In the days after the United States declared war on Iraq in 2003, about 200 people would turn out for Sunday afternoon peace demonstrations in West Toledo.
Steve Miller recalled one weekend when nearly 300 showed up at Talmadge Road and Sylvania Avenue for a protest and march around Westfield Franklin Park mall. At that time, the Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition, which sponsored the rallies, was getting 100 people at its bi-weekly meetings.
“That was at the height of the war,” Mr. Miller said.
That doesn't happen anymore.
Today, a committed group of five or six activists attends the coalition's meetings. Five to 12 people typically show up for the Sunday afternoon protests, which still go on week after week.
Karen Wolf, a retired teacher from Bowling Green, is one of those. She said the derogatory names she once heard passing motorists call out have largely been replaced with a question she finds even more disturbing — “What are the signs for?”
When she tells people, “the war,” they frequently ask, “What war?”
“People will literally go, ‘what war?'” she said, shaking her head. “OK. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Despite its waning numbers, the Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition, which was created in Toledo in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is working to keep the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in sight and in mind.
Saturday, they erected what has become their signature display, Arlington Midwest, on the grounds of the Lucas County Courthouse downtown. The display of more than 1,300 carefully placed makeshift tombstones — one for every U.S. serviceman and woman killed in Afghanistan — is meant to show the human cost of war.
Its complete version, with an additional 4,000-plus tombstones representing the U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, has been displayed in Washington, D.C., and at Detroit's Garden Circus Park, Kent State University, the University of Toledo, Lourdes College, and other locales.
This time, the death toll from the Iraq war will be recognized by a single large tombstone flanked by panels that contain the names of those killed there. The coalition chose to focus on the war in Afghanistan, which is entering its 10th year.
Coalition members are quick to point out that the tombstone display is not a “memorial.”
“It's a protest,” said Jeff Klein, a propane delivery man from Toledo. “It's an anti-war statement.”
The display is somber and sobering, said coalition member Jeff Zenz, yet at the same time it's meant to be in your face.
Ms. Wolf said visitors sometimes ask her if she supports the troops. She admits it's a tough question, one she usually answers with, “Yes, I want them home.”
Each of the simple wooden tombstones contains a plastic sleeve with a card listing the soldier's name, rank, age, place of birth, and the place and date of death. Friends and family members often seek out their loved ones' stone and leave behind photos, letters, flowers, and other mementoes. Coalition members carefully catalog and store them away to be brought out for the next time.
While military families and veterans alike have been moved by the rows and rows of white tombstones, Mr. Miller said a few parents have asked that their son's information be removed.
“They'll say, ‘My son believed in the war. He thought it was the noble thing to do, and we really don't want his name as part of the display,'” he said. “We respect that.”
The coalition replaces the identification card with one that says, “Name removed at family's request.” They also pass the information on to the network of other Arlington-style displays that are erected by like-minded groups across the country.
Mr. Klein said just 13 of the nearly 6,000 stones carry such a message.
When the coalition first erected the display at UT to mark the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, there were some 1,700 tombstones. Today, the death toll has risen to 4,424 in Iraq and 1,308 in Afghanistan.
Every time another 100 troops are killed in the two wars, the coalition holds a “highway blog,” standing on the Detroit Avenue overpass for an hour in the morning with a banner reading, “Another 100 troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
It's sometimes lonely work.
Mr. Miller, a janitor who got involved with the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s, says simply, “We're used to not getting positive reinforcement. We're used to working and not knowing whether it makes a qualitative or quantitative difference.”
Still, Ms. Wolf said it's the desire for results that keeps her going.
“I feel that the peace movement ended the war in Vietnam, and I feel strongly that we can end these two wars,” she said. “We've done it before, and I personally will just never give up.”
Ms. Wolf said involvement with the peace movement dropped off locally and nationally after President Obama was elected “because people felt like everything was OK, and it's been hard to ramp it back up.”
Longtime activist Mike Ferner, who supports the coalition but now heads Veterans for Peace, said Mr. Obama ran as the peace president, then left many of his former supporters disappointed and cynical.
He commends the Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition for carrying on, saying the people who have remained committed to the cause are in it for the long haul. He thinks it's worth their effort.
“Throughout history, any significant change has always come from people's struggles, not from a President or a Congress,” Mr. Ferner said. “So even when you're looking at a struggle that consists of a fairly small number of people, they're still interacting with people and encouraging people just by their presence.
They're encouraging people to think about things and perhaps there change lies.”
Mr. Zenz, a power plant operator from Whitehouse, said when he was getting discouraged about his work for peace, he asked a seasoned activist what he should write on his sign. “Be a good citizen” was the suggestion. It made sense to him.
“To be a good citizen, you have to speak up,” Mr. Zenz said. “They work for you.”
Coalition member Marilyn Bern stein, a retired teacher from Toledo, said it's all about awareness and reminding Americans that, yes, our troops are at war.
“Every different way we can present this to people will get them thinking, and I want them thinking” she said.
Mr. Klein concurred.
“I think if people really understood what was going on behind the scenes, I think that people would begin to care a little more,” he said. “As few as our numbers are, I think by us standing on corners with little messages, if nothing but subliminally it reaches them then somewhere down the line maybe something they notice will bring that back out and connect the dots a little bit.
“I saw the sentiment go from very pro-war to very anti-war,” Mr. Klein added. “The people coming by, driving by, we used to get cussed at then we'd get nothing but honks and an occasional middle finger. So something changed their mind.”
Arlington Midwest is on display at the Lucas County Courthouse, 700 Adams St., now through Oct. 10. Folk singer David Rovics will give a free concert at the display at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. For more information about Arlington Midwest and the peace coalition, go to www.nwopc.org.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.