To some passers-by, the protesters were part of the background of a drive down Lake Avenue or Superior Street, nearly every Friday afternoon, year after year after year.
To those holding the signs, however, it was an important part of expressing who they are and what’s important in their lives.
Just about every week since 2007 - 388 protests in all - at least a few and sometimes many members of the Northland Anti-War Coalition held a usually quiet vigil at the downtown corner to express their opposition to wars waged by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and especially Iraq.
But no more. The coalition held their last protest Jan. 23, when members decided to call it quits. The group has officially disbanded.
On Sunday, at the social justice-focused Jefferson People’s House cafe, they held a breakup party, an Irish wake of sorts for their 12-year effort.
About a dozen regulars in the coalition gathered with other activists to drink coffee, eat crackers and cheese and pore over old newspaper clippings of the Twin Ports anti-war effort.
“Every movement has to end. We didn’t want to be out there when the people driving by didn’t understand what we were protesting about,” said Adam Ritscher, an organizer for the coalition.
“The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sole reason this group existed, are officially over. It was time for us to end this. We had a great run. It’s time to move on to other problems.”
The most recent generation of Twin Ports anti-war protests started in 2001 in the run-up to war in Afghanistan, but they really took hold in 2003 as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq.
The Northland Anti-War Coalition was formed in December 2002 by two dozen Twin Ports social justice groups and dozens of individual activists. Groups lIke Veterans for Peace. Women for a Sane World, Grandmothers for Peace, Students Against War and more decided to come together against the coming war. There were Catholics, Unitarians, Lutherans (the group first met in the basement of First Lutheran Church), Quakers, Jews, atheists and agnostics along with Democrats, Republicans, anarchists and Greens.
They didn’t agree on everything, but they moved ahead with large rallies, with thousands of people protesting at first. As the wars lingered on and the general public’s interest turned to other issues, those big events faded and then, in 2007, morphed into regular weekly protests that kept going.
“We’d have anywhere from 10 to maybe a dozen people per week. On a great week it was 20 or 30," Ritscher said.
Time to move on
Eventually, though, even the most ardent anti-war protesters had enough. After their Jan. 23 protest, the group walked across the intersection to Pizza Luce, where they made the decision to to pull the plug.
“We decided to use our time and energy on new efforts. People have other projects they want to be involved in. It was time,” said Scot Bol of Duluth.
Bol, a Unitarian Universalists and longtime social justice advocate, has been taking part in the anti-war rallies fairly regularly since he moved to Duluth in 2007. For him, it was important to remind people of the “endless wars” the U.S. military-industrial complex is waging.
“We thought it was important that we keep some sort of social presence to remind people that, yes, those wars were still going on,” Bol said. “To some extent (participating in protests) helped me keep my focus, personally, and not succumb to this war culture that’s taken over our country. I needed to do it for me.”
John Pegg, a member of the Twin Ports chapter of the national group Veterans for Peace who was active early on in Northland Anti-War Coalition efforts, said interest in anti-war events gradually lessened as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wore on year after year.
“It’s very hard to keep up public interest in something. And it’s hard to keep our energy going in something every week. It wears on everyone. There are other issues that come up,” Pegg said.
But, like other anti-war activists, Pegg, a Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, said he’s not done. The Twin Ports chapter of Veterans for Peace is planning its annual April 15 tax day protest to draw attention how much of the federal budget goes to the “military-industrial complex.”
“We’ll be out there again on tax day,” he said.
Ritscher said there are other social justice issues that need immediate attention, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the battle against Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union efforts in Wisconsin. But he noted that the current situation in the Mideast makes it appear more U.S. troops may be involved in more war. That leaves room for future Twin Ports anti-war events if needed.
“The group is disbanding,” he said. “But we haven’t thrown away the letterhead.”