Minnesotans pitch tents at Coleman’s St. Paul office to protest war


Anti-war protesters say, “Congress won’t end the war unless we make them.”

On Monday, July 23, the sidewalk in front of Senator Norm Coleman’s office building was covered with lawn chairs, coolers and bottles of sunscreen. People were gathered as if waiting for a parade to appear on University Avenue.

Yet those assembled were not there to witness an event; they were the event. A middle-aged man held a sign that said, “Bring the troops home now.” An elderly woman displayed a picture of an Iraqi mother and child. A teenage girl held up two fingers in a peace sign and cheered every time a passing motorist honked or waved in approval. Perhaps the most telling symbol was a tent pitched in the median. A sign leaned against it that read, “Norm, how many more must die?”

For a full 24 hours – from 10 a.m. Monday to 10 a.m. Tuesday — local peace activists maintained a vigil in front of the senator’s office as a sign of opposition to the war in Iraq, and their commitment to ending it.

Organized by the Twin Cities Peace Campaign and Women Against Military Madness, the vigil, at Coleman’s office at 2550 University Ave., began with 40 people. By noon, 75 had gathered. At 4 p.m. the crowd had swelled to 150. They came from all over the Twin Cities to express outrage, to share experiences, to honor the dead, and to sign a petition asking the Minnesota Congressional delegation to vote against further funding for the war.

“We organized this vigil to show that the people of Minnesota want an end to the U.S. war in Iraq,” said longtime peace activist Marie Braun. “Our message is ‘not one more death, not one more dollar.’ Bring the troops home now. Fund human needs not war.”

Braun cited the human costs of war as reason to end the occupation. According to a study conducted by The Lancet, a British medical journal, over 655,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war, and as of July 24, 3,637 American troops have been killed.

Braun, who has traveled to Iraq, sees the U.S. occupation as a grave injustice.

“The conduct of this war has resulted in a crime against humanity,” she said. “Our government has destroyed a country, its institutions, its history, its memory, its schools and hospitals, its ability to feed people.”

Braun, along with many in the Twin Cities peace community, has opposed the war since before it started. “It was never about finding WMDs or establishing democracy,” she said. “It’s about greed. Right now our government is pressuring the Iraqi Parliament to sign the Hydrocarbon Law, which would privatize Iraq’s oil and give 80% of the revenue to multi-national oil companies who would have no obligation to reinvest profits back into the country. This is grossly immoral.”

Braun was one of twelve people arrested for trespassing at Coleman’s office when they refused to leave at closing time in early April. On the same day, twelve members of the Anti-War Committee were arresting for blocking traffic in front of the office. Those charged with traffic obstruction pled guilty and paid a minimal fine for the offense, but the trespassers had their charges dismissed.

The ruling didn’t sit well with some members of the group who felt their protest should have been taken more seriously.

“I felt personally dismissed,” said one woman, a senior citizen who had committed her first act of civil disobedience. The group agreed that further action was necessary. They met to discuss their options, and soon the idea for a 24-hour vigil was born.

Featured during the vigil were several speakers who have been personally affected by the war. Julie Larson, a member of Military Families Speak Out, spoke of her son, a marine who was just deployed for his second combat tour in Iraq.

“I feel like a mother lion whose cub is being abused,” she said. “My son took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. He did not take an oath to soothe the egos of politicians who won’t admit they were wrong. If our elected officials really support the troops, they should bring them home now and take care of them when they get here.”

When asked to comment on the 24-hour vigil, Coleman’s staffers released a statement from the Senator that read in part, “I respect the right of people to express their opinions on this important issue and the passion they bring to the debate. But our approach must guarantee the safety of our troops and the security of our nation. We must defend against terror and defeat al-Qaeda.”

Braun disagrees. “Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and al-Qaeda had no presence in Iraq until U.S. troops invaded,” she said. “The U.S. occupation is the cause of, not the solution to, the destabilization of Iraq. Only when the U.S. leaves will the Iraqi people be able to take control of their country.”

Other speakers at the vigil included former state senator Becky Lourey, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2005, University of St. Thomas professor and 2008 senatorial candidate Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, and members of the Anti-War Committee and Veterans for Peace.

After dark on Monday evening, vigil participants lit candles, listened to readings and sang songs. At least forty people spent the night. Some set up tents while others slept under the stars.

The following morning, over eighty people gathered in the lobby outside Coleman’s office for a press conference. After each of the four speakers, chants of “Troops Out Now” echoed through the hallways. The building manager, who declined to give her name, observed the group from a distance. “I’m here to make sure nothing gets out of hand,” she said. “They seem like nice people but they need to respect that this is an office building and people are trying to work.”

Rick Hanson, of Military Families Speak Out, responded, “There’s a war going on. It’s a hell of a lot louder in Baghdad right now.” Hanson, whose son is currently deployed in Iraq, has little patience when asked to protest politely. “Every day the war continues, things get worse. Every time these politicians vote to fund the war, they sign death certificates for our kids and Iraqi kids.”

To mark the end of the vigil, participants held a memorial service. Organizers distributed signs, each displaying the name of a dead soldier, or a picture of an Iraqi child. Moving in single-file, protesters entered the office one by one and spoke the name of the person on his or her sign. In closing, Braun presented a large framed picture bearing the likenesses of all 55 Minnesotans who have been killed in Iraq. The Twin Cities Peace Campaign had one made for each member of the Minnesota Congressional delegation to be delivered at a later date. When asked, Coleman’s staff declined to comment on what they will do with the picture.

Meredith Aby, of the Anti-War Committee, considered the 24-hour vigil a success.

“We had a great turn-out,” she said. “The peace movement in the Twin Cities is very strong. It’s up to us to keep mobilizing. Congress won’t end the war unless we make them. Politicians are motivated by self-interest. It’s the people who create real social change.”

Katrina Plotz is a free-lance writer in the Twin Cities.