A cause bigger than your commute

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April 7, 2003 // UPDATED 10:33 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Downtown peace activists and why they protest

From enclosed skyways you see them with their signs, chanting and marching down the streets, sending out a strong message that they do not support the Iraq War. Or you see them from inside your car, stuck in a traffic jam the protesters have caused by flooding the streets.

Maybe you feel a certain solidarity with their cause. Or maybe you're frustrated in your idling car, unable to go home, wishing the protesters would just leave and stop disrupting your life.

Why, day after day, you wonder, do they continue to protest? For one Downtown family it's a matter of conscience and a nearly lifelong tradition.

"Silence in wartime is tantamount to approval," said Father Harvey Egan, a 90-year-old Catholic priest and Downtown resident. "I don't approve of this war. It's uncivilized. It's immoral. Killing people is unnecessarily wrong."

Egan tries to attend every peace rally or protest he can. It's a feat that has become harder lately; he has difficulty walking and must rely on his neighbor and fellow protester Angelo Percich to push him to rallies in a wheelchair. (Angelo's wife, Mary Percich, and Egan are cousins.)

Given their cause, says Angelo Percich, the traffic jams they cause are "a minor inconvenience. The people who are mad about that should look at the big picture."

Mary says one reason she protests is that she believes everyone should be able to live in peace. "My husband and I are anticipating our ninth grandchild with joy. That joy has to transfer to the world. You have to think of the Iraqis," she said. "They've never substantiated there's a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda. We need to pursue diplomatic channels to get our kids out of Iraq."

How can they protest against a war that might topple a brutal dictator such as Saddam Hussein who has killed his own people?

Father Egan believes that the war doesn't advance any human rights, because the U.S. military action is killing people. "Killing a person is wrong," he said repeatedly.

Mary Percich believes that after a lot of people are killed in the war, the U.S. will still have to pursue diplomacy to bring peace to Iraq. She thinks we should be using those diplomatic means now, rather than bombing Iraq.

A history of protest

Egan lives at the Crossings, 121 Washington Ave. S., down the hall from the Percichs. The three consider themselves peacemakers. All oppose the war. Their combined arrests add up to 10.

As Angelo picks up the mail one early spring morning, he says, "Oh, here's Mary's arraignment letter."

He isn't surprised. His wife had recently been arrested with about 25 others for a "lie-in" at U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's office.

Said Mary, "It felt funny to be in Wellstone's [former] office."

This is the second time Mary has been arrested for protesting. Father Egan has been arrested eight times.

"I've been carried a couple of times to the paddy wagon," Egan said. "It's a great thing to get carried to a paddy wagon."

Egan speaks excitedly about being arrested. He said that if he is sentenced to community service, he would not do it. However, he has had to stay at the county workhouse.

Mary has also spent a weekend in the county workhouse. She is more nonchalant than Egan about her arrests. She said the police who arrest her have been nice.

"The last time I was arrested, we were in police cars. Women were in one car and men in another. The police were very pleasant," Mary said. "I think we're all improving. Or else I'm getting so old, they just say, 'Grandma, get going.'"

She doesn't worry about Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to make protesters pay the cost of their arrests. "If everybody just protested we could change this war and just move on," she said.

Angelo also protests, but has never been arrested. When asked why, he replies, "I'm the designated driver."

Angelo is a retired architect. According to Mary, she was more involved in protesting during the Vietnam War than Angelo was, but now she says they are equally as involved with protesting the war in Iraq.

"He sees [the U.S.] building an empire, and he just doesn't want to live this way," she said.

Mary, a former St. Paul teacher, first began protesting as a young wife and mother during the Vietnam War. "It was early on in the Vietnam War, and I really felt all alone. Joining a peace group seemed like such a good thing to do. It was so important to me that I found a group that I could relate to," she said.

Mary joined Women Against Military Madness and since has attended countless protests. Every Wednesday for years, she has stood with other people who want peace at the bridge that joins St. Paul and Minneapolis at Marshall and Lake Streets. The peacemakers call it the Peace Bridge.

"There's hope at the Peace Bridge. I get inspired," she said. "It's also conscience. I have to be there. Forty-five percent of Iraq's population is under the age of 15. Thirty percent of the children were malnourished before the war because of the sanctions. We need to see the U.N. relief in place to avert a full-scale humanitarian crisis."

For Egan, the decision to be a peacemaker came at an early age. As a student at St. Thomas Academy in St. Paul, Egan said he grew up doing militaristic activities.

"We wore uniforms and fired guns and did all that crazy stuff," Egan said. "The military message didn't take with me. It sounded like an ugly fairy tale."

During the Vietnam War, Egan was pastor at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in south Minneapolis. Egan was so opposed to the war that he took down the American flag that hung in the church.

"I found the American flag calling for citizens to go to war. I took it down. To wave the flag while we're killing -- I couldn't do it," he said. "St. Joan became a parish split. Many people left the parish."

Egan said that today, many of the people protesting in Minneapolis are St. Joan parishioners.

Beyond his role in protesting the four wars he has lived through, Egan has also marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. -- on the famed 1963 Selma civil rights march.

Just as the civil rights movement helped to end segregation, Mary believes that the peace movement will end war. "We're evolving. War will soon be like slavery. We just won't have it," she said. "I think the anti-war protest is a force that needs to be listened to by our elected officials, by the media and by the power. It's large and diverse and it reflects the population. The American people do not want this war."

And although Egan is now unable to march in anti-war protests, he thinks that if the United States pulls out of the war with Iraq, he may be able to overcome his bad legs.

Said Egan, "If peace is declared, look for me. I'll be dancing in the streets."