DULUTH — Celebrating his 79th birthday Wednesday, Sept. 30, George Sundstrom stood on the side of a busy Duluth road holding a large sign that read "U.S. Vets not suckers, losers or draft dodgers."
The U.S. Marine Corps and Army National Guard veteran said he was inspired to make the sign after hearing of President Donald Trump's alleged name-calling of fallen servicemen and women, which "was really despicable to me because (Trump) never served in the service — he was a draft dodger."
“This is without a doubt the most important election that I have been involved in,” Sundstrom said.
The French River man was one of well over 100 people who gathered along Airport Road on a damp afternoon ahead of Trump's arrival in the city. A caravan of Joe Biden supporters gathered at the Miller Hill Mall and drove to the scene at 4 p.m., four hours before the president was scheduled to touch down and deliver remarks at a "Make America Great Again" rally at the airport.
Biden displayed campaign signs — some official and some homemade — as many passing motorists honked and gestured, whether in support or opposition. Aside from a few passing barbs with Trump supporters, there did not appear to be any major confrontations before the crowd largely dispersed by sunset.
"I felt that we needed to do something that's really inclusive and representative of all the different things that people care about," said Kate Horvath, who organized the demonstration, "and in a respectful way carry forward a really positive event celebrating some of the things that we're for as a community, as opposed to talking about all the things we hate."
Lee Cutler said the parade and protest were about "visibility," noting Minnesota has abruptly turned into a battleground state in 2020. Trump's Duluth stop was his third in the state since August, and Biden also campaigned in Duluth earlier in September.
"Minnesota is the longest-running blue state in the country, and we plan to keep it that way," Cutler said, referencing the state's support of the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1976. "It's weird that we've become more of a swing state this year, but the way to keep it blue is to make sure that people are seeing us."
Cutler, a board member for the 8th Congressional District DFL, said he doesn't see an enthusiasm gap for his party this year. The difference, he said, is a more positive message among Biden supporters.
"Trump people can be loud," Cutler said, "but we can be just as loud."
Janet Nelson, who served as a national delegate for Biden at August's virtual Democratic National Convention, said the local push goes beyond just Wednesday's counter event.
"We just put out about 600 signs," said Nelson, who also served as a delegate for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Katie Bakke, 32, of Duluth, held a sign that read “I dissent” with a drawing of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s notorious "dissent collar." Her son, Felix Estby, held a piece of cardboard that read “Trump 0 out of 5 (stars). Do not recommend.”
“It feels kind of gross,” Bakke said of Trump holding a rally in Duluth. “I don’t even plan to stay here too much longer just because I kind of have an icky feeling.”
Biden supporter Joe Phelps, 55, of Side Lake, erected a 10-foot flag on the front of his Jeep parked along Airport Road.
“Trump supporters, they believe that they own the flag,” Phelps said. “So I thought I should bring mine down here to show support for our country.”
Official Biden-Harris signs were aplenty along the parade route, though many opted for homemade signs with expressions directed as Trump such as "Vote him out" and "You can't fix stupid."
Some were more aggressive — describing Trump as fascist and comparing him to the Nazis — ahead of his first public rally since the Tuesday night debate in which he again refused to disavow white supremacists or agree to a peaceful transfer of power should Biden win the election.
While a few vehicles with pro-Trump messages moved through the area — including one hauling a large sign on a trailer — confrontations seemed to kept to a minimum, as requested by organizers. A few middle fingers could be seen and men in at least one truck yelled expletives at the protesters, but no physical altercations were seen.
Trump rallygoers were being asked to park at Amsoil Arena and take a shuttle to the airport, entering the venue from a closed-off section of Airport Approach Road, which likely limited the chances of any major conflicts. Police also patrolled the area frequently.
"You look at all the beautiful people here who are promoting, excited about and celebrating their values and the things they care about," Horvath said. "That's so much more powerful than listening to hate and divisive rhetoric."