Peace movement at a crossroads

Three years ago, it was called "un-American." But now this moving antiwar protest in small-town America has been embraced by the community.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published January 20, 2007 1:00PM (EST)

On a brisk, clear Sunday morning, Paul Cavanaugh, a paralegal, and his 10-year-old son, Kevin, work on a steep green suburban hillside, dotted with more than 1,200 white wooden crosses. Armed with staple guns, father and son busily affix laminated pieces of paper to the crosses. Each slip of paper bears the name of an American serviceman or woman killed in Iraq. Other volunteers use shovels to dig holes in the ground and install new crosses. By mid-afternoon, there will be 1,400 crosses on the hill, and yet that's still less than half the number of American soldiers killed so far in Iraq.

The crosses were first erected by a local building contractor, Jeff Heaton, as a daily reminder to commuters of the tragic toll of the Iraq war. Cavanaugh and his wife, a lawyer, run a family law firm in nearby Concord. He says he supported the war in Afghanistan and adds, tartly, "That was a rat's nest we needed to clean out." But the recent escalation of the war spurred him and his son to get their hands dirty. "When Bush made the announcement that we're going to commit our reserves, 20,000 troops we don't have, we decided to get involved," Cavanaugh says. "After the election we just had, which was a referendum on the war, it's just outrageous."

Where's the outrage about putting tens of thousands of additional troops in harm's way in this dead-end war? It's here in a bedroom community in Northern California. Located 15 miles from Berkeley, Lafayette is made up mostly of low-slung ranch homes nestled in oak-covered foothills. Its population of 24,000 people is a mix of retired oldsters and a newer generation of wealthier professionals, who've migrated to the sprawling suburbs east of the San Francisco Bay to raise their families. Louise Clark, 81, who owns the private property where the crosses sit, has lived in Lafayette for 55 years. She describes it as "a suburban community that's not at the forefront of political action. It's a town that's concerned with potholes in the pavement."

When the crosses first started appearing last November, they prompted a contentious City Council meeting and stirred local debate. But as the memorial has grown, it's become a national symbol of opposition to the war, making news everywhere from National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" to the New York Times. Resistance has come to Middle America. According to a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, more than three-fifths of Americans now believe the war is not worth fighting. And 60 percent of Americans, like Cavanaugh, don't support the president's plans to escalate the war by sending in another 21,500 troops.

Heaton, who started the memorial, is a soft-spoken, 53-year-old general contractor who has lived in Lafayette his whole life. In a black fleece vest, the bespectacled Heaton, trim and clean-shaven, looks like he'd be at home on Lafayette's hiking trails. In his younger days, the self-described pacifist marched against the Vietnam War, only to be chased by police mounted on horseback, wielding billy clubs. A conscientious objector, whose draft number never came up for Vietnam, Heaton has protested every war since then. Inspired by a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., he decided three years ago to oppose the Iraq war by erecting 20 crosses on this hillside. Vandals promptly tore them down. "Anyone who tried to do something like this three years ago was called un-American, unpatriotic, but now it's completely changed," he says.

The current memorial took shape after the November '06 election. The first few hundred crosses were planted by Heaton and volunteers from groups like Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center, Grandmothers for Peace, and Lamorinda Peace Group. But now the effort has expanded to include local neighbors like Cavanaugh. At weekly Sunday work sessions, the memorial is branching out at the rate of about 200 new crosses per week. The goal is to erect one cross for every American soldier lost.

A field of white crosses now covers a swath of the five-acre hillside. They are easily visible from both the BART commuter train platform across the road, and nearby state Route 24, a major artery that takes commuters on their weekday trek from suburban enclaves like Concord, Walnut Creek and Lafayette to San Francisco.

Many crosses have red ribbons tied around them in bows. Others boast flowers or American flags planted at their bases. One cross has a wooden Star of David affixed to it, while another bears a crescent moon, a symbol of Islam, a third a Chinese prayer wheel. Several are festooned with wreaths. All of the crosses fan out from a large sign that reads: "In memory of 3019 U.S. troops killed in Iraq." An American flag flanks the sign. The number on the sign changes as the death toll continues to grow.

While Heaton sees the memorial as a way to protest the war, he has taken pains to keep it from becoming overtly partisan. When someone planted a sign amid the crosses that read, "Bush Lied. Troops Died," he removed it. He sees the installation as having a different kind of impact than attending a march or a rally. "You can go out and hold a sign and get arrested, and get five seconds on the evening news, but this is something that is here every day that hundreds of thousands of people who commute to work see," he says.

On the hillside, one first-time volunteer, who gives her name only as Sandra, breaks down in tears at the sight, while Heaton places a hand on her back to comfort her. A retired Head Start teacher who lives in neighboring Concord, she says the son of a friend is about to be sent back to Iraq to serve for the fourth time. She admits that she was initially for the invasion, but only because she had been misled to believe that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction. "I feel very strongly that our troops should come home," she says. "It's a civil war over there now."

Baika Pratt, 46, a hospice worker who drives past the site every weekday on her commute from Martinez to Oakland, says she was drawn to it by her grief and disillusionment about the war. "So many young people are dying and it's for nothing," she says. Now, in addition to attending the Sunday work groups, she stops by almost every day, checking in on her way to or from work, to pick up trash or to straighten crosses that may have been knocked down in the wind, or just to sit and look.

Candlelight vigils were held at the crosses on New Year's Eve and after Bush announced the commitment of 21,500 more troops. On Christmas Eve, the red ribbons on many of the crosses shimmered in the night, turning them into so many solemn Christmas presents. Heaton later heard that the ribbons were put up by some local high school grads. It's the informal, grass-roots nature of the project that the instigator says gives it its appeal. "People come by, and they don't have to belong to a certain group," he says. "They can participate and let it represent something for them. That's why I'm trying to keep it from becoming too politicized. It is a demonstration against the war, but I want to make sure it really stays a memorial."

Not everyone who lives in Lafayette is in favor of the highly visible display of the cost of the war. There's still a trace of black tar on top of the sign announcing the number of the dead. It's left over from the time a vandal painted over the whole sign to obscure the message. On another occasion, a furious motorist got out of her car to kick the large sign down. One Islamic crescent moon mysteriously disappeared in the night. And while the memorial is located on private property, the local City Council has taken up the issue of its legality, since the sign announcing the death toll is too large by city standards. Even now, as the volunteers, in their jeans and tennis shoes, work to expand the memorial, a driver in a white pickup passes by, honks his horn and yells out his window: "Thanks a lot for trashing our neighborhood!"

Louise Clark and her husband, Johnson Clark, 85, bought the land where the crosses sit decades ago in hopes of developing it into senior housing, given that it's so close to public transit. Heaton is the son of friends the Clarks have known for 50 years.

Clark says she's received about 100 phone calls about the memorial on her land, and so far only one has been from a person opposing it. She hopes the memorial will remind Americans that the real costs of the war are hidden from most of them. "Back in World War II, we had gas rationing, we had meat rationing, we had special taxes on just about any luxury, and that's not happening today," she says. "Today's war is on the shoulders of just the service people and their families. It's too big a sacrifice to ask of such a small segment of our large country. I want young people to realize that the country is at war, and there are people who are giving their lives for the rest of us."

That said, Clark would like to see the troops withdrawn right away. "I want the world to know that we support our service people and we want to bring them home, and we don't want them dying for reasons that are not obvious to most people in this country. They're not fighting a war against terrorism. That's in Afghanistan. Right now they're fighting a civil war for the Iraqi people, and we have no right to be there."

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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Iraq War