Iraq War protests in Minnesota

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Protesting the war, honoring the dead, listening to eyewitness accounts of the occupation, Twin Cities residents marked the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in events spanning a week. On March 15, nearly 2,000 people lined the sidewalk in front of the Uptown library, displaing colorful anti-war banners, signs, and flags. This demonstration was organized by the local Iraq Peace Action Coalition. More than 100 high school students from Youth Against War and Racism (YAWR) soon arrived, chanting, “Money for schools not for war.”

“The Iraqi people have a right to self-determination,” Anh Pham of the Anti-War Committee (AWC) told the crowd. “Occupation is not liberation. It’s time for Congress to stop funding wars abroad so our tax dollars can be spent on human needs at home.”

Mike Perkins, of Military Families Speak Out, spoke of his son, who recently completed a tour in Iraq. “This war should have never been fought,” said Perkins. “It’s time to bring our troops home and take care of them when they get here.”

After the opening rally, demonstrators poured onto Hennepin Avenue and marched to Loring Park. A group from First Universalist Church in Minneapolis marched, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Behind them, a contingent of young people chanted, “This is what democracy looks like” and “Troops out now.” The majority of motorists and pedestrians who acknowledged the march honked or waved in support.

At a closing rally, Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi-American who has worked extensively with the Muslim Peacemaker Team in Iraq, spoke about the suffering Iraqis face daily. “The majority of Iraqis don’t have consistent employment, electricity or clean water,” he said. “Still most Iraqis I know, both Sunni and Shia, want U.S. forces to leave the country.”

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Speakers from the Welfare Rights Committee and AFSCME Local 3800 connected the war to domestic economic difficulties as the crowd cheered in agreement. Meredith Aby of the AWC passed out hundreds of flyers promoting upcoming anti-war events. “People need to get out in the streets and demand change,” she said. “The majority of Americans are against the war, but we need to keep putting pressure on both Democrats and Republicans to end it.”

On Wednesday March 19, the actual anniversary of the war’s beginning, hundreds attended the Eyes Wide Open exhibit in the State Capitol. Sixty pairs of combat boots, some decorated with photographs, flowers, or flags, stood on the floor of the rotunda. Each had a tag attached bearing the name of a Minnesota soldier who died in Iraq. Clusters of shoes representing Iraqi civilian casualties were displayed nearby.

Former state senator Becky Lourey spoke out against the war during the opening ceremony. “We know there were no weapons of mass destruction and no links between Saddam Hussein and the attacks on 9-11,” she said. “Iraqis are suffering a devastating humanitarian crisis. The situation is unconscionable.” Lourey’s son, Army helicopter pilot Matthew Lourey, died in Iraq in May of 2005 when his helicopter was shot down.

Lourey said that her “heart is laden with pain but also determination.” She warned against the possibility of another war, calling the potential invasion of Iran a “war crime which would violate the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Principles.” She lamented the lack of attention given the Iraq war in the media and campaign speeches. “They want to focus on the economy,” she said. “But it’s the war in Iraq that’s causing the economy to crumble. The war steals resources from struggling families and only makes a few rich – the oil companies and the defense contractors.”

Lourey ended her speech by encouraging those gathered to stay committed. “We must remain steady and determined because we have a message,” Lourey said. “We must never tire. We must always seek justice.”

The Eyes Wide Open exhibit was initiated nationally by the American Friends Service Committee. When two semi-trucks weren’t enough to hold all the combat boots needed to represent every dead soldier, local groups took up the task of organizing displays on a smaller scale. The Minnesota exhibit has been displayed all over the state and includes a pair of boots for a St. Cloud marine who committed suicide after suffering after his return from Iraq. He had sought treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder but was put on a waiting list at the VA. His family considers him a casualty of the Iraq War and asked that he be included in the commemoration. There are currently 500 Minnesota soldiers in Iraq. Eight hundred members of the MN National Guard are scheduled to go to Iraq this May.

Anne Benson, of Merriam Park Neighbors for Peace, got involved with the Eyes Wide Open project because of its potential to bring people together. “It really represents the human cost of the war and can be a uniting thing,” she said. “People still have mixed feelings about the war, but people share a desire to honor the memory of those who have died.”

Jessie Siers, of Military Families Speak Out, attended the exhibit with a heavy heart. Her brother, John Kessel, is currently deployed in Iraq. “When he enlisted in 2005, my family begged him not to,” she said. “But he believed what the recruiters said. They told him he wouldn’t see combat, that he wouldn’t end up in Iraq. Everything they said was a lie.” Kessel is scheduled to come home in three weeks, and while Siers looks forward to his return, her feelings are conflicted. “We’ll be so happy to see him, but we can’t really celebrate until all of the 160,000 American troops who are still there can come home.”

On Wednesday evening, more than 800 people gathered on the Lake St./Marshall Ave bridge over the Mississippi River. Organized by the Twin Cities Peace Campaign, the vigil is a weekly occurrence. Some have attended the vigil for more than ten years, in protest of U.S. sanctions against Iraq. After the vigil, several hundred people attended a program at a nearby church that featured Brandon Day and Wes Davies, two Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) who recently attended the Winter Soldier hearings in Washington D.C.

Ten members of the local chapter of IVAW attended the hearings which took place last week at the National Labor College. The purpose of the event was for soldiers to describe the realities of war on the ground. (for more on the Winter Soldier hearings, see Winter soldiers and everyday patriots, by Mary Turck.)

“What was revealed is not what you see on television,” said Day, who worked with other veterans to fact-check soldiers’ testimonies prior to the hearings. The event, modeled after the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The Iraq Veterans Against the War have posted extensive footage of the hearings.

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