Seattle activist Dorli Rainey died on Aug. 12. She was 95.
Rainey was, at her core, a fighter.
She was passionate in her work against nuclear arms and nuclear power. She advocated against the tunnel that replaced the viaduct and for enhancements to public transit. She had been arrested at least twice by 2013, once during a nonviolent protest of a foreclosure against a man she called Jeremy who, like millions of Americans, faced the consequences of a banking crisis not of their making. She was known to get cheeky with Seattle bicycle cops who monitored the silent vigils held by Women in Black in honor of people experiencing homelessness who died outside or by violence.
“I don’t know why they would guard us, we are so dangerous,” she said in a 2012 video uploaded on YouTube, speaking to a group of anti-nuclear activists, who laughed at the idea. “But I like to smile at them.”
She demonstrated, pulling her face into a mocking grin.
“And that’s the best revenge.”
Rainey’s activism and influence took many forms, but her fame was cemented in a single photograph in 2011, shot by seattlepi.com photographer Joshua Trujillo during the Occupy protests. Rainey, then 84, took the brunt of a blast of pepper spray fired by Seattle Police Department officers. In the image, she stares dead into the camera, white liquid streaming down her face, flanked by two men, one of whom is Carl Nakajima, a Real Change vendor.
In the same 2012 video, she recalled people asking her about that moment and how terrible it must have been to experience the pain of the chemical spray. Physical discomfort wasn’t top of mind for Rainey at the time, however.
“Right after I got the pepper spray, I said to the two guys helping me, I said, ‘We did it. We got ourselves on the map,’” Rainey said. “And I laughed.”
Rainey was born in Austria in the 1920s. She remembered wartime propaganda pouring out of the airwaves from Radio Free America and Radio Free Europe and from the presses controlled by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
The truth, she decided, must lie somewhere in between.
Rainey moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1956. She was a Sunday school teacher, a self-described “Boeing wife,” a leader in the local Parent Teacher Association and school board member in Issaquah. According to The Atlantic, she came within 400 votes of clinching the Republican nomination for a seat on the King County Council in the 1970s.
She would run for public office once more in 2009, this time to be the mayor of Seattle, but she pulled out of the race. According to an article in the Seattle Times, she sent an email to supporters saying that her “age caught up to her.”
“I am old and should learn to be old, stay home, watch TV and sit still,” she wrote at the time.
Rainey didn’t stick with that line of reasoning very long. In fact, her age became an asset to her activism. She felt that she could do what other, younger people could not, take risks that they could not afford. Her needs were small, she told journalist Mike McCormick in a 2013 interview, and she had social security. Getting arrested and missing work weren’t concerns for her like they were for others who protested during the foreclosure crisis, for example.
Getting out and involved was invigorating, she told McCormick.
“It feels good when you do something besides sit and watch YouTube cartoons,” she said. “It just… you feel like you’re there for something.”
Read more of the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2022 issue.