators at Benning Road were opposed, and Gray Panthers joined Metro Watch and testified before the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority against general fare increases on the subway and in favor of continuing lower fares for senior citizens. GPMW testified against the proposed merger of PEPCO and Baltimore Gas & Electric.
Self-Determination & Statehood
In coalition, the Gray Panthers object to the undemocratic imposition of the Financial Control Board and to the erosion of the rights of the citizens of the District of Columbia. The D.C. Coalition on Economic Human Rights was formed recently by GPMW and other activists after the "Freedom Riders" from Kensington Welfare Rights Organization rode into Washington documenting human rights violations to take to the United Nations. The Gray Panthers have given support at rallies and in testimony for the continuing existence of the University of the District of Columbia and DC Law School, and in opposition to the draconian budget cuts. It must be mentioned that from the very beginning Gray Panthers have appeared on television, spoken on radio shows, and even been arrested in support of the various issues on which they worked, and members have often spoken at rallies and demonstrations. Several symposia have been held on pertinent issues, and the activities of GPMW have been recognized by a number of allies, both formally and informally.
Fun! Fun! Fun!
All has not been work! Several film festivals were held over the years, and the DC Chapter of the Gospel Music workshop of America gave a concert in behalf of GPMW at the New Bethel Baptist Church. A program honoring Bishop Tutu at the same church was a highlight for those Gray Panthers attending. A fund raiser was held at Herb's honoring Maggie Kuhn, and the Market Square fund raisers at Campbell Heights have been more play than work. The GPMW 20th Anniversary Party and the "80s in the 90s" gala at the Calvary Baptist Church Hall were enjoyed by those attending. And over the years Gray Panthers have had many memorable and enjoyable quarterly membership meetings.
Truly the Gray Panthers of Metropolitan Washington have been in the forefront of the movement for Peace & Justice in the Metropolitan D.C. Community and beyond. This short history only scratches the surface of twenty five years of service. Thanks must be given to Green Thumb which provided office aides in the early years, and to the National Center and Caucus for Black Aged which currently provides clerical help to the Gray Panthers. Also, GPMW has benefited immensely from all the young interns who have enriched our network through the years. To all our friends and allies we say:
"A LUTA CONTINUA" "THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES"