This 90-year-old New York activist fought racist housing practices, was a nurse during the AIDS epidemic, and is now protesting for Black Lives Matter

In midtown Manhattan, other demonstrators ‘take a knee’ while Shatzi symbolically joins in, during the first days of the protests following the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Anna Leah
  • Lifelong New York activist Shatzi Weisberger is refusing to let age, curfew, or nosy neighbours discourage her from fighting for what she believes in.
  • As a young adult, she fought racist redlining practices that prevented Black people from homeownership; in her career as a nurse, she provided in-home care to those affected by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
  • Recently, Weisberger attended protests throughout Manhattan and broke curfew in civil disobedience in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
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Today, Shatzi Weisberger turns 90.

She gets impatient when people tell her she shouldn’t be demonstrating in the streets. An acquaintance, watching news coverage of Black Lives Matter protests, warned Weisberger to remain in her Manhattan apartment. “That was the moment that I decided to come out,” she recounted, “Damnit. ‘Stay at home and be safe’? I’m not going to worry about my safety. There’s more important things happening.”

Neither COVID-19 nor the physicality of activism deterred Weisberger. She’s been on the front lines for most of her life – as a “Dyke Opposed to Nuclear Technology,” a white ally, a voter registrar, and a nurse during the peak of AIDS-related deaths.

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Shatzi Weisberger in her nurse’s uniform at around age 21. Courtesy of Shatzi Weisberger

Her walker was flanked by Pride and Black Lives Matters Flags as she made her way through tuba players, TV news crews, and marching groups at the Washington Square Park protest on a recent Monday.

“This is not new,” Weisberger said, recalling talk of race-based police brutality from her early days of organising. “The police are a product of the society…. So it’s not just that we need to reform the police. We need to reform society.”

Her first activism efforts were against the redlining of suburban developments on Long Island.

“This community had lovely houses that were very, very affordable, but only white people could buy them,” she said. Her group sent families of colour to the broker, who told them a deposit had already been made on the home they wanted. Weisberger followed, inquiring about the same house. She would be invited to make an offer.

In recent civil disobedience during the Black Lives Matter protests, Weisberger broke curfew. At most demonstrations, she said, “There weren’t any old people besides me. People are afraid to be around other people.”

Weisberger, a former nurse, acknowledges there is a risk, but insists the danger of outdoor transmission is small. She believes in the benefits of sunshine – on days she doesn’t protest, she walks laps around her housing complex. Ever stubborn, she says people have called her “all sorts of names” for only wearing a mask when close to other people.

Weisberger has lived through an epidemic before.

She gave in-home care to those dying of AIDS during the 1980s in New York. Her words become sparse recalling a time when gay men were killed disproportionately. ‘Sad’ is her refrain. Patients were lost to a disease that was left unrecognised for years. “Now, everything is about the virus,” she said, pointing out a contrast between the epidemics, “If somebody died and The New York Times wrote the official obituary, they did not say the person died of AIDS… and they didn’t mention that they had a partner that lived with them for 40 years.”

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Weisberger with friends at a Pride Parade in the early 1970s. Courtesy of Shatzi Weisberger

Four or five years ago, Weisberger tended to her best friend at the end of her life. Then, Weisberger turned to death education, which she describes as “invigorating, not sad.” Before COVID-19, she hosted death cafés and threw a “fun-eral.” Tomorrow, her monthly conversation about dying will be online.

She never felt obligated to be an activist, but does feel obligated to share what she’s learned. Death is not something she eagerly anticipates, but she is gratified her remains will foster “Maybe flowers, maybe weeds, maybe a tree – whatever, it’s going to bring life into the world. That appeals to me.”

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Weisberger protesting in October 2019 with Jewish Voice for Peace. Photo courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace

For all her activism, Weisberger does not dwell. She was a member of Dykes Opposed to Nuclear Technology in the 1970s. “When Three Mile Island happened, it was part of the mainstream,” she explained, “I didn’t feel the need to do it, because it was becoming quite popular.”

Despite the recent Supreme Court decision regarding workplace discrimination against people based on gender or sexual orientation, Weisberger is not hugely celebratory. She’s seen so much progress over her lifetime.

For perspective, she said, “My mother was gay. She lived at a time when it was a crime.”

Weisberger describes living in a small apartment with her mother and her partner of 47 years. “It was such an absolute secret… I never, ever, one time, never saw them touch or look at each other in any way that would confirm that that was their relationship. It was so hidden.”

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Shatzi Weisberger at a Black Lives Matters in Washington Square Park. Photo by Anna Leah

Now, thousands throng in front of the Brooklyn Museum to support Black trans rights. On June 24, it will be nine years since New York passed the Marriage Equality Act.

Long before, Weisberger wedded herself to fighting disease, injustice, and fear of death. Among the many charms around her neck is a silver battle-ax inscribed with ‘Chai’, the Hebrew word for life.