At the first meeting of the Healdsburg City Council that followed the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, several residents asked that the city use its bridge-illumination policy to turn the renovated bridge over the Russian River blue and white, the colors of Israel. First to speak was Califia Witsch, a local realtor.
“In times of such distress it’s important for us as a community to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered,” she said, her voice breaking. “I come before you today to request a small but meaningful gesture of support. I would like to propose that we light up Memorial Bridge in the colors of blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, as a symbol of solidarity and compassion for the people of Israel.”
Mayor Kelley, at the end of that meeting, requested that the council take up the bridge lighting at the next council discussion, per the city’s bridge policy. Councilmember Herrod suggested it be added at the DEI work session, scheduled for Oct. 23, and taken up at that time instead of waiting for the next regular council meeting, scheduled for Nov. 6.
City Manager Kay agreed, and on Monday this week a somber council considered the request.
In the intervening weeks, the complexity of the situation in the Middle East grew, and it became clear that the violence could not be simply characterized. Though some at the Oct. 16 meeting thought the city should have made a statement sooner, the city’s Healdsburg Avenue Bridge Lighting policy outlines a process that must be followed before lights can be changed, or installed, for special purposes.
The policy which was adopted only in May of this year allows for five annual illumination events: Pride Month (June 1-30), Independence Day (July 1-5), National Veterans Awareness Week (usually the first week in November), December Holiday Season and Hanukkah (dates variable).
However, the policy does allow for illumination in recognition of unique opportunities, including local, regional, national and world events.
“Requests to illuminate the Bridge in recognition of an event not included in the Annual Illuminations list may be made by City Councilmembers via a request for a future City Council meeting agenda item,” reads the policy.
The city’s report on the items for this week’s meeting included the information that, since National Veterans Awareness Week is imminent (to begin Nov. 3) and to be followed by the December Holiday Season and Hanukkah illuminations, adding special lighting at the end of October is essentially free—“there would be no additional costs for this installation,” noted the staff report.
Several residents weighed in on the city’s discussion of a special illumination event this month. Linda Cade seemed disinclined to support any special lighting—“It looks like Las Vegas,” she complained.
Noe Naranjo was more insistent, saying that the Israel’s response to the raid violated three out of five internationally-defined acts of genocide. (Naranjo later clarified his position: “I am completely against any such violations and advocate for a just and peaceful resolution to the conflicts in the region,” he wrote to the Tribune.)
Merilynn Joyce took a more measured approach, urging a thoughtful response and caution, much the same advice being played out on the international stage. Saying she couldn’t sing or dance her response, she had to use words, she read in full a poem by Rabbi Irwin Keller, the spiritual leader of the Congregation Ner Shalom of Sonoma County.
The poem, “Taking Sides,” included the line “Don’t ask me to wave a flag today, unless it is the flag of Peace. Don’t ask me to sing an anthem, unless it is a song of Peace. Don’t ask me to take sides, unless it is the side of Peace.”
Following the public’s comments, Councilmember Chris Herrod remarked that it was a “worthwhile conversation to have,” and he made two specific points: that whatever the council decided, it might be seen as setting a precedent; and that he hoped the bridge illumination was seen as demonstrating compassion for all people who had been murdered in the war.
“There’s really not going to be a caption on the bridge,” he pointed out. That could lead to a misunderstanding or confusion about the city’s reason for a special illumination of the town’s signature bridge.
Councilmember Ron Edwards said he had reached out to both Jewish and Muslim organizations, and the message he kept hearing from them was that they wanted peace. “We want this hate to end,” they agreed.
He suggested that rather than having the bridge illuminated in two colors identified with the conflict, the blue-and-white of Israel’s flag, perhaps using the color white to represent peace would be a preferable compromise, a middle ground where peace could be found.
Evelyn Mitchell and David Hagele also seemed taken with the idea of a white-for-peace bridge, and each had clearly given the issue some deep thought. The Vice Mayor said that he wanted the message to clearly be, “Healdsburg has its arms around you,” expressing both solidarity and compassion for the victims of conflict and tragedy.
Mayor Kelley presented the strongest argument for the blue-and-white illumination, pointing out that what it comes down to at the moment is that “there are still hundreds of hostages being held by a terrorist organization.”
“This is not as clear as a blue-and-yellow bridge for Ukraine,” said Herrod, referring to the early 2022 action by the city that lit up the bridge in those colors when Russia invaded its neighbor. “I hadn’t thought about another suggestion, but it’s sitting well with me,” he said. “It lowers the temperature to do this.”
Intriguingly, the resolution that the staff presented to the council did not specify what colors were required to be used, except at the direction of the City Council.
Since the council was clearly moving toward an endorsement of the color white for an international goal instead of a more nationalist selection, that was the instruction passed on to the Public Works staff already engaged in installing the colored lights on the bridge.
By the fall of night, the Healdsburg Avenue Memorial Bridge was fully illuminated in the color of peace.