Citizen Berquist: The Man with the Van

Who's counting?

In Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott states that "loving your enemies [is] nonnegotiable," and recounts the story of A.J. Muste, a Vietnam War protester who spent night after night holding a candle outside the White House. When a reporter asked Muste if he believed his action would change the government's foreign policy, the candle-holder replied, "Oh, I don't do it to change the country; I do it so the country won't change me."

Another man, another time, another war: One year ago next month, Gjerry Berquist went to the Total Tool hardware store near his home in West St. Paul. He was on a mission for grease pencils, and hoped to score the fluorescent multicolored kind that the highway patrol uses on crash sites. He settled for four white Markal Quick Stiks, which construction workers draw on metal beams with. After making his purchase, he uncorked one of the pencils, walked out to his 1986 Volkswagen van and wrote on the back window, "U.S. Troops Dead In Iraq: 1,425."

"It works pretty good," he says, a peace button affixed to his shirt, another one and an Elizabeth Dickinson for Mayor badge stuck to his backpack. "It writes nicely on the window. It's durable, but a scraper does take it off. You don't want to put it on the finish of your car, though, and you don't want to keep it on your dash, because it'll melt."

Jayme Halbritter

As of last week, the number on Berquist's van was 1,823. The number that night on www.antiwar.com/casualties was 1,871, but who's counting? The number works out to a sold-out show at First Avenue, a capacity crowd at St. Joan of Arc church, a half-full Midway Stadium, a slow day at the Mall of America, a crowded plot at Fort Snelling, but...who's counting? Berquist is. But even he isn't keeping an exact tally.

"Since last fall, I might have changed the numbers maybe 10 times," says Berquist, a 56-year-old self-described "public policy participant" and peace activist. "At first, taking in leaps of 20s and 30s and 40s, and then realizing that you've got to take a razor blade and scrape off all this.... After a while, I realized the exact number doesn't matter. The number is over a thousand. In fact, it's approaching two thousand."

Give or take a hundred. Whatever; it's more than the get-in-and-out scenario that was promulgated in March 2003, and a couple of thousand more than when the president promised religious leaders on the eve of the invasion, "there will be no casualties."

"It's a number, and most people just shrug their shoulders," says Berquist, a native of the Iron Range. "That's disappointing. Unless we have a personal connection, somebody who has actually died in this war, I think we generally are distracted by all the other things that are going on in this world. The headlines seem to have more to do with things like Michael Jackson, when our children are over dying in Iraq.

"Nobody's talking about it. Or if they do talk about it, it's just a few moments and then it's what movie they saw, or some rock and roll band, or what really irritates me is what the Twins are doing. For the amount of time that the male population sits around talking about sports, and the thickness of the sports pages, I mean, my God. I'm not denying it fulfills something, but the time and energy and money that gets devoted to sports is unbelievable."

Who does this guy think he is? Telling us there are more important things than Michael Jackson and sports? What a prick. What a morally superior little bitch. We are at war, for God's sake. Of course we know our children are dying. Of course we know that the estimated Iraqi civilian deaths in our name is 26,000. We know, we know, we know, Citizen Berquist. How could we not?

"I don't think we do know," he says. "I don't get any indication from the headlines from any of the papers that I see that they want our population to know how many of our kids have died. I mean, during the Vietnam War, on the nightly news, Walter Cronkite gave a nightly count of how many Viet Cong were killed, and how many Americans were killed. As it came out later, those numbers were just picked out of a hat--they didn't know how many casualties there actually were--but it tried to show by sheer numbers as to how the war was going.

"We don't want to do that, now. We can't even take photographs of the caskets that are coming in to the United States. We're just trying to keep it quiet, and I suspect it's for the government to try to keep everybody's enthusiasm level high. But I think sooner or later, people are going to say, 'Enough. We've had enough. We've lost too many of our children. It's time to reassess why we're in Iraq, and to talk about the lies that got us into Iraq.'"

Berquist is calm, good-humored, and practical. He is no nut or truth-telling village idiot--he simply considers himself "kind of a mosquito, buzzing around the town, trying to remind people not to forget these kids." He is also an amateur radio operator, construction worker, and handyman. In the last year, he has been flipped off, called names, and thumbs-downed. He has also been given plenty of thumbs-up, "right-on"s, and "keep it up"s.

In the past two weeks, with the president's approval rating and support for the war at all-time lows, and the sudden and decided dip in ratings for conservative talk radio shows, Berquist has noticed the same signposts on a street level: The reaction to his van-o-gram has been slightly more positive, even though there are those who still want to kill the messenger.

"I've had a few encounters at gas stations with younger males that want to pick a fight with me about the fact that they have one of their relatives in Iraq right now, and I have no right to put anything on there that could be deemed as being anti-patriotic," he says. "And I basically say, 'Hey, this is public knowledge. That number is out there. We all need to know this, so we can make decisions.'

"That usually doesn't get anywhere. They're usually shouting right away that I'm a traitor or I'm an idiot and all that other stuff. So it really doesn't matter what I say, because they've already made their mind up."

Berquist believes the war will go on for five or six more years. He's concerned about the vets who are returning home with missing limbs and shattered psyches, and the impact that will have on society. Until they're all home, though, he vows to support the troops by putting up big numbers, scraping them off, and putting bigger ones up again. Not to mention handing out spare grease pencils to anyone who might want to start a mobile riot of their own.

"I'm encouraging everyone to do this," he says. "I do some community work in St. Paul, and other things, but it hasn't been enough. This has been out of frustration. I don't watch television; I don't own a television, haven't for 15 years. I kind of keep away from the newspapers. The companies that are funding the newspapers have a vested interest in making sure that everybody thinks everything is okay, and I just don't think that everything is okay."

Jim Walsh can be reached at jwalsh@citypages.com or 612.372.3775

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