When Peter Edmunds and some friends decided to build a float to protest the war in Iraq, they did so thinking it would be a better way of promoting their perspective than by standing on street corners in small Minnesota cities with a few homemade signs.
It's creating a stir. Big time.
Two weeks ago parade directors in Virginia banned the float from the Land of the Loon Festival, saying its "NO MORE WAR" message and accompanying tally of U.S. fatalities was too political.
Similar concerns were raised in Biwabik, Gilbert and Aurora.
Although no other town has rejected the float, communities across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin are abuzz.
"It's creating a discussion that we're very pleased is going on," said the 68-year-old Edmunds, a Navy veteran and retired owner of a construction business who lives in Solon Springs, Wis., and is a member of the Duluth chapter of Veterans for Peace. "It's just healthy. There's too much of this not talking about the war."
The flatbed-trailer float, which has appeared in more than a dozen parades over the past two years, carries a two-sided billboard that reads "For Children, For Veterans, For Mothers, For the Planet, NO MORE WAR." The truck pulling the trailer carries a sign with up-to-date U.S. casualty figures in large, black numerals and the words, "How many more must die before we say enough?"
Deanna Mickelson, a parade director in Biwabik, said some veterans and mothers who have lost sons in Iraq have told her that they "are just mortified by the float," as well as by some of the signs held by Veterans for Peace members. Among the more offensive signs, she said, is one that reads "Our troops -- misused abused."
But those who created the float say it is important to call attention to the cost of war.
"When you think about war, how can you not think about the people who died?" said Karen Olsen, a Veterans for Peace member in Mountain Iron. "It goes kind of hand in hand."
Freedom of speech
Mickelson said Biwabik parade directors were so uncertain about whether to allow the float in their holiday parade that they planned to poll residents on the subject during a recent community function.
But it turned out the float was booked for today's July 4th parade in Superior, Wis., so no poll was necessary.
"That made things a lot easier for me," Mickelson said.
In Aurora, Mayor Bill Ojala, a World War II veteran and a Veterans for Peace member, said as long as public money is involved in today's parade, "in no way are we going to trample on anybody's right to freedom of expression.
"The Fourth is always a robust celebration of democracy and we're going to keep it that way," added Ojala, 82, a longtime critic of the war who plans to march with the float.
Until recently, Edmunds said that reaction has been subdued.
"Universally, it stops conversation," he said. "It's eerie. You'll hear all this chatter, and then the float will come by and people stop talking. Whether they are for or against it you don't know. We had a few thumbs down or a finger up along the way, but most of the people, if they had a reaction, the reaction was positive."
That changed last month when organizers of parades in Virginia and Hayward, Wis., told Veterans for Peace the float was not welcome.
Timing was the issue in Hayward -- parade organizers were honoring an injured veteran returning from Iraq.
"Our group said 'This is a community going through enough trauma with this young, handsome young man who came home injured,' " Edmunds said. "We just said, 'We'll live to go to Hayward another day.' "
The float 'scared children'
In Virginia last month, the issue was more political.
"Our bylaws clearly state we do not have any political solicitation in our parade," said Barb Fivecoate, a Land of the Loon spokeswoman. "Our festival is a family festival and we want to keep it upbeat and a happy day and a happy weekend for everybody."
Olsen said that explanation came only after Veterans for Peace was told the float scared children at another parade the week before. She said she was later told that the float also offended local VFW members. Finally, "We were just told 'No, you are not welcome. Just leave,' "Olsen said.
At one point, Edmunds said, a parade director threatened to call police.
Olsen said the group contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which said that directors could keep the group from participating since the parade was privately run.
Within days, however, parade organizers were being second-guessed.
"How could you deny a float permit to the Veterans for Peace?" one reader said in an opinion piece in the Mesabi Daily News. "These are war veterans who fought for this country to uphold the freedoms we cherish. One of these freedoms is free speech. ... Shame on you."
More recently, a Daily News online survey asked readers if they thought the committee "made the right decision" in banning the float. As of late Tuesday afternoon, public opinion was 206-98 against that decision in the unscientific poll.
"A lot of people have a sour taste about the group and the float, but at the same time they'll defend their right to get their message across," said Bill Hanna, executive editor of the Daily News.
Edmunds, meanwhile, said he has been pleasantly surprised by all the fuss. He said he and his colleagues recently received an invitation to participate in a parade in Bovey, Minn. And on Monday, a radio DJ in Texas called him for an on-air interview after hearing the story on national news.
"This is a public relations perfect storm," Edmunds said. "It's crazy in a way. But I think we've hit the right time and we've created a discussion.
"Democracy is a discussion and discussions are messy. But that's how we make decisions."
© 2007 Star Tribune