You wouldn’t normally expect to find a Time magazine “Person of the Year” on a crumbling pedestrian bridge over Interstate 94, waving a painted bedsheet and flashing a peace sign to the speeding motorists below.
But that’s where Coleen Rowley was on Tuesday, delivering a message of peace in a very unpeaceful spot.
“This is about as old-fashioned as you can get,” Rowley said with a laugh, holding a giant yellow “Say No To War” banner and waving to honking cars. “But it’s actually quite effective. We get a great response.”
Rowley, an FBI agent for 24 years, won Time’s recognition in 2002 for reporting the FBI’s mishandling of information in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who took flight lessons in Minnesota and was convicted of conspiracy related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She ran for Congress in Minnesota’s Second District in 2006, losing to incumbent John Kline.
Although she no longer aspires to elected office, she hasn’t stopped working for the causes she believes in. And her main cause right now is peace.
“I do four or five peace vigils a week,” Rowley said. “I spend a lot of my time up here praying because you see such crazy traffic.”
Rowley, who once trained federal agents and handled Mafia informants, now has become an expert in the art of sign painting.
“You take a threadbare old bedsheet and paint it, and it’s just like canvas,” she said. “Do it double-sided and stitch up the ends. When I started with the peace vigil, they were using little 8-by-11 posters. You can’t even see those!
“Now we have painting parties and we have 140 banners. We make the letters nice and big so the people can really see them.”
Rowley and others in the peace movement regularly fly their banners at community events, but they’re making a special effort for the Republican National Convention. They looked into buying a billboard, “but that would have cost $10,000,” she said. “We don’t have that kind of money.”
She’s counted the traffic on I-94 and estimates that between 7,000 and 11,000 vehicles go by every hour.
“So, we’ve got people on five bridges. That’s 50,000 people an hour — more than 100,000 people in two hours who see our message,” she said. “I think there’s a real silent majority out there who don’t know that other people feel the same way. They see us and they realize they’re not alone.”
Rowley suspects that her message reached one very important person this week.
“A big motorcade came by yesterday [Monday],” she said. “I mean, it was really a major motorcade. I’m pretty sure it was Laura Bush. You know, President Bush’s 200-page event manual specifically says that he is to see no signs, ever. But I think Laura might have seen ours.”
Rowley doesn’t like to talk about politics, saying her work is nonpartisan. And she won’t run for office again, she says, “unless I win the lottery. I don’t have the money.”
Animated and seemingly happy, she says she doesn’t need the trappings of office to make a difference.
“I never had a personal ambition to be a congressperson,” she said. “I have a larger goal.
“We’ll tell our grandchildren, ‘Can you believe it came to the point where we had to do this?’ An FBI agent for 24 years, and I’m painting sheets and standing on a footbridge.
“But it’s a lot of bang for the buck.”
John Reinan, a senior director at the Minneapolis marketing agency Fast Horse and a former newspaper reporter, writes about marketing. He can be reached at jreinan [at] minnpost [dot] com.