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Betsy Gimbel: An audacious fighter

By Deirdre Griswold

Frances Dostal of Cleveland remembers Betsy Gimbel shinnying up a flag pole during the Vietnam War to replace a U.S. flag with one representing the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.

Betsy died on April 29 after an illness. As a member of Youth Against War & Fascism in Cleveland, and later of Workers World Party in New York, she found ways to put her audacious stamp on the progressive struggles of her day.

She let the air out of the tires of a police car while anti-war protesters were being arrested in Cleveland. She talked her way into a Republican dinner to heckle President Richard Nixon. She was the main witness against Cleveland police after they beat up young demonstrators from SDS in a prison yard.

In the early 1970s Betsy was one of a small group of women to win jobs as shop clerks in the New York sanitation department's garages and other maintenance shops. As an activist in Local 1549 of DC 37, AFSCME, she became the union protector of these women, who immediately came under a huge chauvinist attack by male garage workers. Almost all the women in this first group were forced out. Without Betsy, who put up feisty resistance to harassment, none would have made it. Today, there are women clerks in virtually every shop, as well as many openly gay clerks.

After she lost one of her legs due to a medical problem, Betsy became an organizer and advocate for the disabled. She was the secretary of Disabled in Action, and led the fight for access to mass transit for the disabled. The group blocked buses with their wheelchairs demanding the public vehicles be made accessible--a demand they won.

Betsy many, many times organized contingents of disabled people in progressive New York demonstrations. Whether it was in support of lesbian, gay, bi and trans rights or marching against U.S. military intervention abroad, the spirited group of activists in wheelchairs or with seeing-eye dogs gave inspiration to the whole crowd.

Betsy met her life-partner Mike Gimbel through the political struggle. But they found they had another passion in common: they both loved reptiles, from snakes and iguanas to alligators. Their apartment in Brooklyn, where they lived in an old commercial loft that they fixed up with pools and overhead branches where their pets could roam and relax, became a mecca for neighborhood children. They didn't have to pay money to go to the Bronx Zoo. They could go to Mike and Betsy's place for an exotic and educational tour.

Betsy for several years headed the Larry Davis Defense Committee, which was hated by the cops because Davis had tangled with them in a gun battle when he tried to stop drug-running in Harlem. Betsy and Mike began receiving threatening phone calls at night. Then the police raided their Brooklyn apartment, killing or injuring many of their pets.

Betsy was courageous and will long be remembered by people across a broad spectrum of communities.

Reprinted from the May 20, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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