A Change of Habits
In the chill of the early morning, Jane McDonald squats on the sidewalk in front of Alliant Techsystems, the largest munitions manufacturer in the nation, and sets up her usual display. She lights a candle and affixes a poster next to a small plastic leg--a child's prosthesis. Nearby stands the three-foot-high bombshell casing her sister Brigid hauls around in her car for these weekly protests. Two other McDonald sisters, Kate and Rita, are also among the clutch of about 30 people, most of them gray-haired, waving signs and chanting. "Peace, conversion without loss of jobs!" they shout in staccato bursts, admonishing the company to stop making land mines and bombs and "convert" to nonlethal products.
As Alliant employees pass by on their way from the parking lot to the company's squat Hopkins headquarters, Jane greets each one. "Good morning," she says, brushing back her white hair and fixing a smile on her gently wrinkled face. The workers usually ignore her, but today a stern-looking man in a business suit kicks the prosthesis into the street as he walks by. Jane chases after him. "I've never seen such lack of respect," she scolds him. "Don't you know this is a prosthesis a child has to wear because of what you make in that building?" The man turns to face her. "You're a moron," he hisses. "God have mercy on you," she replies as he walks on.
It's not an idle phrase. Jane and her sisters, who range in age from 63 to 75, have something of a special relationship with God. More than 40 years ago Jane, Brigid, Kate, and Rita McDonald donned virginal wedding dresses, marched down a chapel aisle, and promised themselves to God. As members of the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, they committed their lives to the order's three-centuries-old mission: hospital work, direction of orphanages, visitation of the sick and poor, and instruction of young girls.
For the first several decades of their life in the convent, the sisters lived a semi-cloistered existence, dressing in habits and teaching at Catholic schools or working at Catholic hospitals and orphanages. But beginning in the early 1980s, their evolving spiritual beliefs led them to join another group, Women Against Military Madness (WAMM). They've been on the front lines of the Twin Cities' protest community ever since, enduring everything from verbal abuse and threats to arrest and imprisonment. Over the past 17 years, in addition to protesting outside the corporate headquarters of local weapons makers, the four sisters have blocked the doors to the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, rallied in opposition to the Gulf War, participated in "die-ins" in front of the Pentagon, marched into the U.S. Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, and even staked out the steps of the St. Paul Cathedral. And they've never backed down, even when their beliefs publicly pitted them against family members and their own church.
"They're all like Irish elves," explains 67-year-old Marv Davidov, the elder statesman of Minnesota protesting. "They're youthful and have an interior life. They're powerful women who went through a great transformation and liberated themselves."
Adds Eric Skoglund, who at 34 is one of the youngest members of the Alliant protesting crew: "I sort of use the nuns as PR. When I discuss that we have half a dozen nuns with my friends, they say: 'I wouldn't mind getting arrested with the nuns.' There's sort of a mythical feeling towards nuns. It almost seems like something from the past."
The first time I met the McDonald sisters, Jane was pounding on her drum, Kate was reading prayers for a new world order, Rita was standing over a chalk silhouette of a land-mine victim, and Brigid was singing to the tune of "My Darling Clementine": Dear Alliant, we're defiant/ We'll be back with many friends/It's like David and Goliath/And you know how that one ends!"
At first it was hard to tell the sisters apart, what with their short, slight frames, gray hair, and brassy alto voices. But in watching them at work over the course of a year, I've come to see them as four very different women. At age 63, Jane is the youngest of the four. She cries easily, and has been known to burst into tears when she hears about an animal that has been mistreated. Her belief system borrows from Wicca and Native American religions, and she's a grandmother to neighborhood children and stray cats. Brigid, three years older than Jane, is the most spirited of the group, far more prone to laughter than to tears. Though she idolizes Luciano Pavarotti, she prefers bluegrass to opera. Kate, who is 69, favors oversize glasses and outfits that give her the look of a prim but fashion-conscious Catholic schoolmarm. For the past two decades, she has worked with homeless and abused women. Rita, age 75, could easily pass for the baby in the group. She is forthright about her views and is willing to take on anyone she believes is wrong (she has even gone so far as to chastise a judge in open court). She also loves to dance at weddings and has been known to break into an Irish jig while cleaning house.
By 8:00 a.m. the Alliant protesters have reconvened at the Baker's Square restaurant a block from the corporate headquarters, where they push together several tables and order breakfast and pots of coffee. One woman has nearly covered herself in buttons and the others take turns inspecting her collection the way travelers might admire a steamer trunk plastered with decals. "When I die," Jane leans over and whispers, "I want my casket decorated with stickers of all the causes I've been involved in."
Brigid orders apple pie for breakfast, but when she tries to encourage Jane to eat, her sister shakes her head and holds her mug of coffee to her chest. She's still upset about her confrontation with the man at the plant, and disturbed at how angry he made her feel. "That's twice someone has kicked the protest signs or the little prosthesis," she grumbles. "The first time it happened, a man kicked it and said, 'Get this shit out of here!' It just goes to your soul."
In her bright green pullover with the collar turned up and two scarves draped around her neck, Jane looks as if she'd stepped out of a United Colors of Benetton catalog. The sweatshirt is from the Native American prayer lodge where she worships every Saturday. Jane's soft white hair is pulled back to reveal dangly dream-catcher earrings. She wears silver rings on her short fingers and bangles on her arms. "We come here for our sake, too," she says, gazing around the room. "What motivates me is this beloved community. You get nourished by other people's courage and inspiration. In my own soul, I have to come."
Brigid nods. "As long as I can have fun while I'm doing this, I can keep on going. As someone said: 'If I can't dance, I won't be in your revolution,'" she adds, quoting Emma Goldman.
The two women brighten at the approach of a slump-shouldered man with bushy white hair beneath a crumpled hat and an overgrown mustache: Marv Davidov. "And here comes our comrade!" Brigid says.
Davidov looks at the tape recorder on the table. "It's all bullshit," he snarls in a voice made gravelly by decades of smoking.
"That's right. That's the degree behind our name: B.S.," Jane retorts. "Everything I learned, I learned from you."
"Yeah, well, it's all fucking lies," Davidov says. "I got a foul mouth," he adds. "Like Brigid." Displaying a toothy grin, he saunters off. The sisters wait until he is out of earshot.
"We have to do some bleeps on there," Jane says, pointing to the recorder. "I do not like that kind of language," Brigid concurs, her lips pursed. "I think he knows that," Jane retorts. "That's why he does it--to get our Irish up."
The sisters grew up in the midst of the Depression on a 160-acre dairy farm in Watertown, about 35 miles west of Minneapolis. Kenneth and Margaret McDonald were devout Catholics, and devout DFLers. At dinner, the sisters recall, the family talked politics between mouthfuls of pot roast and potatoes. When the meal was over, Kenneth McDonald would tell his 11 children, "Get down on your prayer handles," and they would kneel and pray the rosary together.
Milk prices were so low at the time that the family's herd of Holsteins wasn't very lucrative. But like most farm families at the time, the McDonalds managed to survive by being self-sufficient: They grew their own vegetables and feed, and Kenneth McDonald, an avid hunter, put meat on the table by shooting wild game. Still, in order to make ends meet, the older children were often sent to live with relatives. Brigid lived with her aunt and uncle for a while. Brother K.J., who would later become a state representative, was raised by another aunt and uncle who lived a mile away.
Kenneth McDonald had fought in France during World War I, and although he was critical of the army's inefficiency, he raised his children to believe in the "just war theory," the notion that war was necessary to defend the nation and maintain a democracy. In the early 1940s, as the United States prepared to enter World War II, the older McDonald children were eager to get involved. When Margaret, the eldest, graduated from high school in 1941, she went to work in Minneapolis welding military planes; she would later join the navy's WAVES (Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Service). Rita moved to Minneapolis and got a job cleaning and vacuuming B-25 bombers. Eventually all the McDonald boys would serve in the armed forces.
In 1946, 22-year-old Rita shocked her family when she announced her intention to join a convent. She wanted to pursue nursing as a profession, and a lot of nurses were religious sisters. The closest convent was the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, which ran six hospitals, two orphanages, and a home for unwed mothers, as well as the College of St. Catherine and nearly 100 parochial schools.
In joining the church's family, Rita was literally leaving her own; upon entering the convent, she was required to stop using her given name and take on another one. She asked her mother superior for the name Sister Kenneth. The consequences of the cloistered life were not lost on her younger sisters: Jane, who was 11 at the time, says the girls cried inconsolably when Rita left. "It was like she was going to Siberia," she remembers. "There were so many restrictions. She couldn't come home for five years. It was a real loss."
Once a month, though, the family would pile into the family car and drive to St. Paul to visit Rita. To the young McDonald girls, their older sister seemed to have a fascinating and important life. As the years passed, four of them would follow Rita into the order. First came Kate, who had moved to Los Angeles after attending a yearlong program at a local business college. In 1950 she was living with two friends, working for the health department, and dating a man who wanted to marry her, when she decided she wanted to come back to Minnesota and enter the convent.
"Rita had already joined, and it seemed like she was doing something worthwhile," Kate says.
Brigid was next, joining the Sisters of St. Joseph at age 20 after working at a bank and as a nurse's aide. "Religious life seemed like a meaningful life, so I started thinking I'd try it out," she says now. "I guess I thought a missionary was a good thing to be--that was kind of the highest thing you could be. If you wanted to do any kind of church work, this was it."
The McDonald sisters insist they never talked with each other or with their priest about becoming nuns. "Our pastor didn't care for the sister vocation: 'Oh, they'll work you to death,' was his take," Brigid recalls. "It wasn't pushed from the church or parish side, either. It was just an idea for me."
In the fall after her high school graduation in 1954, when Jane joined her sisters, their father was distraught. "This is worse than the army," she recalls him saying. "The army took my sons and the convent is taking my daughters."
At the convent, after spending nearly three years in the novitiate learning theology and prayers, each sister received a mission. Rita was sent to the order's orphanage. Kate was assigned to hospital work. Brigid was told to teach first grade, and Jane became a cook.
By the late 1960s, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church was in the grip of a reform movement. Sisters were no longer required to wear the traditional long habit. Religious orders had to modernize and refocus their missions. It was during this time that the Sisters of St. Joseph, like many orders, began shifting from running institutions such as hospitals and colleges to providing social services for the poor. The McDonald sisters began working in the order's newly established shelters, runaway centers, nursing homes, and transitional housing for the chemically dependent, and they taught English to Laotian and Vietnamese immigrants. They also slowly began questioning what was going on outside their cloistered world.
Jane's attitude about the need for war began to change during the conflict in Vietnam. She recalls being invited by the school's history teacher to hear a guest speaker, a peace activist. "She just came into that classroom and into my life that day," Jane says of that experience. "I remember her talking about the economy and the large piece of the pie that goes to military financing, and that just seared my soul. That was my spiritual radical awakening."
Still, it would be years until Jane spoke openly of her new conviction. The turning point came in 1969, when her 18-year-old nephew, fearing he was about to be drafted, asked her what she thought about Vietnam. He wanted to become a conscientious objector. "I was in such a different place," she recalls. " It was a 180-degree turn to sit down with him and say: 'Our prayer and hope is that you do not go to war.'"
Not long afterward, Jane attended her first protest, outside the Minneapolis Federal Building. She wasn't ready to hold signs or shout slogans; instead she made cupcakes decorated with the Stars and Stripes and handed them out to her fellow protesters. After that, she recalls sporadically marching in street protests denouncing the draft.
Brigid's induction into the peace movement came as a result of her theology studies. For several summers in the early 1970s, she attended a Catholic college in Wisconsin where she heard teachers emphasizing Liberation Theology, a new doctrine that focused on the struggles of the poor and encouraged religious people to champion nonviolent resistance. "I had my theology stretched," she explains. "We were taught that the church was the living people, not the structure and not the doctrine. And that changed everything for me."
In 1974 she joined a sit-down on the railroad tracks outside New Brighton, where a group of peace activists led by Marv Davidov were trying to stop a munitions train from leaving a Honeywell plant there. At first, Brigid remembers, she felt foolish sitting on the tracks. But after listening to the other protesters, she realized that this was a way of life for people who had gone "all the way for peace."
When the train didn't come that day, Brigid was convinced the demonstrators had stopped it. But it would be several years before she took part in another protest. "I didn't start out in that radical way," she says today. "You just kind of gradually got into it."
In 1980 a handful of St. Joseph sisters attended a week of anti-military protests and prayer outside the Pentagon. When they returned, they went to a local meeting at the Newman Center, the Catholic student center near the University of Minnesota, and announced they wanted to join the local peace movement.
A man in a floppy hat with a bushy mustache stood up in the audience. "How about Honeywell?" Marv Davidov asked. A week later Davidov, who had served time in a Mississippi prison for marching in civil rights protests in 1961, was up in the attic at the St. Joseph House of Hope orphanage plotting and planning protests with a dozen nuns.
Since 1968 Davidov's Honeywell Project had been protesting outside the company responsible for producing a number of military weapons, including the metal canisters for the lethal cluster bomb. Eager for new recruits, Davidov and his cohorts found that the sisters made perfect protesters: They were single women who didn't have children or husbands to monopolize their attention, and they didn't work at jobs from which they could be fired for becoming embroiled in controversy.
When the McDonald sisters first joined the Honeywell protesters, they stood on the sidewalks outside the company's South Minneapolis headquarters voicing encouragement to their colleagues who were attempting to block the doors. One by one, though, they became participants. Kate was the lone holdout. "I was kind of a coward," she remembers. "I really didn't think I'd ever get to the point that I would risk civil disobedience."
That changed in April 1984, albeit somewhat unintentionally. Police had arrested 577 protesters at a recent major Honeywell demonstration--the largest mass arrest ever in Minnesota--and organizers were anticipating another large turnout. Kate intended to slip away early to go to work, but as she walked to her car she was snagged by a police officer. Along with 48 fellow protesters, Kate was ushered onto a bus and taken into custody.
Brigid, who was also taken downtown, allegedly resisted arrest. "Defendant began screaming and creating a dangerous situation. She attempted to pinch and kick officer. Defendant was restrained with force," reads the incident report. Recalls Sister Marguerite Corcoran, who was also arrested that day: "They were manhandling Brigid. Her face hit the retaining wall. I just blanked out. This other policeman grabbed me and threw me up against the fence. He would keep pushing me. Then he started walking back and forth across my toes. And I kind of lost it and I stomped on his foot."
Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza later dismissed charges against 68 of the 256 protesters who were arrested that day, saying they had not actually been trespassing. But although Kate's charge was among those dismissed, she was hooked. "Once you got into it and could see what can come of it when you land before a judge--that was so profound," she explains. "It helped you realize why you were there. There was no question from then on that you would participate."
The protest organizers usually met with police before major Honeywell demonstrations. (Bouza, whose wife was among those arrested at several protests, provided coffee and doughnuts at the events). But now the McDonald sisters began planning their law-defying activities more carefully. They attended seminars at which protest organizers taught them how to commit civil disobedience, how to deal with being handcuffed, how to interact with police officers, and what to expect if they were brought to trial. "The other demonstrators made it clear that we had no business doing civil disobedience until it was a part of us and we knew what we were doing," says Kate.
Sometimes when they were arrested, officials would dismiss the charges, saying that putting hundreds of protesters on trial was a logistical nightmare. Other times the sisters were forced to go to court and take their chances. Though they were often found not guilty, says Rita, on a few occasions "the jury was out for a long time and came back with tears in their eyes and said we were guilty."
In one instance the judge gave the sisters a choice of either paying a fine or writing a ten-page article about why they protested against weapons-making. Another time they were sentenced to community service. "We just went to our daily jobs and wrote it up. It's already community service," says Jane.
In 1990 Honeywell spun off its weapons-manufacturing business into a new company called Alliant Techsystems. In recent years many former Honeywell Project activists have gathered for weekly vigils outside its doors as Alliant has become one of the chief targets of an international campaign to ban land mines. (The publicly held company reported $707 million in sales of its munitions and defense systems in fiscal 1998.)
For the most part, the relationship among Hopkins police, the protesters, and Alliant has been cordial. Protest leaders and police officers often banter before large demonstrations. The company has allowed the protesters to seek protection from the weather beneath the building's awning. Alliant officials--who have provided a vacant parking lot for demonstrators to park their cars and hold rallies--are aware that many of the protesters outside the bulletproof windows of their executives' offices are nuns.
"It has never been our intent to prevent any of the demonstrations or demonstrators to gather and express their opinions," says Alliant public-affairs director Rod Bitz, hastening to add that the land mines his company manufactures are "smart mines" equipped with a "self-destruct time limit" of 15 days and that as far as anyone knows, no civilian has ever been killed by one. "We recognize the right to free speech. I think one of the ironies here is that it's precisely a strong national defense that protects our democracy and preserves the right to free speech."
A month ago, on April 14, the protesters tested the limits of free speech one more time. That day the ranks of the regular Wednesday vigil swelled to about 100. Their aim: to draw attention to the fact that Alliant manufactures ammunition used by the U.S. military in its air strikes against Serbia. Though the protest leaders usually schedule their trespassing demonstrations at Alliant well in advance, in this instance they made the decision overnight. As a result, protesters and police alike showed up unprepared. Many of the demonstrators were unaware that an attempt would be made to block the doors of the company; Hopkins police had to scramble to deploy all on-duty officers to the scene. In all, 28 demonstrators were arrested, Jane McDonald among them.
Last week Assistant City Attorney Wynn Curtiss waived the protesters' scheduled arraignments and set a pretrial hearing for June 30. They face misdemeanor trespassing charges, which carry a maximum of 90 days in jail and/or a $700 fine. Curtiss says he hasn't decided whether he'll pursue the cases, especially given that the last time he took the demonstrators to trial, in September of 1997, he lost. (At one point during that proceeding, which lasted several days, Curtiss told the jury, "This is not exactly what I had in mind--prosecuting nuns.")
By the time the McDonald sisters embarked on their mission of protesting, Kenneth McDonald had passed away. The rest of the family, though, was relatively unfazed by the sisters' very public activities. "They were always rebels and stood up for what they believed in," remembers Margaret Borer, age 77, the oldest McDonald sister. Their mother, also named Margaret, seemed only slightly embarrassed by her daughters' antics, Kate recalls, and seemed most irked at their predilection for inserting feminine pronouns in biblical passages.
Whereas Rita, Jane, Kate, and Brigid (and even Margaret, on occasion) take to the streets to voice their opposition to war, their brothers are comparatively pro-military. K.J., who served in the state Legislature from 1976 until 1990, is a former district commander of the American Legion and a member of the VFW, the Lions Club, the Christian Anti-Communists Crusade, and the Rod and Gun Club.
"I'm probably a bigger mouth, a little more articulate than they are, and [have] a little more braggadocio," explains the 68-year-old former state representative, who is now semiretired and running a photography studio in Delano with his son Joseph. "There's less and less exchange on these lines over the last few years because it probably appears on both sides to be a fruitless effort to try to change each other's opinions. I do try to encourage them to look at our side and maybe be a little more objective. But we don't allow it to become a bitter argument in any way that would diminish our love and friendship."
An air force photographer during the Korean War, K.J. took pictures of his sisters when they were allowed to leave the convent to visit the McDonald farm. "I have a picture of all four of them in their habits, aiming shotguns up in the sky as if they were going duck hunting," he says. "They cringe when they look at that one."
In 1990, a profile of the sisters in the Carver County News provoked a cousin to write a letter to the editor in which he chastised the sisters for opposing land mines because of the danger they posed to children, while refusing to protest abortion clinics. (Though the McDonald sisters are troubled by abortion, they feel that reproductive freedom is crucial.)
"In a way, it hurt," Kate says of the letter. "But we kind of understand [our male relatives] by now. We remember that some of them are staunch Rush Limbaugh-type men and we really don't take it personally."
Conservative Catholics have challenged the McDonald sisters for their public stand, and some have questioned how they can be nuns and yet regularly break the law. But despite the cliché equating the law-abiding citizen with the good Christian, there's a long Christian tradition of challenging authorities and disobeying laws that are viewed as unjust, explains Father David Smith, director of the justice and peace studies program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "A lot of the sisters who are protesting started out their life presuming that the government knew what it was doing," says Smith. "At some point in their life, they came to an experience that started to change their minds."
The sisters, he goes on, are in the minority in terms of the commitment they've made. "They are supported by their religious community, but even some of their sisters would consider what they're doing as extreme. There's a range of feelings. In America religion is viewed as something private. To be a fully active Catholic, it has to involve all their public life."
Following the McDonald sisters as they go about their daily business, you'd be hard-pressed to discern that they're nuns. They wear colorful clothes, favoring shirts emblazoned with slogans and adorned with protest buttons. They've long since stopped using the title "Sister," deeming it a legacy of "the church's spiritual caste system." And while they don't go to Mass every morning, they do often attend other religious services, including a "Goddess singing circle" in which they celebrate the feminine face of the Deity.
"Saying prayers was [once] so important," explains Kate. "Acts of Attrition, Acts of Love, Acts of Faith, Nicene Creed, Apostles Creed, and the rosary. But I need my own words."
On this spring morning, she and Rita are sitting in the formal dining room of their house in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, eating Danishes and drinking coffee. They share the spacious house, which is filled with antique-looking furniture and a lifetime's worth of knickknacks, with fellow St. Joseph sister Marguerite Corcoran and a Vietnamese refugee to whom they affectionately refer as their "cellar dweller." (For the past several years, the sisters have lent out their basement to women placed by Minneapolis's Center for Victims of Torture.)
Like most modern nuns, the sisters don't think of themselves as poor. Their order provides a small stipend that covers the basics. If a sister works at a job for which she receives a salary, her paycheck is sent directly to St. Joseph; if she wants to take a job outside a Catholic institution, it must be approved by the order. "I think about the vows as much as the Gospel keeps calling me to," says Rita. "We have two cars," Kate interjects.
"I don't feel Roman Catholic, but I feel more catholic, or universal, than ever," says Jane, who shares a quaint blue saltbox house on Logan Avenue in North Minneapolis with another nun from St. Joseph and a cat named Midnight Star. "Catholicism is oppressive. I've become less shackled since I've discovered the gift of the Goddess. I'm much closer to earth and animals. My God was too small, microscopic. I feel I've gotten reeducated about spirituality."
If there is one prevailing theme in the sisters' lives, it is their consistent railing against the privileged class--especially within their own church. "Who needs a privileged-class papacy?" Jane says. "Get rid of the Roman collar, clericalism, the pope. Jesus would be the first one to say so." She and her sisters felt so strongly about such matters that they sought out a parish that allowed women to give homilies--a practice that is against official church policy. "I think that's what saves me from leaving the church totally," says Kate.
While the sisters' unorthodox religious practices would be anathema to many conservative Catholics, the church has become fairly tolerant of spiritual diversity, says St. Thomas University's Father David Smith. In general, Smith adds, the Catholic Church is tolerant of merging traditions from various religions, including Native Americans, Hindus, and Buddhists, as long as burning sage and referring to God as "the Goddess" doesn't conflict with the basic precepts of the faith. "If something is way out, dangerous, occasionally there are sanctions," he says, but adds that "the bishops can't do very much about it, because the church really is decentralized."
Which is not to imply that the sisters haven't had their run-ins with church authorities. In November 1992 the sisters demonstrated at the archdiocese in St. Paul after the church refused to give a Catholic lesbian and gay group a place to meet. Two years earlier they had participated in a fast and sit-in at the St. Paul Cathedral to protest U.S. aid to El Salvador. Then-archbishop John Roach initially welcomed the fasters to the cathedral. But when the fast dragged on and the protesters refused to leave, Roach called police. When church leaders had them arrested for a second time days later, the city was compelled to rent city buses to transport the 104 trespassers to the station. "It's very sad to see that the church is no longer a refuge," Rita told reporters after her arrest. "It's sad to see that communication [with the archbishop] has been cut off."
Despite their differences with church policies and officials, the women say they're proud of their order and their heritage. "We're lucky in this diocese," Jane says. "I think they know that there's a radical dimension of the order. The bishop is quite aware that we're alive and kicking."
The most serious threat the sisters have faced recently has come not from the church hierarchy but from their own failing health. Colon cancer forced Kate to miss the November 1996 excursion to Fort Benning, Georgia. There, hundreds of Minnesotans joined protesters from all over the nation in the annual call for the closure of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, whose graduates have been linked to a host of killings, torture, rapes, and disappearances in Central and South America. (The following year's trip occasioned Kate's first arrest on federal trespassing charges, an event overshadowed by the travails of Rita Steinhagen, the Sisters of St. Joseph's most high-profile protester. Steinhagen, who was 69 years old at the time, was subsequently sentenced to six months in federal prison--a development that made headlines nationwide.)
This past year it was Rita's turn to stay behind, owing to a bout with bladder cancer. Three weeks after Rita's chemotherapy ended, she was back protesting at Alliant, and a few days after that she took part in a demonstration at the Federal Building against the bombing of Iraq and a sit-in at Sen. Paul Wellstone's Minneapolis office. The protesters accused Wellstone of betraying the peace movement by supporting the bombing of Iraq last December.
Earlier this month Jane and Kate McDonald confronted Wellstone again, when they and about 100 other protesters from Minnesota traveled to Washington for a weekend of rallies condemning the School of the Americas and the NATO bombings in Serbia and Iraq. On Monday, May 3, the protesters surrounded the Pentagon for an anti-School of the Americas "die-in," in which hundreds of them lay on the sidewalk wearing clear "death masks" while their bodies were outlined in red spray paint.
Afterward, about 45 members of the Minnesota contingent, including the two McDonald sisters, Marv Davidov, and Rita Steinhagen, met with Wellstone in his Washington office to discuss a bill he is co-sponsoring that would permanently shut down the School of the Americas. But according to the accounts of those present, the NATO attacks were on the protesters' minds, and Jane seized the opportunity to speak up. "I notice your picture on the wall here, shaking hands with President Clinton," she said. "When you go to these meetings about Kosovo, and you have an opportunity to talk to people in positions of abusing power, I hope you'll make reference to the blood on our hands."
She held up her own hands, which were stained a deep red from the spray paint. Wellstone told the protesters that the bombings weren't working as well as Congress had predicted, and added that he was calling for a brief pause in the air strikes in order to give peace talks another chance.
When the meeting was over, another protester, a minister from Rochester, suggested Wellstone pray with the group. Before leaving for his next appointment, a meeting about the future of the Kosovo air attack, the senator joined hands with Jane and with Rita Steinhagen, and all three bowed their heads and prayed together for peace.
As they do each Wednesday morning, protesters will picket from 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. outside the headquarters of Alliant Techsystems, 600 Second St. NE in Hopkins.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.