Crosses to Bear
Jeffrey Heaton, a longtime peace advocate, defends his Lafayette memorial
Do you think the Lafayette crosses are an appropriate memorial? Why or why not?
Photo by: Robyn Twomey
The reaction was immediate and powerful. Critics call the more than 3,400 crosses—one for every American serviceman and -woman killed in Iraq—an insult to the troops still fighting the war. Supporters claim that this reminder of the war’s toll is a fitting memorial to the lives that have been lost. And both local and national media have gobbled up a story that represents a sharp divide at the nation’s core. In this case, the battle is taking place not on the National Mall or in the streets of Berkeley but in the affluent and usually placid suburb of Lafayette.
At the center of the controversy is Jeffrey Heaton, a soft-spoken, 54-year-old contractor who has lived in Lafayette his whole life and has advocated for peace almost as long. With the help of Louise Clark, the 82-year-old peace activist who owns the hillside where the crosses stand, and a small army of other supporters, Heaton has kept up with the solemn task of erecting the crosses. He has also encountered zoning battles with the city over the size of a sign at the memorial, skirmishes with pro-war protesters and irate relatives of dead soldiers, and competing desires among his own peace supporters.
Are you surprised by the attention the crosses are getting?
Yes and no. Before I decided to do this, I spent a lot of time visualizing how this display would make an impact. But I didn’t visualize the degree to which it has made an impact across the country.
Is it odd that an antiwar memorial is happening in Lafayette?
People have asked me this over and over, but I think it’s just luck. We had the people, and the Clarks had the hillside. In Lafayette, it gets more attention. If it were in Berkeley, it would be largely ignored.
Are protests and memorials mutually exclusive?
No. I went to the Vietnam memorial and saw how powerful a memorial could be. Many memorials tend to glorify battles. The Vietnam memorial created a simpler, more spiritual impact. That is what I see the crosses doing.
Being a peace-oriented man, how do you feel when anger is thrown at you about the project?
If we’re changing hearts and minds … we need to overcome our own fears, make a decision about what we stand for, and stand by it. It is hard and wonderful at the same time. Take the competing protests at the hillside on the fourth anniversary of the war’s start [this past March].
To me it was a very moving experience that people wanted to be in that place grieving for the people we had lost, even while some of the pro-war protesters were screaming obscenities, calling us cowards, trying to provoke us. Then our group started singing hymns, and it was very emotional, very moving.
What do you say when someone comes to you and says, “My son/daughter was killed in Iraq, and I don’t think you are honoring him or her with this display?”
I can only tell them that it isn’t myintention to cause them pain but to help bring the other troops home. I don’t think it’s going to do a lot of good to get intoan argument.
A couple of days ago, a soldier just back from Iraq and his friend came by and were upset by the crescent moons on the crosses, because he had seen 12 of his friends killed by Muslim extremists. I started to talk to them, and some of my volunteers came up and wanted to get into it, and the soldier turned around to them and said, “Back off!” Of course, my thought was that if he wanted to tear down a crescent moon, if it would help him, then do it. But then the volunteers started to get into it with the soldier, and the situation deteriorated. The soldier left, his friend came over and chewed us out. But I saw that the soldier only wanted to express his grief in a meaningful place. I see the memorial as that kind of place.
Were you in the military?
I wasn’t, but my father was in World War II. He comes out every Sunday to the memorial with a tape recorder and a bullhorn and plays “Taps.”
How did you become a peace activist?
Through my father. He was an RFK supporter, and when RFK was killed, I saw the national grief. I listened to the war debate and became very fascinated by social change. In high school, my friends and I would hang out behind the library at Acalanes and argue with kids about the Vietnam war, and sometimes we’d skip school to go to peace rallies.
You wanted to start the memorial back in 2003. Why didn’t it happen then?
Two friends and I put a number of crosses on the hill, about 15 or 20. The crosses were vandalized the first night they were up. I felt a lot of fear afterward [that] the community wouldn’t accept it. In terms of my own spiritual evolution, I felt I couldn’t deal with that much stress. So I needed time to mature, to see how the war evolved and see how public opinion changed. I needed enough people behind me to make sure I wasn’t crucified.
What challenges are you encountering with your volunteers?
There are many different people from different peace groups who want to be involved and who have been instrumental. At first it was just Louise and me. Then more people started throwing in ideas, and now there are a lot of people trying to push the memorial in one direction or another.
Some people wanted to do something more dramatic, to get more attention; others are saying we shouldn’t have vigils anymore and upset the residents and the city. I believe that by not creating some social unrest, we won’t get the message out there. Yet I feel that if we stand for nonviolence and peace, we shouldn’t do anything that creates conflict.
How long will the display stay up?
I think Louise has been impressed with the response to the crosses, so there has been some talk with the city about a permanent memorial at the site. After about three years, however, Louise and her family are looking to develop the property, so the memorial would have to be worked around that. It certainly wouldn’t be the same configuration as it is now.
What do you want people to think when they see the crosses?
I want people to look at the hillside and reflect on a deeper level than just an automatic political response for or against the war. I want them to connect with what war in general—not just this war—represents to everyone.