Oregon Cities

Workers call for end of political messages on Willamette bridges after Israel light display dispute

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Portland's Morrison Bridge was lit in rainbow colors Monday, June 13, 2016, in support of the LGBTQ community following the tragic events in Orlando on Sunday. Monday also marked the first day of Portland's annual Pride Week.

FILE: Portland’s Morrison Bridge was lit in rainbow colors on June 13, 2016, in support of the LGBTQ community following the shooting deaths at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando the day before.

Laurie Isola / OPB

Multnomah County staff responsible for raising and lowering drawbridges spanning the Willamette River say they are tired of county officials using bridges as a canvas for political statements. Following the contentious decision to light the Morrison Bridge in support of Israel this month, bridge operators have asked county commissioners for a policy change.

“We are writing to request that in the future you refrain from using the bridges for any political displays that might cause moral offence [sic] to the operators working there, or which might cause them to feel unwelcome in their workplace, to which might make the bridges or the operators a target for political violence,” reads a letter sent by all 16 bridge operators Monday to the county board.

This request comes after Multnomah County Board Chair Jessica Vega Pederson ordered the Morrison Bridge be illuminated with blue and white lights to show the county’s support of Israel following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.

Vega Pederson declined to comment on the operators’ request.

Multnomah County owns and operates six bridges that span the Willamette River, including the Morrison Bridge. A nonprofit is responsible for deciding which color LED lights illuminate the bridge on a given day, but the county chair can make direct requests to light the bridge in specific colors.

In the past, the chair has turned the bridge blue to honor people who died from COVID-19 and red to honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Relatives Week of Awareness. In 2022, the bridge was lit yellow and blue to support Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion.

The decisions are rarely controversial — though individual citizens can pay to illuminate the bridge in specific colors, which has sparked sports-related controversies in the past. But Vega Pederson’s decision to support Israel this month was divisive from the start.

At an Oct. 12 county board meeting, commissioners were split on whether to use the light display to solely condemn Hamas’ attack on Israelis or to also acknowledge the violence inflicted on Palestinians by the Israel Defense Forces that had taken place over the preceding days. Despite the board’s lack of consensus, Vega Pederson decided to go forward with a plan to light the bridge in the colors of the Israeli flag for five consecutive nights.

Vega Pederson followed this with a second directive, asking operators to only illuminate the bridge with white light for five nights to represent “our collective call for peace in the war between Hamas and Israel and an equitable and lasting solution to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Vega Pederson said that decision was based on seeing the harm inflicted on Palestinians by the Israeli military in the days following her announcement. But it could have also been pressure from county staff.

One county bridge operator acknowledged to OPB declining to work a four-hour shift on Oct. 16 in protest of the pro-Israeli bridge lights.

According to Multnomah County, several bridge operators called in sick in the two days following Vega Pederson’s initial lighting decision. County spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said these vacancies didn’t keep the city from operating bridge lifts required under federal law. She said the county also added additional security cameras to all bridges during this time period.

“There were no other impacts,” Sullivan-Springhetti said.

The letter sent Monday was delivered by the labor union that represents county bridge operators, AFSCME Local 88. A spokesperson for Local 88 did not respond to OPB’s request for comment.

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