A small drama occurred last week in the Glendale Galleria.
It was one of many, no doubt, some being arranged by merchants to stimulate the buying instinct, others arising as spontaneous human scenes that flash briefly and then disappear: a lost child, a dispute in line, an expensive purchase broken on the escalator.
Unlike all those, the appearance Thursday evening of the Women of Conscience was intentionally provocative. It was planned with both an element of surprise and an objective, which was to disrupt the Galleria's unrestrained materialism.
The Women of Conscience are about 30 opponents of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua. They practice a mild form of civil disobedience that works through psychological pressure. They picked the Galleria for their holiday action.
Unannounced, they assembled in the main concourse and sang Christmas carols of protest. They came without the required permit. They also carried a banner that was about 20 feet wide, in violation of Galleria policy. They expected to be ejected.
Not by accident, they struck just about the time the Galleria reached critical density, the point when all motion slows to a viscous creep.
With that as a backdrop, 15 Women of Conscience lined up outside the Galleria's dining plaza at 7 p.m. Their plan was to go head-to-head with the Salvation Army band, which had properly reserved the concourse at that hour.
But the moment the men in blue gave a few preliminary puffs on their horns, the women realized that they could not compete. They conferred and decided to move to the Galleria's next transept.
Near the round stage, they unfurled the banner, which read: "Be one of a thousand points of light. Give the Gift of Life to Nicaraguan Orphans."
Then they raised their song sheets and began to carol.
Oh, you'd better watch out!
You'd better all cry!
You'd better all shout!
I'm telling you why,
The National Guard is coming to town.
Their voices were pleasant, but not very loud. For the first few minutes, shoppers plodding by smiled nicely, apparently hearing only the tune to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Meanwhile, point woman Mary Brent Wehrli, who wore a gray flannel suit, moved into the crowd handing out flyers, which solicited donations for the Women's Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean.
People held out hands wanly, took the flyer and moved on. Almost no one stopped to listen.
At one point, a Glendale police officer stole the show, walking past the group with a young woman in blue jeans, aqua sweat shirt and handcuffs. The crowd reacted, children pointing and adults shaking their heads at the apparent shoplifter.
Almost half an hour into the caroling, a young Galleria security guard appeared in a military jacket, with a walkie-talkie at his waist and a wire to his ear. He politely informed Wehrli that the group was out of order and would have to leave.
She looked surprised and said she'd be happy to talk to someone in management.
"They can just sing while I do it," she said.
The guard, receiving instructions through his earplug, pressed for the group to disband first.
A second guard appeared, then a third. A small circle of onlookers formed. Wehrli used the attention, coolly breaking off her conversation with the ever more persistent guards to engage any shopper within earshot.
One woman argued briefly about the group's message. A couple of people offered cash donations, which Wehrli refused.
Finally, a heavyset guard with an air of authority approached. He told Wehrli that the group would have to leave.
She again looked surprised.
"I want to go upstairs and get a permit," she said.
He said the office was only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"That's not going to help us," she said.
The guard grew agitated. More threatening in tone, he said the women could be physically removed if they continued.
"Why? It's just caroling," Wehrli said, straight-faced. "I can't imagine you're going to throw a bunch of women out of here on Christmas Eve."
Even though her dates were off, her message got through. The guard paced and listened to his earplug. Then he told Wehrli that someone from management was on the way.
The caroling went on, louder.
Away in Honduras the bases are built.
The bombing continues, increasing our guilt.
About 7:45, a young woman in business clothes walked up crisply. She was Elizabeth Burke, director of marketing.
She asked Wehrli to step aside. For 5 minutes, the two women talked nose-to-nose. Burke cited Galleria regulation. Wehrli cited international law. She said she thought it took precedence.
Finally, Burke proposed a compromise. The singing could go on until 5 minutes to 8. Wehrli said she would ask the group.
Wehrli conferred with the singers. They stopped at 5 minutes to 8.
All sides declared the confrontation a success. The Women of Conscience had caroled. The Galleria had avoided a scene.