She’ll Always Be There

     The Baltimore Emergency Response Network lost a good friend on Apr. 23, when Phoebe Kehoe Ostensen passed away. I was with her the night before watching her suffer from kidney failure.
     The night she died, I was at a meeting of the Baltimore Coalition against War in the Balkans, which ended about 9:45 PM. Her best friend, Maureen, called to let me know Phoebe suffered several seizures before passing on. Coincidentally, she died just about the time the meeting ended.
     She was not fond of meetings, yet she was a faithful demonstrator. For example, we marched together from the Capitol on Jan. 26, 1991 to the White House to condemn the Persian Gulf War. After the march, a few thousand of the protesters gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue to chant, dance, drum and sing. A huge contingent of police, bedecked in riot gear like storm troopers from the Star Wars films, surrounded us.
     Phoebe was there to do support. I highly value good support in risk arrest situations, and she was quite effective. As we sat on the street, motorcycle police buzzed by in an intimidating manner. Nevertheless, Phoebe vigorously voiced her disapproval. Phil Berrigan, after listening to one of Phoebe’s more vocal outbursts, once recognized her as a significant proponent of the First Amendment.
     Phoebe stayed with those risking arrest until it became obvious the police were going to clear the area. It was now the evening, after the news cameras were gone, and they viciously cleared out the demonstrators, knocking some of the revelers into a snow fence. Eleven of us were arrested, and, just before I was tossed into the police wagon, I noticed Phoebe was still there in Lafayette Park.
     This little friend of mine was buried early Saturday morning, on Apr. 24. The site was in an area of the city which she grew to love. Several friends gathered, and tulips and flower petals were placed in her grave. Readings were offered in her honor, some tears shed and then the long good-bye.
     My first encounter with her was rather tense. She was emphatic in letting me know I was an intruder. But like all of us, she was carrying some baggage. In her case, she was once homeless and without a family. Fortunately, Maureen, a caring social worker, opened her door, and Phoebe leaped through.
     Her fierce resolve soon melted, and we would pal around. She developed a yen for my tofu sandwiches and very much enjoyed going for motor rides. Of course, with me, many of the rides led to demonstrations. Soon she was a recognized activist.
     The 25th anniversary of the Catonsville Nine draft board raid was commemorated at Goucher College from May 21 through the 23, 1993. As part of the anniversary, we held a peace witness at the Martin Marietta plant in Essex. A delegation tried to meet with a representative of the weapons contractor. Instead of engaging in dialogue, though, Martin officials called the Baltimore County police. Our delegation poured blood, representing the victims of Martin’s weapons contracts, in front of the entrance where we gathered, but the police did not arrest anyone. Instead they decided to wait us out.
     The wait on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to this mirrored building would be eight hours, and Phoebe was there in support. Bringing some levity to the scene, the little activist saw her reflection in the face of the building and proceeded to chastise the interloper. Eventually, though, about five PM, a local minister, who earlier tried to encourage our departure, led a phalanx of police officers, and we were taken into custody.
     Phoebe knew firsthand many forms of discrimination. For example, she was never permitted into courthouses. A few years ago, she was in Washington, DC outside Superior Court, during a trial of activists arrested in a White House protest. A car struck her, rolling her over. Nevertheless, she did manage to join us later that day for a demonstration at the Israeli embassy calling for the release of nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.
     On the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, she joined Martin Sheen and hundreds of others at the Pentagon. Unable to risk arrest, she still hoped to be near the action. Sadly, an organizer, who now heads a national peace organization, told her to move.
     Last year, in front of the White House, Phoebe was protesting the economic sanctions on Iraq. The U.S. Park Police ringed off the area with yellow tape. Several officers told her she would be taken to the pound, and that no one ever returns. She handled this bit of gallows humor with aplomb.
     She spoke truth to power at such institutions as the Central Intelligence Agency, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Maryland Penitentiary, National Security Agency and State Department. Several years ago, she was in Connecticut to protest the launch of a nuclear submarine, and the next day her photograph appeared in the local paper. Actually, though, she shunned publicity and was totally unassuming.
     Like Gandhi, Phoebe had few possessions. The little she had was bequeathed to her good friend Bert who was there when she was laid to rest.
     At her funeral service, I chose to read from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the passage where Tom is saying goodbye to Ma Joad: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.” Phoebe, like Tom Joad, will be there wherever there is a struggle. And these days, with the U.S. government at war with Iraq and Yugoslavia, there are many struggles.

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This story was published on May 5, 1999.