In America, war is routine, and at a Twin Cities bridge, so are peace vigils. What motivates these protesters to persist? Let’s visit and find out.
For an hour on Wednesday evenings, Wanda joins a small cadre of protesters on the sidewalk of the busy Lake Street/Marshall Avenue bridge. They hold signs insisting that the United States get out.
Get out Afghanistan. Get out of Syria. Get out of Ukraine. Get out of Iraq (again). Get out of Libya, Germany, Japan, Korea and the dozens of other foreign countries where the United States has military bases.
She parades up and down the bridge, holding signs: “Funds for Housing and Jobs!” “No New Wars!” “Bring all the Troops and War Dollars Home!” “No Drones!” “No Barrel Bombs!” and “Peace!”
An antiwar protest; it’s so anachronistic. Even the 8½-by-11-inch fliers for the event look like they’ve been mimeographed.
Wanda’s not a radical. Fifty-six years old, she works as an occupational therapist at a nursing home in Maplewood, three years from early retirement. She lives in an old, 1,300-square-foot home in St. Paul near the Mississippi River. She has a dog, two cats and two chickens (for the company and the eggs). I live with her, too. She keeps me for the company
For years, she has made a contribution to the local Boy Scout troop, which plants the Stars and Stripes on the boulevard each Memorial Day, Flag Day, July 4 and Veterans Day. Up steps from the boulevard, off the front porch, she regularly flies a blue flag embedded with the universal peace symbol. She sees no contradiction in her flag-waving jingoism.
The bridge has been host to a noted peace vigil for 15 years, begun following the 1999 United States bombing in Yugoslavia. Organized by various Twin Cities groups, from Women Against Military Madness to Veterans for Peace, the vigil usually attracts a small group, mostly gray-haired oldies from the Vietnam protest era. Notable are the four McDonald sisters: all siblings, all Catholic nuns. Sometimes there are high school students from a peace studies program. After a flare-up, such as the latest Iraq crisis, numbers swell to include students from area colleges.
Perpetual protest for perpetual war.
You turn up, grab a sign and walk. At the end, you meet in a circle, listen to announcements and maybe share a spontaneous song. During winter, sometimes the small group goes to a nearby cafe for soup. Often the protesters will get horn beeps of support from the traffic or other times, a middle finger. It’s a quiet protest. Wanda often walks her dog while she holds a sign, admiring the view of the river in the gorge below.
Wanda’s isolation grew steadily. She was usually indifferent to world events, until her son’s close buddy, Jake, enlisted and served two tours in Iraq, came home and killed himself. He was a sweet boy, unassuming, a high school wrestler. His death was meaningless. Not to ignore our war on terror, she still found it hard to find meaning in other soldiers’ deaths and injuries. None of President George W. Bush’s or President Obama’s invocations of America’s security needs explained the need for Jake to die.
As a child, I measured U.S. military acumen by the tale of the tape below Walker Cronkite’s image on the CBS Evening News: number of Viet Cong killed, number of Americans killed. It was usually a 5-to-1 ratio, so I knew we were winning. Years later, I attended the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in October 1969 at the Milwaukee War Memorial. So many candles, so many people. I was 16. We were losing, I learned. I wouldn’t be eligible for the draft lottery for another two years. I became more attuned-to but endlessly indifferent to world events.
The bridge vigil isn’t a protest. Unlike the moratorium and prior and subsequent anti-Vietnam protests — climaxing perhaps at Kent State — what Wanda is doing on the bridge isn’t exerting an iota of change on the president, the Congress or the American populace.
One Wednesday, Wanda comes home, and I recount that day’s events in Iraq or Syria. I chide her: “It didn’t work.”
She sighs and says she’ll just have to walk more. And then I realize that she isn’t protesting, but praying. A public civil prayer. As much a prayer of hopelessness that the Minnesota Vikings win the Super Bowl. A self-described Buddhatopian with suspected Jewish roots, overlaid with my lapsed Catholic influence, Wanda isn’t a religious gal. But she’s never been more devout.
Wanda and the other protesters don’t want the United States to disengage from the world, just to let other nations and peoples evolve on their own, even if it begets violence. She wants America to stop acting like an invasive species.
She’s my little isolationist.
Doug Champeau is a writer from St. Paul.
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