PROFILE INTERVIEW: JUDITH WONSTOLEN
Wonstolen attended a “lousy little high school” in Canal Fulton from 1969 to 1972, left for Jacksonville after her junior year and obtained her GED some years later. She did not begin college until 1988, post divorce (she was 33-years-old). She went to Kent State University and Ohio State University before Arapahoe Community College, Metro State College and Regis University.
High school in Canal Fulton had a limited selection of classes. Wonstolen had to drop all of her classes: Art, Psychology and French that she started taking at her high school in New York. In college, however, she began her major in Communications. She later switched her majors from Sociology to Education and finally Human Services. After her first Women’s Studies class at Metro, she wanted to take more so she put together an IDP combining Human Services with Women’s Studies and Psychology. Her MA is Psychology with an emphasis in Women’s Spirituality and Adult Education.
Wonstolen started teaching at Metro in 2001. Dr. Jodi Wetzel asked her to come and teach Psychology of Women class. As a Metro student, she was president of Triota (Women’s Studies Honor Society) and a student representative on the advisory board. After graduating, Wonstolen stayed in touch, attended events and after teaching her first course, she continued adding. She has taught 60 Intro To Women’s Studies classes.
She feels that, “Beginning in college at 33, becoming an honor student and sticking with it until she earned her MA, despite being a single mother, is a major accomplishment.”
Wonstolen raised two children and is currently an active grandmother to three grandchildren.
“I highly value this,” she says.
Developing her teaching year after year, remains an involving achievement and being in the 15thyear of leading a women’s spirituality circle is also something she feels very good about.
A few years back, Wonstolen participated in a Women’s Leadership conference in Paris and met activists from all over the globe. Last fall, she went to the annual NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) conference and sat in on many different thought-provoking panels.
Wonstolen recounted a story about the time when she participated in the march, protesting the Vietnam War. She was 17-years-old at the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami Beach, FL. Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was in full swing. The city had provided a permit to camp in the park and a few thousand of her and other protesters had been camping there for the week. Over the main street, stretched a banner that read: “Miami Beach Senior Citizens Welcome Protesters!”
Many of the restaurants were providing free food and when they marched each night, senior citizens would come out on their balconies and cheer and sometimes throw confetti. The marches had all been nonviolent and the police seemed to be keeping a very low profile, if seen at all.
On the evening of the last march, Wonstolen felt there was an odd note of foreboding in the air. The organizers seemed nervous and were advising folks not to wear contact lenses to the march. Tear gas hitting contacts could cause severe burning and even blindness. The Red Cross folks were mobilizing with plastic bags filled with wet paper towel rolls.
There was an announcement that if a person wanted to make a statement by being arrested, that person should join a smaller group planning to conduct a sit-in on the steps of the administration building where the delegates were meeting. In traditional sit-in style, protesters would practice passive resistance and remain seated until dragged off to the paddy wagons.
Neither Wonstolen’s boyfriend nor her wanted to be arrested, so they opted to join the march, as they had done every evening. She kept her contacts in, for she was “pretty blind without them, and I didn’t have glasses along on that trip. My jeans had no pockets, so I asked my boyfriend to put the container in his just in case.”
According to Wonstolen, these contacts were long before disposable contacts were around.
The march began like any other night but it felt different to Wonstolen. Police cars were out and helicopters were crisscrossing the skies. They were up towards the very front of the march when a line of police in full riot gear suddenly filed in from side streets blocking the way. They found out later that police had done this at several points along the marching route, cutting it into sections. In one of the unlucky sections behind Wonstolen’s group, police apparently had rushed in, clubs swinging.
Red Cross workers began shouting out for people to remove contacts and Wonstolen quickly took hers out and returned them in the case to her boyfriend’s pocket. Suddenly, there were loud popping noises going off everywhere around them and clouds of smoke (tear gas) rising from the street…
“People were pulling their shirts up over their faces and running and we did the same. I could already feel my eyes and skin burning,” Wonstolen describes.
They were one block off the beach and so all of them ran down to the water’s edge to splash the sea on their faces. That had helped a bit but soon they looked up to see another group of riot police closing in on the beach.
This time the police made everyone form a long line and began herding protesters into the back doors of one of the large, historic Miami Beach hotels.
Wonstolen began thinking that going along with this line was foolish when they could just as easily dart off and run in a different direction. She tried to convince her boyfriend of this course of action when a couple in front of them, got the same idea. No sooner did the couple break from the line—when a group of cops—charged them and beat them both to the ground with clubs.
Wonstolen remembers, “I think that was the moment when the situation started seeming both surreal and all too real at the same time. I knew that could have been us and my boyfriend was quick to point out, ‘good thing I didn’t listen to you!'”
Soon she and her group were through the hotel’s back doors and found themselves in a huge grand-style lobby with high arched ceilings—and not a stick of furniture! It was evident that it had been cleared, as part of a premeditated plan.
It seemed like 10-15 minutes went by as they milled around…
the bathrooms were locked and no one was at the front desk. The police had vanished. Again, all started seeming very surreal to Wonstolen.
“I felt like I had crossed over into ‘The Twilight Zone.’”
Some people started saying they should just all leave. The back doors had been locked behind them, but the wall of front glass doors were right there, so it seemed reasonable to begin to go out. A wide set of stone steps were across the whole front of the hotel’s grand entrance…maybe two or three flights of them led down to the street.
No sooner did the hundred or so of the protesters begin making their way down those steps, when another line of riot police filed across the bottom, at street level. This time, they held up megaphones and began barking, “All protesters sit down! All protesters sit down!”
Wonstolen and other protesters had no choice but to comply with this order and sat down while police began a long process of taking small groups down to be loaded into the paddy wagons that were rolling up the street. Men and women were being separated, apparently headed for different destination prisons, which distressed Wonstolen.
“I was starting to feel less like a protester and more like a vulnerable 17-year-old with every passing minute.”
Soon, she was in a paddy wagon with a group of women and after a long hot ride, found herself in a large holding room waiting to be arraigned on charges. Adding to her insecurity was the fact that she couldn’t see anyone’s faces clearly without her contacts, which were still in her boyfriend’s jean pockets.
There was angry talk going around about freedom of assembly and constitutional rights being violated and phone calls being planned to the ACLU. People wondered how arresting nonviolent protesters could be justifiable.
When Wonstolen and the protesters in her group were handed their tickets, the written charges said they were all being arrested for “blocking the steps to the Traymore Hotel!”
Wonstolen realized that from the time they were tear gassed, met at the beach, herded into the cleared out hotel lobby and left on their own to wander out the front doors, it had all been a master minded plan set in motion.
It turned out that they were lucky to be off the streets and in a large air-conditioned prison cell, being brought a cart of sandwiches. In downtown Miami Beach, tear gas was being dropped from helicopters, even on the park where they had the permit to camp and where a large day care tent was filled with kids.
The ER rooms were being deluged with senior citizens in respiratory distress, as gas wafted into them. Gas had even made its way into the convention hall, sickening some of the delegates. Everywhere, people were being chased down and beaten by police.
It was so strange that the city of Miami Beach decided to take these oppressive actions on the very last night when they all would have packed up and left the park the next morning. Peaceful marches had been taking place all week, undisturbed by police.
Wonstolen explains, “In a final touch of irony, the folks who went off to stage the sit-in on the convention hall steps were the ones who ended up notgetting arrested, as all the riot police were too busy going after the marchers!’
Meanwhile, she had her mug shot and fingerprints taken and was put on the FBI list at her age of 17. It was her first and only taste of prison life; she was mostly terribly bored, with nothing to read available and too shy to speak to people whose faces she could not make out.
The end result was that the City of Miami Beach got a lot of bad national press and lost huge sums of money, as all the protesters refused to make bail and leave the jails, staying and consuming food and providing lots of guards with overtime pay. On the fifth day, the city finally gave up, dropped all the charges and in some cases, even had to bodily carry folks out of the jails!
Wonstolen cannot help but keep these memories when marching in the streets of Denver in a few of the Occupy marches last fall. Seeing the riot police and marchers with bandanas pulled up over their noses made her very uncomfortable, especially when marching with her daughter and two of her grandchildren. She knew that the fact that the marches were peaceful would mean nothing if a decision came down from somewhere to move in.
Watching live feeds online from Occupy protests all over the country, including Denver, showing countless police clashes was even more chilling to her. It brought back painful memories of the 1967 Chicago Convention and Kent State shootings that helped to radicalize her as a young teen.
Wonstolen enjoys all her Women’s Studies courses, especially her new one in Women’s Spirituality. When she’s not teaching or grading assignments and papers, she likes taking her dogs for walks out in nature, visiting with close friends and spending time with her family.
“I used to love books and movies too, but those are now rare pleasures I never seem to find time for. The same could be said for organic gardening. I do find times to attend some spiritual events like kirtans and my women’s circle celebrations.”