On March 19 — five years to the day of the invasion of Iraq — a weekly anti-war rally drew more than the usual crowd to the Lake Street/Marshall Avenue bridge over the Mississippi River, where protesters have been gathering every Wednesday since the war began to voice their opposition.
Organizers estimated that 700–1,000 people were on hand by 5:30 p.m., at the height of the rally. The vast majority were there to protest the war in Iraq, among other issues such as the possibility of war with Iran.
Mayor R.T. Rybak was among the anti-war crowd. “Five years ago, and even longer ago, I was out with people protesting this war, and I’m going to keep doing it until people wake up,” he said as passing drivers flashed the “peace” sign and honked their apparent support for the anti-war demonstrators. “It’s clear to me right now that we have three huge problems,” Rybak continued. “We have a war, we have climate crisis and we have an economic meltdown, but they’re all the same issue. We’re fighting wars for oil, and we’re going to have to fight more wars for oil unless we find ways to turn our economy around to a green economy that also creates jobs.”
Nearby, a man held a multi-colored flag with the word “PACE” on it. No, he wasn’t missing a letter — “pace” means “peace” in Italian. It was just one of a variety of signs and props on display. St. Paul resident Mike Madden rode back and forth across the bridge on his bicycle, towing on a trailer his dog Johann and an effigy of President George W. Bush standing in a jail-like cage, wearing a prison outfit. A sign next to him read: “The Hauge or bust.”
Midway across the bridge, Janet Beagan held a green peace-symbol flag behind Mark Bannick, who held high an America flag. Bannick, who lives in St. Paul, said he’d like to see the occupation of Iraq end “in an orderly fashion. We need to give their country back to them,” he said. “That’s why they’re mad at us, that’s why they’re shooting at us and killing us, because they want us out of their country. How would you like it if someone came here and said, ‘This is the way it’s going to be, and we’re going to police you, and we’re going to break into your homes anytime we want and ransack your place?
Asked why he chose the flag as a symbol, Bannick answered: “Because I want my country back. I want to be told the truth. I want answers to the questions that I have. Who authorized our country to be able to rendition people? To torture people? To wiretap people without a warrant? We don’t have our country, our freedoms are being chipped away.”
At the east end of the bridge, the same flag symbolized support for the war, as three men made up the only apparent counterpoint to the vastly anti-war crowd.
“I fought three wars so that these people can say what they want to say,” said retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Repya of Eagan. “Even if it is terribly misguided and un-American.”
Repya, who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War before volunteering for duty in the current Iraq War, held a handmade sign that read “VICTORY — DON’T QUIT, WIN.” There was some obvious antagonism between Repya and his comrades and the anti-war protesters, but the three held their own with conversation — if not heated argument — and, in the case of at least one driver who slowed to give a piece of his mind, a blast from an air-horn by one of Repya’s fellow supporters.
Repya said his vocal support stems from his personal experience and support for fallen comrades. “I came here because I’ve lost friends in all three wars I’ve fought,” he said, “and I wanted to show respect to them by being here and saying, ‘we must win in Iraq and come home victorious.’”
Bill Oldfather came out from the Stillwater area because “I just think this war is immoral and was a horrible mistake from the start.” Oldfather has been out on the bridge to protest the war “many, many times,” he said. “We’ve got to do something to stop it, and maybe this will help.”