Alone in a Crowd

Richard Fleischman

"Coldest place in the Twin Cities," Phyllis Cohen murmurs to me below the din, paying no mind to the mass of people and news crews passing by. The wind picks up as a frigid rain starts to fall. She zips up her ski jacket and hoists a "Hands Off Iraq" sign higher above her slight, 82-year-old frame.

It's rush hour on the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue Bridge, and a chorus of car horns is punctuated by whoops and shouts for world harmony. Four college-aged men, driving a blue Toyota Corolla and wearing backward baseball caps, crawl through the traffic jam, crossing the Mississippi from St. Paul to Minneapolis. As they pass by Cohen, who is surrounded by protestors flashing the peace sign, the driver offers his middle finger.

"Fuck you!" he shouts out his window at the grandmother of seven.

"I'm so used to it by now," she groans. "I usually just say, 'Go join the service if you want to fight.' I call their bluff."

Cohen and some 20 like-minded activists have been coming to this spot with their signs every Wednesday night at 4:30 p.m. for the last four years. The first peace vigil was held to protest the U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia. Since then, the group, sometimes numbering no more than 10, has stood on the bridge to protest the U.S.-led trade sanctions that have starved thousands of Iraqis. Most of the crew, with their gray hair, bifocals and hearing aids, predate the Vietnam era--and many of them are veterans. They wield handmade signs and hope to get people's attention as they hurry home from work. On more than one occasion, I have seen them standing there and honked my horn as a sort of greeting. Then I would forget all about them.

Since October, though, I've been thinking more and more about these stubborn activists as the Bush administration has obstinately marched toward war. It seems I was not alone. The crowds on the bridge have grown steadily as the prospect for peace has dimmed. Tonight, on the eve of "Operation Free Iraq," Cohen and her cohorts have been joined by more than 1,000 people, most of whom heard about the vigil through their churches and schools and are attending for the first time. There are part-time students, full-time peaceniks, punkers, professors, a few blue collars, and a lot of middle-class professionals, almost all of them white. There is also a striking number of children, like Ruth Foster. "President Bush makes me angry," the six-year-old says. "He doesn't even hear us. I don't think he listens at all."

"I've been organizing against war since they dropped all those atomic bombs," Cohen says. "I've been against the Korean War, I've been against the Vietnam War. I've been against military action when others weren't paying attention. And it's nice that people are here tonight, but I'd be here alone if I had to be."

There are hundreds of signs, most of them featuring variations on a similar theme ("Read My Lips: No New Axis," "Killing Iraqis is Not Liberation," and, of course, "Support Our Troops--Bring Them Home"). And while a number of drivers slinking by on the bridge seem eager to pledge their allegiance to the dissent (like the Metro Transit bus driver who honked in solidarity as he drove across the bridge), there are a few war hawks like the boys in the blue Corolla, drawn to the media spotlight and happy to do some protesting of their own.

Jim Engebretson, a 43-year-old letter carrier from Little Canada, is cruising back and forth on the bridge in his Chevy pickup. A yellow siren flashes atop the truck's cabin, a black POW-MIA flag waves above the truck's bed, and the "Star-Spangled Banner" blares out from the dash. Occasionally Engebretson holds up a poster depicting a World War II soldier with his rifle clutched to his chest. "Shut the Fuck Up," it reads. "We'll protect America. Get the fuck out of our way, you liberal pussies."

When I ask about the hostility of his message, Engebretson is surprisingly sheepish, saying he found the placard online, and admits he's never been in the military. "But if I were a 20-year-old Marine, the last thing I'd want to see is a group like this, not appreciating what I was doing over there," he says.

By 5:30 p.m., the "Peace Bridge" veterans are getting ready to go home. Despite the high turnout--and the presence of every major news outlet in town--there's a sense of melancholy in the air. Their message has fallen of deaf ears. Now all they can do is recite sound bites for local TV--give them grist for "balanced" coverage. War is inevitable.

"I just want people to know what it's like to live through war," Phyllis Cohen says as she shuffles off the bridge, promising to return again next week. "I have, in fact, lived through war most of my life. There's never just one."

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