A good friend this morning posted this photo of the Lafayette Hillside Memorial on his Facebook page. I assume as part of his personal observance of Memorial Day. But whatever the underlying motive for sharing the picture, I’m grateful he did because it touched off some recollections for me.
If you aren’t familiar with it, some quick context. The hillside you’re looking at here sits directly across from the parking lot of the Lafayette BART station, directly facing around 1.3 million riders a year as they arrive to access trains.
The first few dozen crosses were planted on the hillside in November 2006 along with a sign indicating they were a symbolic memorial for the then 2867 US troops killed in Iraq. As you might expect, the display sparked knee jerk outrage from certain “patriots” who wanted BART, or the City and County, or somebody to Do Something about this “offensive display.”
The controversy, of course, led regional (and eventually national) news coverage and I had seen stories, so I was aware of the project. Relatively quickly, city officials ruled the hillside a Memorial” under the language of a city ordinance which exempts memorials and historic markers from regulations limiting placement and size of commercial signage.
Thus the installation was assured some official protection. Around the same time all this was developing, for some reason I don’t now recall, I found myself up in the vicinity “on business,” and decided to take the opportunity to see for myself.
As I drove into the BART parking lot it was late morning, so the commute rush was over. Virtually no one was in evidence that I could see. It was a cold, grey, drizzly morning.
At the time of my visit, the hillside held not more than a few dozen simple, white-painted wooden crosses along with a sign displaying the actual tally of the dead. They were still all crosses then—I’m aware a certain number of Crescents and Stars of David have since joined the gathered markers.
Those crosses, scattered seemingly at random over the green hillside spoke powerfully. Alone in the damp parking lot, I was taken by surprise by the wash of emotions I felt break over me.
Although the Hillside Memorial was created, and continues to be maintained and tended by committed peace activists from the area, there has been, over time, an evolution of the dominant public perception of the project. Most locals, at least seem to have come to understand that objections to the policies and politicians that lead us into the conflicts in the early part of this century do NOT equate to disrespect for those whose lives are lost.
A number of the markers on the hill have been “adoped” by families mourning a personal loss, decorated with photos or other mementos to honor their fallen one.
And it has become the custom for formal gatherings to be held at the site, with a broad base of community participation. The same sort of observance, on a “hometown” scale, that we customarily see at National Cemeteries and other more formalized memorial sites. The schedule for a Memorial Day vigil held this afternoon, taken from the Hillside Memorial website, offers an unsurprising mix of speakers, music, poetry, local elected officials and faith leaders.
I guess my point is something like this: Given that Memorial Day is that singular day on our calendars which we set aside to honor those who went, and did not return to us, I feel heartened, in this time when so much of our current state of affairs feels so dark, that members of a community who may have begun their journeys at very different places are still able to find their way to some common ground where they can join together for just a moment, albeit in shared grieving and loss.
This is the America it is worth working to save and perfect.
NOTE: The web site for the Lafayette Hillside Memorial has quite a bit of information about the memorial itself, how it continues to be maintained by volunteers, and more. You can find it here. https://www.lafayettehillsidememorial.org/